Motivation Defined

The term motivation is derived from the Latin verb movere (to move). The idea of movement is reflected in such commonsense ideas about motivation as something that gets us going, keeps us working, and helps us complete tasks. Yet there are many definitions of motivation and much disagreement over its precise nature. These differences in the nature and operation of motivation are apparent in the various theories we cover in this text. For now, we will say that motivation has been conceptualized in varied ways including inner forces, enduring traits, behavioral responses to stimuli, and sets of beliefs and affects.

Many early views linked motivation with inner forces: instincts, traits, volition, and will. Behavioral (conditioning) theories view motivation as an increased or continual level of responding to stimuli brought about by reinforcement (reward). Contemporary cognitive views postulate that individuals’ thoughts, beliefs, and emotions influence motivation.

Although there is disagreement about the precise nature of motivation, we offer a general definition of motivation that is consistent with the cognitive focus of this book on learners’ thoughts and beliefs and that captures the elements considered by most researchers and practitioners to be central to motivation:

Motivation is the process whereby goal-directed activity is instigated and sustained.

Let us examine this definition in depth. Motivation is a process rather than a product. As a process, we do not observe motivation directly but rather we infer it from actions (e.g., choice of tasks, effort, persistence) and verbalizations (e.g., “I really want to work on this”).

Motivation involves goals that provide impetus for and direction to action. Cognitive views of motivation are united in their emphasis on the importance of goals. Goals may not be well formulated and may change with experience, but the point is that individuals are conscious of something that they are trying to attain or avoid.

Motivation requires activity—physical or mental. Physical activity entails effort, persistence, and other overt actions. Mental activity includes such cognitive actions as planning, rehearsing, organizing, monitoring, making decisions, solving problems, and assessing progress. Most activities that students engage in are geared toward attaining their goals.

Finally, motivated activity is instigated and sustained. Starting toward a goal is important and often difficult because it involves making a commitment and taking the first step. But motivational processes are critically important to sustain action. Many major goals are long term, such as earning a college degree, obtaining a good job, and saving money for retirement. Much of what we know about motivation comes from determining how people respond to the difficulties, problems, failures, and setbacks they encounter as they pursue long-term goals. Such motivational processes as expectations, attributions, emotions, and affects help people surmount difficulties and sustain motivation.

We now turn to a topic of critical importance to schooling—the relation of motivation to learning and performance.

Relation of Motivation To Learning And Performance

Keith Mitchell’s perceptions of his students exemplify our intuitive understanding of the role of motivation in classroom learning and performance. Motivation can affect both new learning and the performance of previously learned skills, strategies, and behaviors. Activities such as drills and review sessions involve performance of previously learned skills, but most class time is spent learning facts, beliefs, rules, concepts, skills, strategies, algorithms, and behaviors.

As an example of the effect of motivation on performance, suppose that Keith tells his class to complete some review material and that the students, being less than enthusiastic about this assignment, work lackadaisically. To boost students’ motivation, Keith announces that they will have free time as soon as they complete the assignment. Assuming that the students value free time, we would expect them to quickly finish their work.

Such performance effects often are dramatic, but the role of motivation during learning is equally important. Motivation can influence what, when, and how we learn (Schunk, 1995). Students motivated to learn about a topic are apt to engage in activities they believe will help them learn, such as attend carefully to the instruction, mentally organize and rehearse the material to be learned, take notes to facilitate subsequent studying, check their level of understanding, and ask for help when they do not understand the material (Zimmerman, 2000). Collectively, these activities improve learning.

In contrast, students unmotivated to learn are not apt to be as systematic in their learning efforts. They may be inattentive during the lesson and not organize or rehearse material. Note taking may be done haphazardly or not at all. They may not monitor their level of understanding or ask for help when they do not understand what is being taught. It is little wonder that learning suffers.

A key point is that motivation bears a reciprocal relation to learning and performance; that is, motivation influences learning and performance and what students do and learn influences their motivation (Pintrich, 2003; Schunk, 1995). When students attain learning goals, goal attainment conveys to them that they possess the requisite capabilities for learning. These beliefs motivate them to set new challenging goals. Students who are motivated to learn often find that once they do they are intrinsically motivated to continue their learning.