Motivation directs behavior toward particular goals.

Many psychologists believe that human beings are purposeful by nature. That is, people set goals for themselves and initiate courses of action they think will help them achieve those goals. Such goal-directed behavior appears as early as 2 months of age.Rovee-Collier, 1999. For school-age children and adolescents, some goals (e.g., “I want to finish reading my dinosaur book”) are short term and transitory. Others (e.g., “I want to be a paleontologist”) are apt to be long term and relatively enduring.

Motivation determines the specific goals toward which learners strive (Locke & Latham, 2006; Maehr & Meyer, 1997; Pintrich, Marx, & Boyle, 1993; Vansteenkiste, Lens, & Deci, 2006). Thus it affects the choices learners make—for instance, whether to enroll in physics or studio art, and whether to spend an evening playing video games with friends or, instead, completing a challenging homework assignment.

Motivation increases effort and persistence in activities.

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, on the one hand, or apathetically and lackadaisically, on the other. Furthermore, motivated learners are more likely to continue a task until they’ve completed it, even if they are occasionally interrupted or frustrated in the process. In general, then, motivation increases learners’ time on task, an important factor affecting their learning and achievement (Brophy, 1988; G. A. Davis & Thomas, 1989; Larson, 2000; Maehr, 1984; Wigfield, 1994).

Motivation affects cognitive processes.

Motivation affects what and how learners mentally process information (Blumenfeld, Kempler, & Krajcik, 2006; Hidi & Renninger, 2006; Pintrich & Schunk, 2002; Voss & Schauble, 1992). For one thing, motivated learners are more likely to pay attention, and as we discovered in Chapter , attention is critical for getting information into working memory. Motivated learners also try to understand and elaborate on material—to learn it meaningfully—rather than simply “go through the motions” of learning in a superficial, rote manner.

Motivation determines what consequences are reinforcing and punishing.

The more learners are motivated to achieve academic success, the more proud they will be of an A and the more upset they will be by an F or perhaps even a B. The more learners want to be accepted and respected by their peers, the more meaningful the approval of the “in-group” will be and the more painful the ridicule of classmates will seem (Rudolph et al., 2005). 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 leads to improved performance.

Because of the other effects just listed—goal-directed behavior, effort and energy, persistence, cognitive processing, and impact of consequences—motivation often leads to improved performance in the domain in question. For instance, learners who are most motivated to learn and excel in classroom activities tend to be the highest achievers (Gottfried, 1990; Schiefele, Krapp, & Winteler, 1992; Walberg & Uguroglu, 1980). Conversely, learners who are least motivated to master academic subject matter are at high risk for dropping out before they graduate from high school (Hardré & Reeve, 2003; Hymel, Comfort, Schonert-Reichl, & McDougall, 1996; Vallerand, Fortier, & Guay, 1997).

Intrinsic motivation is usually more beneficial than extrinsic motivation.

Not all forms of motivation have exactly the same effects on human learning and performance. Consider these two students in an advanced high school writing class:

  • Sheryl doesn’t enjoy writing and is taking the class for only one reason: Earning an A or B in the class will help her earn a scholarship at State University, where she desperately wants to go to college.
  • Shannon has always liked to write. The class will help her get a scholarship at State University, but in addition, Shannon truly wants to become a better writer. She sees its usefulness for her future profession as a journalist. Besides, she’s learning many new techniques for making her writing more vivid and engaging for readers.

Sheryl exhibits extrinsic motivation: She is motivated by factors external to herself and unrelated to the task she is performing. Learners who are extrinsically motivated may want the good grades, money, or recognition that particular activities and accomplishments bring. Essentially, they are motivated to perform a task as a means to an end, not as an end in and of itself. In contrast, Shannon exhibits intrinsic motivation: She is motivated by factors within herself or inherent in the task she is performing. Intrinsic motivation often results when learners engage in tasks that enable them to meet one or more of the basic psychological needs identified earlier (Cacioppo et al., 1996; Reeve, 2006; R. M. Ryan & Deci, 2000). Learners who are intrinsically motivated may engage in an activity because it intellectually stimulates them, helps them feel competent and self- determined, or provides an enjoyable vehicle for interacting with friends.

