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Motivation - Instruction, Self-regulated Learning - OVERVIEW

theory achievement ability value

Sandra Graham

Mark R. Lepper

Jennifer Henderlong
Paul R. Pintrich


Motivation is the study of why people think and behave as they do. In an achievement setting, someone would be concerned with motivation if he were to ask, for example, why some students persist to task completion despite enormous difficulty, while others give up at the slightest provocation; or why some students set such unrealistically high goals for themselves that failure is bound to occur.

Motivation is also the study of what pushes or pulls an individual to start, direct, sustain, and finally end an activity. Consider, for example, an achievement activity such as studying for an exam. Motivation researchers would want to examine what the person is doing: the choice of behavior; how long it takes that person to get started. Or they wish to see the latency of behavior: how hard the individual actually works at the activity (the intensity of behavior); how long that individual is willing to remain at the activity (the persistence of behavior); and what the person is thinking or feeling while engaged in the activity, or the cognitions and emotional reactions that accompany behavior. Note that this focus on the "why" of achievement is quite different from the study of achievement itself. Educators sometimes confuse the topics of researchers who study motivation with the topics of researchers who study achievement and learning.

Early Theories

The scientific study of motivation as a discipline separate from learning began in the 1930s. Early motivation researchers were primarily interested in the factors that aroused behavior, or that got it started in the first place. It was widely believed at the time that the optimal state of an organism, both animal and human, was one of balance and equilibrium, where all needs were satisfied. The process of keeping the organism at this optimal level is known as homeostasis. Homeostatic balance was also thought to be satisfying, which was compatible with the belief that organisms were primarily motivated by hedonism, or the desire to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Theories of motivation that emerged in the 1930s were based on the ideas of homeostasis and hedonism as fundamental principles.

Drive theory. The best known of these early conceptions was Clark Hull's drive theory. According to Hull, behavior is a function of drive and habit. Drives in the Hullian framework are unsatisfied needs, such as the need for food (hunger) or the need for water (thirst). The drive to satisfy one's needs is what arouses or energizes behavior. Habits, in turn, provide a direction for behavior. Habits are stimulus response bonds that are built up over time as a result of prior learning. For example, if some-one's need to achieve has been satisfied in the past by studying hard for exams, then deficits in that need (arousal) should be satisfied by renewed study behavior. Thus behavior can be explained by both a motivation component (the drive that energizes behavior) and a learning component (the habit that provides direction or indicates what particular behavior will be initiated).

Simple yet elegant, drive theory generated a vast amount of motivation research from the 1930s through the 1950s. Of most relevance to education were studies on anxiety and learning conducted by Kenneth Spence, who was a student of Hull's. According to Spence, anxiety is a drive and it therefore arouses behavior, in this case the speed with which one learns simple versus complex tasks. On simple tasks where there is already a strong habit strength, anxiety will facilitate the speed of learning. With complex tasks, on the other hand, where there are weak stimulus-response bonds, high anxiety should interfere with learning, because high anxiety activates incorrect stimulus-response bonds (habits) that compete with correct responses. In support of this analysis, many studies reveal that high anxiety is neither uniformly adaptive or maladaptive across all learning contexts.

Expectancy-value theory. Drive theory was very mechanistic. There was no role for complex cognitive processes such as how a person interprets an arousal cue or whether their expectations for success might energize behavior. With the cognitive revolution of the 1960s, motivation researchers became much more interested in how thoughts as well as unsatisfied needs and habits influenced behavior. The impact of drives as an organizing construct therefore waned. Furthermore, it became accepted that organisms are always active and the field of motivation shifted from the study of what turns organisms "on" and "off" to an interest in the direction of behavior, including choice and persistence.

The interest in cognition resulted in what is known as expectancy-value theory in motivation. The basic assumptions of expectancy-value theory are in accord with commonsense thinking about motivated behavior. Behavioral choice is determined by the perceived likelihood that the behavior will lead to a goal and how much that goal is desired or wanted. In the 1950s and 1960s, John Atkinson developed a theory of achievement motivation that perhaps best illustrates an expectancy-value framework. In its simplest form, Atkinson's theory states that the tendency to approach as achievement activity (Ts) is a function of three factors: the motive for success (Ms), the probability that one will be successful at the activity (Ps), and the incentive value of success (Is). The factors are related multiplicatively, such that: Ts = M × P × I.

