Motivation: A Quick Review

Well-known cognitive psychologist Richard Mayer offers a succinct analysis of motivation in his excellent workbook monograph titled Applying the Science of Learning. He begins with a definition: “Motivation is an internal state that initiates and maintains goal-directed behavior.” (p. 39) This means that motivation is personal; it occurs within the student. When present, motivation activates behavior. Motivated students work hard to understand the material. Their behavior is persistent and characterized by intensity. They are focused on accomplishing a goal. The definition makes clear that motivation is a prerequisite to learning. Meaningful learning simply does not occur unless effort is expended.

To continue reading, you must be a Teaching Professor Subscriber. Please log in or sign up for full access.

Related Articles

Love ’em or hate ’em, student evaluations of teaching (SETs) are here to stay. Parts <a href="https://www.teachingprofessor.com/free-article/its-time-to-discuss-student-evaluations-bias-with-our-students-seriously/" target="_blank"...

Since January, I have led multiple faculty development sessions on generative AI for faculty at my university. Attitudes...
Does your class end with a bang or a whimper? Many of us spend a lot of time crafting...

Faculty have recently been bombarded with a dizzying array of apps, platforms, and other widgets that...

The rapid rise of livestream content development and consumption has been nothing short of remarkable. According to Ceci...

Feedback on performance has proven to be one of the most important influences on learning, but students consistently...

Well-known cognitive psychologist Richard Mayer offers a succinct analysis of motivation in his excellent workbook monograph titled Applying the Science of Learning. He begins with a definition: “Motivation is an internal state that initiates and maintains goal-directed behavior.” (p. 39) This means that motivation is personal; it occurs within the student. When present, motivation activates behavior. Motivated students work hard to understand the material. Their behavior is persistent and characterized by intensity. They are focused on accomplishing a goal. The definition makes clear that motivation is a prerequisite to learning. Meaningful learning simply does not occur unless effort is expended. Mayer then highlights five conceptions that describe how motivation works when the goal is learning. Motivation based on interest: Students work harder at learning when the material has personal value or is of interest to them. For example, if they like statistics or think that knowledge of statistics is an essential part of their chosen profession, they are more motivated to learn statistics. Motivation based on beliefs: “Students work harder to learn when they believe their hard work will pay off.” (p. 40) Self-efficacy beliefs are relevant here. If students believe they are capable of doing well on the learning task, they exert more effort. Motivation based on attributions: Do students attribute their success or failure to effort or ability? If students think effort trumps ability, they work harder. If success is the result of ability and the student doesn't think he or she has that ability, there's no reason to work harder, as they think it won't make a difference. Motivation based on goals: Do students work harder to perform well or master the material, or are they working to avoid performing poorly? If students are motivated by performance or mastery, they work harder than if they are simply trying to avoid failure. Motivation based on social partnership: “Students work harder to learn when they view the instructor as a social partner.” (p. 41) This conception grows out of social agency theory, and there is also supportive research showing that when instructors are conversational and less formal, and when they reveal some personal information, it creates a sense of partnership that motivates the effort to learn. Mayer points out that these conceptions are not mutually exclusive. One is not right while another one is wrong. “In fact, research on motivation includes evidence to support each of these conceptions of motivation.” More than one of these factors may be at play to motivate or not motivate student effort. Each of these conceptions has implications for teachers. Often we see students who lack motivation, and these conceptions suggest reasons why it may be missing. Even though motivation must come from within the learner, teachers can do much to help students find that motivation. They can show students the value of what they're being asked to learn—how it is content they need to know. Visible indications of an instructor's interest in a topic can pique student curiosity. Teachers can also design assignments and grading schemes that showcase the value of effort over ability. They can establish mastery goals that make success more likely and partner with students in their efforts to learn. Given that deep learning doesn't occur without effort and motivation is what powers those efforts, teacher commitments to cultivating motivation are essential. Reference: Mayer, R.E. Applying the Science of Learning. Boston: Pearson, 2011.