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The study of motivation has its roots in reinforcement theory, which focuses on the ways behaviors can be shaped by their consequences. In this model, the probability of a given response being repeated in the future is strengthened when it is followed by reward and weakened when it is not–a phenomenon the American psychologist Edward L. Thorndike, author of the 1911 book Animal Intelligence, termed the "law of effect." Reinforcement theory, as elaborated by American psychologist B. F. Skinner, examined the ways in which arbitrary responses could be elicited or eliminated through the use of systematic reinforcement and punishment. Rewards and punishments were thought to affect behavior automatically, without complex cognitive processes. Indeed, most early research was conducted with rats and pigeons, although the underlying principles and processes were thought to operate similarly in people.

Extrinsic Reformers

Until the 1960s, educators interested in enhancing student motivation were primarily instructed in the use of extrinsic reinforcers to control behavior. Such behavior modification programs, which remain in widespread use in the early twenty-first century, make desired consequences (e.g., rewards, praise, good grades, teacher attention) contingent upon performing specified behaviors (e.g., completing homework, paying attention, remaining quiet). One popular behavior modification technique is the token economy–a system in which students receive tokens each time they exhibit specified behaviors and in which these tokens can be subsequently exchanged for desired goods. Token economies can be extremely effective in producing immediate behavioral changes, and continue to be important techniques for classroom management. At the same time, these techniques have been less effective in producing persistence and generalization of desired behaviors when tangible rewards are no longer available. Thus, despite the obvious benefits of tangible extrinsic reinforcers, several weaknesses of this approach–especially as applied to education–became apparent.

First, although extrinsic contingencies often enhance classroom motivation, this approach ignores the mediating cognitive processes, such as the person's expectations, knowledge, and beliefs, that are essential for understanding when such changes will persist or generalize. Second, extrinsic constraints may sometimes conflict directly with children's intrinsic motivation to learn, subsequently causing as much harm as good. Third, this approach neglects other significant motivational variables, such as interests, values, and social relationships. Since the 1960s, these limitations of reinforcement theory have served as the impetus for the three broad classes of research reviewed below.

Mediating Cognitive Processes

Beginning in the 1960s, motivational researchers adopted a more cognitive approach. Rather than studying only the direct effects of rewards and punishments, researchers became concerned with people's subjective interpretations of these external consequences. Do they expect to be rewarded? Do they expect to succeed? Do they believe their actions will make a difference? Modern researchers believe that people, unlike rats and pigeons, consider whether they are capable of achieving a given goal before they attempt it.

One of the earliest approaches that included these mediating factors was the expectancy-value theory of motivation. This model, which viewed motivation as the multiplicative product of a person's expected probability of success and the expected value of success to that person, proved a significant turning point. Indeed, contemporary theories of motivation consider competence beliefs central to achievement motivation. Researchers have also examined more domain-specific expectancies, such as self-efficacy beliefs–in other words, beliefs that one can achieve specific goals in particular situations–which can promote effort expenditure, persistence in the face of setbacks, and academic performance. People's general theories about the mutability (capacity for change) of intelligence are also important. Compared to theories that intelligence is fixed, theories that intelligence is malleable produce more adaptive behaviors in academic contexts, such as persistence following setbacks and a focus on learning rather than performance.

Expectations for success also depend on attributions regarding past successes and failures. According to attribution theory, individuals characterize causes for success and failure along three dimensions: internal versus external locus (which affects feelings of self-esteem), stability over time (which affects expectations for success in the future), and controllability (which affects emotions such as guilt and shame). These causal attributions are particularly significant when individuals experience failure, and research suggests that attributions of failure to internal, unstable, and controllable causes–such as low effort or a poor strategy–are the most adaptive. Conversely, individuals who attribute failures to stable and uncontrollable causes, such as a lack of aptitude, tend to become helpless and give up, even when they could later easily succeed. Regardless of the presence of rewards, individuals are not motivated to engage in a behavior if they believe they cannot succeed.

Students' beliefs about their abilities and their expectations for success in school can be significantly influenced by teachers' instructional practices. Studies have shown that self-efficacy can be enhanced through direct success experiences, observed successes of a model, and verbal persuasion. One particularly effective procedure is to train students to set proximal (near-term) rather than distal (farterm) goals, which produces both self-efficacy and achievement gains. Teacher expectations can also influence student learning, even when these expectations have no basis in reality, suggesting that teachers convey subtle cues to students that have important consequences for motivation and achievement. Even seemingly innocuous behaviors, such as high praise for easy tasks or unsolicited help giving, can signify that teachers have low expectations and may adversely affect students' beliefs about their own abilities. Students can also be explicitly taught to focus on controllable and unstable causes for failure, such as a lack of effort or a poor strategy. Thus, effective instructional practices should communicate high but realistic expectations for success to students.

