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How Motivation Affects Learning and Behavior

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Apr 30, 2014

When it comes to art, Anya is highly motivated. We can reasonably draw this conclusion based on her close attention in class, her eagerness to draw whenever she can, and her career goal. Motivation is something that energizes, directs, and sustains behavior; it gets students moving, points them in a particular direction, and keeps them going. We often see students’ motivation reflected in personal investment and in cognitive, emotional, and behavioral engagement in school activities (Fredricks, Blumenfeld, & Paris, 2004; Maehr & Meyer, 2004; Reeve, 2006).

Virtually all students are motivated in one way or another. One student may be keenly interested in classroom subject matter and seek out challenging course work, participate actively in class discussions, and earn high marks on assigned projects. Another student may be more concerned with the social side of school, interacting with classmates frequently, attending extracurricular activities almost every day, and perhaps running for a student government office. Still another may be focused on athletics, excelling in physical education classes, playing or watching sports most afternoons and weekends, and faithfully following a physical fitness regimen. Yet another student—perhaps because of an undetected learning disability, a shy temperament, or a seemingly uncoordinated body—may be motivated to avoid academics, social situations, or athletic activities.

When Anya comes to school each day, she brings her strong interest in art with her. But motivation is not necessarily something that learners bring to school; it can also arise from environmental conditions at school. When we talk about how the environment can enhance a learner’s motivation to learn particular things or behave in particular ways, we are talking about situated motivation (Paris & Turner, 1994; Rueda & Moll, 1994). In the pages to come, we’ll find that as teachers, we can do many things to motivate students to learn and behave in ways that promote their long-term success and productivity.

How Motivation Affects Learning and Behavior

Motivation has several effects on students’ learning and behavior.

  • Motivation directs behavior toward particular goals. As we discovered in Chapter 10, social cognitive theorists propose that individuals set goals for themselves and direct their behavior accordingly. Motivation determines the specific goals toward which learners strive (Maehr & Meyer, 1997; Pintrich et al., 1993). Thus, it affects the choices students make—for instance, whether to enroll in physics or studio art, whether to spend an evening completing a challenging homework assignment or playing videogames with friends.
  • Motivation leads to increased effort and energy. Motivation increases the amount of effort and energy that learners expend in activities directly related to their needs and goals (Csikszentmihalyi & Nakamura, 1989; Maehr, 1984; Pintrich et al., 1993). It determines whether they pursue a task enthusiastically and wholeheartedly or apathetically and lackadaisically.
  • Motivation increases initiation of and persistence in activities. Learners are more likely to begin a task they actually want to do. They are also more likely to continue working at it until they’ve completed it, even if they are occasionally interrupted or frustrated in the process (Larson, 2000; Maehr, 1984; Wigfield, 1994). In general, then, motivation increases students’ time on task, an important factor affecting their learning and achievement (Brophy, 1988; Larson, 2000; Wigfield, 1994).
  • Motivation affects cognitive processes. Motivation affects what learners pay attention to and how effectively they process it (Eccles & Wigfield, 1985; Pintrich & Schunk, 2002; Pugh & Bergin, 2006). For instance, motivated learners often make a concerted effort to truly understand classroom material—to learn it meaningfully—and consider how they might use it in their own lives.
  • Motivation determines which consequences are reinforcing and punishing. The more learners are motivated to achieve academic success, the more they will be proud of an A and upset by a low grade. The more learners want to be accepted and respected by peers, the more they will value membership in the “in” group and be distressed by the ridicule of classmates. To a teenage boy uninterested in athletics, making or not making the school football team is no big deal, but to a teen whose life revolves around football, making or not making the team may be a consequence of monumental importance.
  • Motivation often enhances performance. Because of the other effects just identified—goal-directed behavior, effort and energy, initiation and persistence, cognitive processing, and the impact of consequences—motivation often leads to improved performance. As you might guess, then, students who are most motivated to learn and excel in classroom activities tend to be our highest achievers (A. E. Gottfried, 1990; Schiefele, Krapp, & Winteler, 1992; Walberg & Uguroglu, 1980). Conversely, students who have little interest in academic achievement are at high risk for dropping out before they graduate from high school (Hardré & Reeve, 2003; Hymel et al., 1996; Vallerand, Fortier, & Guay, 1997).
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