In this equation, Ms is the achievement motive, a relatively enduring personality trait presumed to be learned early in life. Ps, or the probability of success, takes on a numerical value from 0 to 1, with high numbers (e.g., Ps = 0.8) indicating greater likelihood of success, that is, an easy task. Finally, incentive value (Is) represents an affective state, labeled pride in accomplishment, and it was assumed to be inversely related to expectancy (1-Ps). That relationship captured the notion that easier tasks, where the probability of success was high, would elicit less pride and would therefore be less motivating.

Atkinson's theory was very popular from 1960 to 1980 and it generated many intriguing hypotheses about motivation. The theory predicted that high achievement oriented people prefer tasks of intermediate difficulty (Ps = 0.5) because such tasks elicited the most pride following success. People who were low in the achievement motive would be more motivated when tasks were very easy or very difficult. Atkinson was among the first theorists to point out that adaptive motivation was not necessarily associated with persisting at the hardest tasks where the probability of success is low. Indeed, the hallmark of a high achievement-oriented person is that they are able to gauge their efforts in response to their perceived expectancy, always striving toward intermediate difficulty.

Contemporary Theories of Motivation

Atkinson's theory gradually declined in the 1980s as motivation researchers turned their attention to a broader array of cognitions and to motivational traits other than the achievement motive. In general, contemporary motivation theories are dominated by three separate but interrelated constructs: expectancy, value, and achievement goals. As defined in the early twenty-first century, expectancy has to do with beliefs about ability (Can I do it?). Values are concerned with preferences and desires (Do I want it?). And goals capture purpose or the reasons for engaging in achievement activities (Why am I doing this?).

Beliefs about ability: Attribution theory. Three theories have addressed beliefs about ability. The first is attribution theory as developed by Bernard Weiner. Attributions are inferences about the causes of success and failure. (e.g., "Why did I get a poor grade on the exam?" or "Why did I get the highest grade?") Among the most prevalent inferred causes of success and failure are ability (aptitude), effort, task difficulty or ease, luck, mood, and help or hindrance from others. According to Weiner, these causes have certain underlying characteristics, which are known as causal dimensions. Causes differ in locus, or whether the cause is internal or external to the person; stability, which designates as cause as constant or varying over time; and in controllability, or the extent to which a cause is subject to volitional alteration. For example, low aptitude as a cause for failure is considered to be internal to the actor, stable over time, and uncontrollable, whereas lack of effort is judged as internal, but variable over time and subject to volitional control.

Each of these causal dimensions is linked to particular consequences that have motivational significance. For example, the stability dimension is related to expectancy for future success. When failure is attributed to a stable cause such as low ability, one is more likely to expect the same outcome to occur again than when the cause of failure is due to an un-stable factor such as lack of effort. Thus the failing student who believes that he or she did not try hard enough can be bolstered by the expectation that failure need not recur again. Guided by these known linkages between causal stability and expectancy, attribution retraining programs have been developed that teach students to attribute failure to lack of effort rather than lack of ability. Many successful programs have been reported in which retrained students show greater persistence when they encounter challenging tasks, more confidence, and more positive attitudes toward school work.

The controllability dimension is related to a number of interpersonal affects, such as pity and anger. Pity and sympathy are experienced toward others whose failures are caused by uncontrollable factors (think of the teacher's reactions to the retarded child who continually experiences academic difficulty). In contrast, anger is elicited when others' failures are due to causes within their control (imagine that same teacher's affect toward the gifted student who never completes assignments). These emotional reactions also can serve as indirect attributional cues (i.e., they provide information about the cause of achievement). If a teacher expresses pity and sympathy following student failure, that student tends to make a low ability attribution. Hence, pity from others can undermine beliefs about ability.

Beliefs about ability: Self-efficacy theory. Popularized by Albert Bandura, self-efficacy refers to individuals' beliefs about their capabilities to perform well. When confronted with a challenging task, a person would be enlisting an efficacy belief if they asked themselves: "Do I have the requisite skills to master this task?" Unlike causal beliefs in attribution theory, which are explanations for past events, efficacy percepts are future oriented. They resemble expectations for personal mastery of subsequent achievement tasks. Also unlike attribution theory, which focuses on the perceived stability of causes as a determinant of expectancy, efficacy theorists have articulated a much more extensive set of antecedents, including prior accomplishments, modeling, persuasion, and emotional arousal. For example, physiological symptoms signaling anxiety, such as rapid heart beat or sweaty palms, might function as cues to the individual that he or she lacks the requisite skills to successfully complete a task.