Intrinsic versus Extrinsic Motives

Also in the 1960s, researchers began to contrast extrinsic motivation with intrinsic motivation–the desire to engage in activities because they are inherently pleasurable, regardless of external contingencies. Given this contrast, it soon became apparent that extrinsic motivators have the potential to decrease students' subsequent intrinsic motivation when rewards are no longer available. That is, individuals must feel that their behavior is self-determined in order to experience motivation in the absence of extrinsic constraints. Studies have demonstrated that individuals who feel more in control of their own behavior also show more active learning, greater perceived competence, and higher academic achievement.

Conversely, the use of unnecessarily powerful extrinsic rewards can lead individuals to discount their intrinsic motivation. In many studies, students promised and given tangible rewards for engaging in initially intrinsically interesting activities showed less subsequent desire to perform those activities than students given no reward or the same reward unexpectedly. Thus, contracting to perform an activity in order to receive an extrinsic reward may undermine students' intrinsic motivation. Rewards do not always ways negatively impact intrinsic motivation, though, and much research has been devoted to understanding when rewards have beneficial versus detrimental effects. For example, rewards tend to enhance motivation when they are unexpected, intangible, and competence enhancing, and when there is little initial interest in an activity. Some controversy remains, however, regarding the specific conditions under which rewards negatively impact motivation.

The overuse of extrinsic incentives may also induce a performance orientation, as opposed to mastery orientation. Individuals with performance goals focus on appearing competent, even at the expense of further learning, whereas individuals with mastery goals focus on learning and understanding, even if their performance temporarily suffers. Research has shown that mastery goals are often associated with many positive achievement behaviors, such as persistence, effort, and effective strategy use. Nonetheless, performance goals may also sometimes be adaptive, and they may even correlate positively with mastery goals. As with intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation, sharp distinctions may be unwarranted.

Teachers can promote intrinsic motivation and foster mastery orientations. When students are encouraged to plan ahead, take personal responsibility, and set individual learning goals, they experience a greater sense of control and show gains in motivation and achievement. Personalizing learning activities or providing individuals with explicit choices can also boost motivation and enhance learning. The judicious use of extrinsic rewards and punishments, just sufficient to elicit compliance, will similarly have particularly positive effects on later intrinsic motivation. A classroom climate that supports mastery orientations–by minimizing public evaluation and normative comparisons, providing opportunities for improvement, and recognizing student effort–should also be beneficial. Instructional practices, therefore, should promote autonomy and minimize unnecessary extrinsic constraints, to foster intrinsic motivation and lifelong learning.

Additional Important Factors

Classic reinforcement theory also neglects other important factors, such as values, interests, and relationships. Values have more recently been viewed as having several components: attainment value (i.e., importance of doing well), interest value (i.e., task enjoyment), utility value (i.e., future usefulness), and cost (i.e., effort). Studies have shown that personal value of an academic domain can influence course enrollment, effort, persistence, and critical thinking. Closely related to value is interest, which has long been considered an important source of intrinsic motivation. The study of interest has recently received renewed attention, as researchers have sought to understand its relationship to self-regulation and to determine how different forms of interest are related to achievement outcomes.

Relationships are also not addressed by the extrinsic approach, although, much like competence and autonomy, they may be central to intrinsic motivation. Indeed, positive and secure relationships between students and teachers lead to greater classroom engagement, better emotional adjustment to school, and higher valuing of academic activities. It is not only beliefs, but also the more emotional factors of values, interests, and relationships, that can determine students' motivation.

Teachers can support values, interests, and relationships through a variety of instructional practices. Placing curriculum activities in interesting, perhaps even imaginary, contexts (e.g., learning math equations through a computerized space adventure) can produce gains in motivation and learning–provided that the context supports rather than distracts from the curriculum. Another strategy is to select or develop tasks centered on students' existing interests and concerns. This concept has been successfully implemented, both in small cooperative learning groups and in programs designed to create classroom "communities of learners" invested in working together to achieve common goals. Finally, research suggests that positive relationships are fostered when teachers provide appropriate structure and autonomy for their students and show them affection and respect.

Individual Differences

Many of these motivational variables may interact with individual differences, such as need for achievement, locus of control, explanatory styles, and self-theories. For example, stable individual beliefs about whether events are caused by internal versus external factors affect a host of achievement cognitions and behaviors, and different instructional practices may be more appropriate for internals versus externals. Researchers have also examined individual differences in general self-schemas or conceptual frameworks. For example, the extent to which individuals have a theory of intelligence as a malleable quality versus a fixed entity is thought to account for differences in achievement beliefs, goals, behaviors, and emotions. While it is unrealistic to assume that classroom practices can be perfectly matched to the needs of every individual student, at least given the current structure of most schools, differences in individuals' beliefs and behaviors must be considered, whenever possible.

Finally, motivational theories must include a developmental perspective, particularly when complex cognitive processes are involved. Studies suggest that there are developmental changes in children's beliefs about the relationship between ability and effort and the role that natural ability plays in achievement. Additionally, striking developmental decreases in children's intrinsic motivation and personal valuation of academic activities have been repeatedly documented. Clearly, these findings suggest that current practices have not been fully successful at promoting students' motivation as they progress through school.


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