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The Role of Motivation in the Classroom


Student behaviour has been acknowledged as a critical element in determining the success or failure of students in performing well in their educational pursuits. Accordingly, there has been significant study over the years on the question of educational psychology with various scholars attempting to deduce insights as to what influences students to behave in certain ways that drive them towards academic success. Key to these studies is the issue of motivation. For many psychologists the definition of motivation is intricately linked to the amount of effort that an individual applies towards the performance of a certain activity. Entwistle describes uses the term “intellectual energy” to define motivation in context of the educational psychology sphere. Borrowing from this definition, this paper considers a more permanent and stable form of motivation that could be regarded as a developed characteristic or personality trait of an individual rather that a one-off stimulus to achieve success in the performance of a certain task. Simply put, the definition of motivation as prescribed herein is that of a consistent and permanent drive to exert positive effort in pursuit of academic success (Entwistle, 1988).

It is important, at this point, to consider two conflicting theories on the role of motivation in learning. While several proponents of motivational theories argue towards a focus on the form and content of learning so as to influence motivation amongst learners, a distinct but compelling creed of critics maintain that it is necessary to focus on motivating learners and subsequently learning will follow. The underlying question therefore holds; which of the two concepts is responsible for realization of the other? Do students exhibit motivation as a result of learning or do students learn better as a result of motivation? This paper argues that instructors, teachers and other providers of educational services should take care of motivation and the learning will take care of itself. In order to justify this hypothesis, this paper investigates several explanations for motivation and the import of these explanations towards learning within a particular area.

Explanations of Motivation-the Role of Motivation in the Classroom

Psychological study into behavioural conceptualizations of motivation has led to the emergence of several significant motivational theories that attempt to explain human response towards motivation. One of the earliest theories of motivation that attempted to rationalize what drives human motivation was the Reinforcement theory. This theory was premised on the ‘reward and punishment’ concept of motivation which argued that human behaviour can be influenced through rewarding the desirable behaviour and punishing undesirable behaviour. Reinforcement theory argues that persistent ‘reinforcing’ or rewarding of positive outcomes by students results in a culture of motivation and that such students continue to remain motivates as long as this behaviour is reinforced. Critics of this theory however argue that the reinforcement theory is too mechanistic and fails to take into account other social and emotional factors that influence motivation thus the emergence of cognitive theories, intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation theories, attribution theory and expectancy-value theory among other motivational theories that widened the scope of variable factors to consider when investigating what motivates learners towards certain desirable behaviours (Stipek, 2002).

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation Theory

            This approach to motivation argues that for learners to remain motivated, it is essential that both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation exists. Intrinsic motivation refers to the innate nature of the learner to achieve a sense of self-fulfilment and contentment from surmounting the challenges and experience associated with the learning process. Intrinsic motivation describes an ideal environment where the leaner does not derive any motivation from external factors but is self-driven to attain their personal goals. As such, this approach would require teachers to cultivate positive attitudes and beliefs in learners that would enable them develop a sense of self-drive and consequently remain motivated. On the other hand, extrinsic motivators refer to the reward motivators used to motivate learners as an external stimulus for desirable outcomes. Proponents of the intrinsic and extrinsic motivational theory argue that extrinsic motivation may be employed at the initial stages to jumpstart learner motivation and later on be transformed to intrinsic motivation which is more sustainable and permanent. One would therefore argue that this theory is learner-centric as it is premised on motivation as a drive towards learning.

Expectancy-Value Theory-the Role of Motivation in the Classroom

Under the Expectancy-Value theory, the learner’s perception of the reward is inextricably linked to their motivation. Three fundamental elements of the learner’s perception of performance and reward are discussed under this theory. First the learner should be confident in their ability to achieve the required performance. Secondly, the learner should be confident that once this required performance is met, they will receive the expected reward. Finally, the learner must be sure that the value of the expected reward is intrinsically attractive or is of such value as to justify the effort exerted in pursuit of the reward. Accordingly, once all these tenets are met, the learner is positively motivated towards achieving the reward. This theory employs both cognitive and extrinsic notions of motivation. One would also argue that the expectancy theory is learner-centric as it focuses more on the perception of the learner towards the expected reward rather that the intrinsic and inherent nature of the learning process or the content studied (Howard, 1989).

Attribution Theory

According to Bernard Weiner’s attribution theory, learners are motivated to engage in certain activities owing to their innate desire to associate their actions with personal success. Learners attempt to understand the end result or outcome by investigating the attributing the end result to certain causes. Simply put, learners try and establish the cause and effect relationship of their actions or the environment in a bid to understand what factors lead to success and what factors lead to failure. According to Weiner, the learner’s perception of the cause of success or failure and their extent of control is determining whether or not learners are motivated. For instance, while some learners may attribute success or failure to their individual intellect, hard work, capability or lack thereof, other learners may attribute their success or failure to external factors such as the difficulty or simplicity of the task or sheer luck. Accordingly, it is important for teachers to consider the individual subjective perception of students as to what they attribute success or failure to and thus understand what motivates such students. It is therefore necessary that the instructor guides the students to acknowledge that their success or failure is directly linked to their personal effort rather than extraneous or external factors (Weiner, 1972).

Motivation and Learning

From the above discourse on the various theories of learner motivation and their primary focus, one would argue, convincingly so, that the cognitive element comprising of the student’s perception and belief system is a central and fundamental determinant of their motivation and consequently their performance. Nonetheless, it is important to consider how instructors can employ these abstract theories in practical real-life learning environments to motivate learners and consequently improve their performance. Instructors can improve on intrinsic motivators by allowing students to be actively involved in their own learning. For instance, students can be granted leeway to choose some of the study areas that they feel more inclined to pursue. This allows them to gains a sense of mastery in areas they enjoy making learning a intrinsically rewarding activity. Further to this, instructors can also positively reinforce desirable behaviour by commending or otherwise recognizing good performance of the learners. At the same time instructors can help students develop realistic and achievable learning goals that challenge the students but at the same time making sure that these goals are not unattainable in the eyes of the learners (Stipek, 2002).

The attribution theory prescribes that learners try to attach reason to success or failure. It is therefore important that instructors appreciate the value of providing positive feedback to learners to ensure that learners do not suffer amotivation from ascribing their performance to negative attributions. Further, when there arises a need for constructive criticism, instructors ought to correct learners in such a way as to cushion them from self-admonishing perceptions of themselves as holding inferior attributes. On the contrary instructors should ensure that learners ascribe their performance to the right attribute in order for them to accurately understand the factors affecting their performance and how best to adjust in order to improve their performance.The Role of Motivation in the Classroom

Instructors should also, in line with the expectancy-value theory, set clear and attainable goals for learners. Instructors should clearly set out the course expectations and help learners appreciate that once the expected performance is achieved, they will stand to gain valuable rewards from the desirable performance. This may take various forms, an instructor in high school may enlighten students on the benefit of good grades as a means to securing a scholarship. Instructors in universities and colleges may engage students to show them that good performance may result in them securing gainful employment and therefore leading to financial stability. Accordingly, it is important that instructors cultivate motivational practices to shape the perception of learners in order to achieve improved performance (Entwistle, 1988).The Role of Motivation in the Classroom




Entwistle, N. (1988). Motivation and learning strategies. Educational and Child Psychology, 5-20.

Howard, K. (1989). A comprehensive expectancy motivation model: Implications for adult education and training. Adult Education Quarterly,, 199-210.

Stipek, D. J. (2002). Motivation to learn: From theory to practice. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Weiner, B. (1972). Attribution theory, achievement motivation, and the educational process. Review of educational research, 203-215.