Motivation Theories

Learning about changes in motivation theories can give you a richer understanding of your students.

History of motivation theories

Motivation theory has evolved over time as limitations of each new theory have become salient, and new theories are proposed to improve upon the old ones. Since each theory makes sense on its own, it is illuminating to understand their shortcomings, especially since it may feel intuitive to apply these to your students without realizing these limitations.

Behavioral models held that behaviors were reinforced positively through rewards and negatively through punishment, which helps explain how to extrinsically motivate people or animals. For example, rewards such as prizes may motivate students to study while punishments such as losing privileges may also motivate students to study.

—> What’s missing? Cognition.

Cognitive models argue that reinforcement is mediated through cognition (expectations, beliefs, prior knowledge and current experience). While rewards and punishments affect students, they have differing effects given our differing minds. For example, a student who believes they need to be the best in a class may view a B on an exam as a punishment, while another may be very happy with this grade and see it as a reward.

—> What’s missing? Needs.

Zoom image: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs model pyramid showing (from bottom to top) physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem and self-actualization. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs model pyramid showing (from bottom to top) physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem and self-actualization.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needsmodel

The needs model argues that in order to be motivated or even able to focus on higher order needs, more foundational needs must be met. The most famous example of the needs model is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. For example, a student who hasn’t eaten in several days (physiological) will have a hard time thinking about being a good student (esteem) or realizing their potential in a class (self-actualization).

—> What’s missing? Goals.

According to the goals model, you have to have something that you care about, a goal, to be motivated to do something. Students do not just do things because they are thinking and have full stomachs.

There are two different types of goals.

  • Performance goals are more extrinsic and are set to protect our self-image or reputation. An example is when students study hard to maintain high GPAs because it is important to their identity. While the student is choosing to care about this, it is extrinsic because information or judgement is coming from outside the student.
  • Learning goals are more intrinsic and are not focused on learner growth. These help learners to gain competence as they improve. For example, students may be focused on how to improve their current skill levels in a sport because they want to be better at the sport, instead of focusing on their current abilities in relation to other students. A student will have succeeded not because they’re the best on the team, but because they’ve done better in relation to their past self. We want learners to have learning goals because these focus students on what matters for improvement and because these are more sustainable.

—> What’s missing? Expecting to succeed and caring about the task.

According to the expectancy-value model, our motivation is affected by two primary components of goals.

  • Expectancy of whether a student can succeed at a task will determine whether they feel they should put forth effort to try. For example, if an instructor communicates that their course is hard enough that most students will fail, many will not see the point of even trying if the end result will be the same.
  • Value of a goal, or how much a student cares about succeeding, will also determine the effort put in. For example, a student might believe they could do extra readings or homework problems, but see them as busy work if they don’t understand how they will help them improve.