According to Bandura, perceived efficacy determines how much effort a person is willing to put into an activity as well as how long they will persevere in the face of obstacles. Many studies have documented the adaptive consequences of high self-efficacy. For example, it is known that high self-efficacy and improved performance result when students: (1) adopt short-term over long-term goals, inasmuch as progress is easier to judge in the former case; (2) are taught to use specific learning strategies, such as outlining and summarizing, both of which increase attention to the task; and (3) receive performance-contingent rewards as opposed to reinforcement for just engaging in a task, because only in the former case does reward signal task mastery. All these instructional manipulations are assumed to increase the belief that "I can do it," which then increases both effort and achievement. Efficacy beliefs have been related to the acquisition of new skills and to the performance of previously learned skills at a level of specificity not found in any other contemporary theory of motivation.

Beliefs about ability: Learned helplessness theory. Whereas self-efficacy captures lay understanding of "I can," helplessness beliefs symbolize shared understanding about the meaning of "I cannot." According to this theory, a state of helplessness exists when failures are perceived as insurmountable, or more technically, when noncontingent reinforcement results in the belief that events are uncontrollable. That belief often is accompanied by passivity, loss of motivation, depressed affect, and performance deterioration. Martin Seligman, a main proponent of the theory, has argued that helplessness becomes a learned phenomenon when individuals inappropriately generalize from an experience with noncontingency in one situation to subsequent situations where control is possible. A prototypical example is the successful student who unexpectedly fails despite high effort and then becomes virtually incapable of completing work that was easily mastered prior to failure.

Helplessness theory has a decidedly attributional focus in that Seligman and others maintain that when individuals encounter failure, they ask, "Why?" How people characteristically answer this question is known as explanatory style. Some people typically explain bad events by pointing to factors that are internal, stable, and global. (e.g., "I'm always a failure no matter what I do"). These individuals are believed to have a pessimistic explanatory style. Other people interpret bad events by evoking momentary and specific causes (e.g., "I just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time"). Such individuals are characterized as having an optimistic explanatory style. A pessimistic explanatory style in the achievement domain has been related to poor school grades, reluctance to seek help, diminished aspirations, and ineffective use of learning strategies.

The research of Carol Dweck has focused particularly on individual differences the motivational patterns of children who may be vulnerable to helplessness beliefs. In response to challenging tasks where failure is possible, some children have a mastery-oriented motivational system: they believe that ability is incremental (e.g., "smartness is something you can increase as much as you want"), they focus on the task rather than their abilities, they enjoy challenge, and they can generate solution-oriented strategies that lead to performance enhancement. At the other end of the continuum are children who display a helpless motivational pattern: they believe that ability is fixed (e.g., "how smart you are pretty much stays the same"); they focus on personal inadequacies; express negative affect, including boredom and anxiety; and they show marked deterioration in actual performance. In other words, they display the classic symptoms associated with learned helplessness.

In summary, the dominant theme in contemporary motivation research revolves around beliefs about ability as represented by attribution theory, self-efficacy theory, and learned helplessness theory. Attribution theory has its origins in social psychology and is therefore especially concerned with the situational determinants of motivation and with both self-perception and the perception of others. Self-efficacy theory has emerged from a social learning perspective and therefore has close ties with behavioral change. Learned helplessness theory reflects the influence of clinical and personality psychology with its focus on coping with failure and individual differences in a presumed motivational trait.

Achievement values. There is a much smaller literature on achievement values, the other broad construct in expectancy-value approaches to motivation. Unlike expectancy, which focuses on beliefs about ability, values are more directly concerned with the perceived importance, attractiveness, or usefulness of achievement activities. Values also are rooted in the moral constructs of "ought" and "should," as illustrated by the belief that one should try hard in school regardless of his or her perceived abilities.