Learners are most likely to show motivation’s beneficial effects (effort and energy, persistence, etc.) when they are intrinsically motivated to engage in classroom activities. Intrinsically motivated learners tackle assigned tasks willingly and are eager to learn classroom material, are more likely to process information in effective ways (e.g., by engaging in meaningful learning), and are more likely to achieve at high levels. Some learners with high levels of intrinsic motivation become so focused on and absorbed in an activity that they lose track of time and completely ignore other tasks—a phenomenon known as flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, 1996). In contrast, extrinsically motivated learners may have to be enticed or prodded, may process information only superficially, and are often interested in performing only easy tasks and meeting minimal classroom requirements (Larson, 2000; Reeve, 2006; Schiefele, 1991; Tobias, 1994; Voss & Schauble, 1992).

Unfortunately, intrinsic motivation for learning school subject matter tends to decline during the school years (Covington & Mueller, 2001; Harter, 1992; Lepper, Corpus, & Iyengar, 2005; J. M. T. Walker, 2001). This decline is probably the result of several factors. As learners get older, they are more frequently reminded of the importance of good grades (extrinsic motivators) for promotion, graduation, and college admission, and many begin to realize that they are not necessarily “at the top of the heap” in comparison with their peers (Covington & Mueller, 2001; Harter, 1992; Wigfield, Byrnes, & Eccles, 2006). Furthermore, they become more cognitively able to think about and strive for long-term goals, and they begin to evaluate school subjects in terms of their relevance to such goals, rather than in terms of any intrinsic appeal. Lepper et al., 2005. And they may grow increasingly impatient with the overly structured, repetitive, and boring activities that they often encounter at school (Battistich, Solomon, Kim, Watson, & Schaps, 1995; Larson, 2000).

This is not to say, however, that extrinsic motivation is necessarily a bad thing. Oftentimes learners are motivated by both intrinsic and extrinsic factors simultaneously (Cameron, 2001; Covington, 2000; Hidi & Harackiewicz, 2000; Lepper et al., 2005). For example, although Shannon enjoys her writing course, she also knows that a good grade will help her get a scholarship at State U. Furthermore, good grades and other external rewards for high achievements may confirm for Shannon that she is, in fact, mastering school subject matter (Hynd, 2003; Reeve, 2006). And over the course of time, extrinsic motivation may gradually move inward, as we’ll discover in our discussion of internalized motivation later in the chapter. Thus the extrinsic–intrinsic distinction reflects a continuum rather than an either-or situation.

In some instances extrinsic motivation, perhaps in the form of extrinsic reinforcers for academic achievement or productive behavior, may be the only thing that can get learners on the road to successful classroom achievement and productivity. Yet intrinsic motivation is ultimately what will sustain them over the long run. It will encourage them to make sense of and apply what they are studying and will increase the odds that they continue to read and learn about writing, science, history, and other academic subject matter long after they have left their formal education behind.

Conditions in the learning environment influence intrinsic as well as extrinsic motivation.

A common misconception is that motivation is something people “carry around” inside of them—that some people are simply motivated to do something and others are not. In fact, learners’ immediate environments can have dramatic effects on their motivation to learn and achieve. Such environment-dependent motivation is known as situated motivation (Paris & Turner, 1994; Rueda & Moll, 1994). Certainly extrinsic reinforcement and punishment steer learners toward certain activities and behaviors and away from others. Yet environmental factors play a significant role in intrinsic motivation as well. For instance, presenting an unexpected, puzzling phenomenon may pique learners’ natural curiosity and interest in a topic. And providing scaffolding and guidance for challenging tasks may entice learners to tackle the tasks strictly for the pleasure and the sense of competence they bring.