The most extensive research on achievement values has been conducted by Jacque Eccles and Allan Wigfield. These researchers define achievement tasks in terms of their attainment value (the perceived importance of doing well), intrinsic value (how much enjoyment the individual derives from engaging in the task), utility value (how the tasks relates to future goals), and costs (the undesirable consequences of engaging in the task). Most of the research guided by this conception has selected specific subject matter domains to examine whether task value predicts different consequences, such as course grades and enrollment decisions, or the extent to which value and expectancy are positively or negatively related (according to Atkinson's theory, these two constructs, Is and P, should be inversely related). The findings of Eccles and Wigfield reveal that how much students value a particular domain influences choice behavior (i.e., their intention to enroll in particular courses and their actual enrollment). Task values, however, have little direct impact on actual course grades. Value and expectancy also appear to be positively correlated: individuals judge the tasks that they perceive themselves to be good at as more important, enjoyable, and useful. An unanswered question in this research is the issue of causal sequence. It is unclear whether individuals come to value what they are good at (expectancy [.arrowright] value), or whether individuals develop more confidence over time in the tasks that are most important (value [.arrowright] expectancy).

Achievement goals. Achievement goals capture the reasons why a person engages in achievement behavior, and two broad types have been identified. Students who pursue mastery goals are oriented toward acquiring new skills or improving their level of competence. In contrast, students who adopt performance goals are motivated by the intent to demonstrate that they have adequate ability and avoid displaying signs that they have low ability. According to this analysis, individuals can therefore decide to engage in achievement activities for two very different reasons: They may strive to develop competence by learning as much as they can, or they may strive to publicly display their competence by trying to outperform others.

A vast number of studies suggest that mastery goals increase motivation more than do performance goals. The general thinking is that mastery oriented individuals seek out challenge and escalate their efforts when tasks become difficult, whereas performance-oriented individuals see their ability as threatened in challenging situations, which they tend to avoid. More recent research, however, suggests that adopting performance goals in some situations may enhance motivation. At times the two goal orientations may go hand in hand (people can strive to attain mastery and outperform others) or the pursuit of performance goals (i.e., comparing one's self to others) can provide cues that the person is competent and will therefore enhance motivation. It also appears that when performance goals are differentiated by approach (demonstrating ability) and avoidance (concealing low ability) tendencies, it is mainly the avoidance component that compromises sustained achievement strivings.

A related body of research, labeled self-determination theory by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, conceptualizes achievement goal pursuits in terms of whether they fulfill the individual's basic needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness to other people. Goals that satisfy these needs enhance intrinsic motivation. The pioneering research of Deci and Ryan has alerted many educators to the fact that extrinsic rewards, such as grades, gold stars, or even money, can undermine intrinsic motivation if they jeopardize people's sense of competence and feelings of personal control.

Future Challenges

Motivation is a rich and changing field that has enjoyed much progress in its relatively brief history. In more than six decades following Hull's insights, there have been major upheavals in the field (the shift from behaviorism to cognition); new theories and concepts have been introduced, and novel research directions have been pursued (such as the finding that reward can decrease motivation). Principles of motivation have been described that can become the basis for intervention. Quite a bit is known, for example, about the positive motivational consequences of attributing failure to lack of effort rather than low ability, of selecting tasks of intermediate difficulty, and of focusing on mastery rather than outperforming others. All these principles have good theoretical and empirical grounding. The challenge for the future will be to study motivation in context. Examining achievement expectancy, values, and goals and how they get expressed in the broader context of social and cultural influences might provide important clues for understanding the academic challenges faced by many ethnic minority youth. Addressing such issues will be a useful step toward promoting the field of motivation in education research and assuring its continued vitality.


BANDURA, ALBERT. 1997. Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control. New York: Freeman.

DWECK, CAROL. 1999. Self-Theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality, and Development. Philadelphia: Taylor and Francis.

GRAHAM, SANDRA, and WEINER, BERNARD. 1996. "Theories and Principles of Motivation." In Handbook of Educational Psychology, ed. David C. Berliner and Robert C. Calfee. New York: Macmillan.

PETERSON, CHRISTOPHER; MAIER, STEVEN; and SELIGMAN, MARTIN. 1993. Learned Helplessness: A Theory for the Age of Personal Control. New York: Oxford University Press.

PINTRICH, PAUL, and SCHUNK, DALE. 1996. Motivation in Education: Theory, Research, and Applications. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

WEINER, BERNARD. 1992. Human Motivation: Metaphors, Theories, and Research. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.


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