ERIC Identifier: ED370200
Publication Date: 1994-06-00
Author: Lumsden, Linda S.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Educational Management Eugene OR.
Student Motivation To Learn. ERIC Digest, Number 92.
Infants and young children appear to be propelled by curiosity, driven by an
intense need to explore, interact with, and make sense of their environment. As
one author puts it, "Rarely does one hear parents complain that their
pre-schooler is 'unmotivated' " (James Raffini 1993).
Unfortunately, as children grow, their passion for learning frequently seems
to shrink. Learning often becomes associated with drudgery instead of delight. A
large number of students--more than one in four--leave school before graduating.
Many more are physically present in the classroom but largely mentally absent;
they fail to invest themselves fully in the experience of learning.
Awareness of how students' attitudes and beliefs about learning develop and
what facilitates learning for its own sake can assist educators in reducing
WHAT IS STUDENT MOTIVATION?
Student motivation naturally
has to do with students' desire to participate in the learning process. But it
also concerns the reasons or goals that underlie their involvement or
noninvolvement in academic activities. Although students may be equally
motivated to perform a task, the sources of their motivation may differ.
A student who is INTRINSICALLY motivated undertakes an activity "for its own
sake, for the enjoyment it provides, the learning it permits, or the feelings of
accomplishment it evokes" (Mark Lepper 1988). An EXTRINSICALLY motivated student
performs "IN ORDER TO obtain some reward or avoid some punishment external to
the activity itself," such as grades, stickers, or teacher approval (Lepper).
The term MOTIVATION TO LEARN has a slightly different meaning. It is defined
by one author as "the meaningfulness, value, and benefits of academic tasks to
the learner--regardless of whether or not they are intrinsically interesting"
(Hermine Marshall 1987). Another notes that motivation to learn is characterized
by long-term, quality involvement in learning and commitment to the process of
learning (Carole Ames 1990).
WHAT FACTORS INFLUENCE THE DEVELOPMENT OF STUDENTS'
According to Jere Brophy (1987), motivation to learn is a
competence acquired "through general experience but stimulated most directly
through modeling, communication of expectations, and direct instruction or
socialization by significant others (especially parents and teachers)."
Children's home environment shapes the initial constellation of attitudes
they develop toward learning. When parents nurture their children's natural
curiosity about the world by welcoming their questions, encouraging exploration,
and familiarizing them with resources that can enlarge their world, they are
giving their children the message that learning is worthwhile and frequently fun
When children are raised in a home that nurtures a sense of self-worth,
competence, autonomy, and self-efficacy, they will be more apt to accept the
risks inherent in learning. Conversely, when children do not view themselves as
basically competent and able, their freedom to engage in academically
challenging pursuits and capacity to tolerate and cope with failure are greatly
Once children start school, they begin forming beliefs about their
school-related successes and failures. The sources to which children attribute
their successes (commonly effort, ability, luck, or level of task difficulty)
and failures (often lack of ability or lack of effort) have important
implications for how they approach and cope with learning situations.
The beliefs teachers themselves have about teaching and learning and the
nature of the expectations they hold for students also exert a powerful
influence (Raffini). As Deborah Stipek (1988) notes, "To a very large degree,
students expect to learn if their teachers expect them to learn."
Schoolwide goals, policies, and procedures also interact with classroom
climate and practices to affirm or alter students' increasingly complex
learning-related attitudes and beliefs.
And developmental changes comprise one more strand of the motivational web.
For example, although young children tend to maintain high expectations for
success even in the face of repeated failure, older students do not. And
although younger children tend to see effort as uniformly positive, older
children view it as a "double-edged sword" (Ames). To them, failure following
high effort appears to carry more negative implications--especially for their
self-concept of ability--than failure that results from minimal or no effort.
ARE THERE ADVANTAGES TO INTRINSIC MOTIVATION?
really matter whether students are primarily intrinsically or extrinsically
oriented toward learning? A growing body of evidence suggests that it does.
When intrinsically motivated, students tend to employ strategies that demand
more effort and that enable them to process information more deeply (Lepper).
J. Condry and J. Chambers (1978) found that when students were confronted
with complex intellectual tasks, those with an intrinsic orientation used more
logical information-gathering and decision-making strategies than did students
who were extrinsically oriented.
Students with an intrinsic orientation also tend to prefer tasks that are
moderately challenging, whereas extrinsically oriented students gravitate toward
tasks that are low in degree of difficulty. Extrinsically oriented students are
inclined to put forth the minimal amount of effort necessary to get the maximal
Although every educational activity cannot, and perhaps should not, be
intrinsically motivating, these findings suggest that when teachers can
capitalize on existing intrinsic motivation, there are several potential
HOW CAN MOTIVATION TO LEARN BE FOSTERED IN THE SCHOOL
Although students' motivational histories accompany them into each
new classroom setting, it is essential for teachers to view themselves as "ACTIVE SOCIALIZATION AGENTS capable of stimulating...student motivation to
learn" (Brophy 1987).
Classroom climate is important. If students experience the classroom as a
caring, supportive place where there is a sense of belonging and everyone is
valued and respected, they will tend to participate more fully in the process of
Various task dimensions can also foster motivation to learn. Ideally, tasks
should be challenging but achievable. Relevance also promotes motivation, as
does "contextualizing" learning, that is, helping students to see how skills can
be applied in the real world (Lepper). Tasks that involve "a moderate amount of
discrepancy or incongruity" are beneficial because they stimulate students'
curiosity, an intrinsic motivator (Lepper).
In addition, defining tasks in terms of specific, short-term goals can assist
students to associate effort with success (Stipek). Verbally noting the purposes
of specific tasks when introducing them to students is also beneficial (Brophy
Extrinsic rewards, on the other hand, should be used with caution, for they
have the potential for decreasing existing intrinsic motivation.
What takes place in the classroom is critical, but "the classroom is not an
island" (Martin Maehr and Carol Midgley 1991). Depending on their degree of
congruence with classroom goals and practices, schoolwide goals either dilute or
enhance classroom efforts. To support motivation to learn, school-level policies
and practices should stress "learning, task mastery, and effort" (Maehr and
Midgley) rather than relative performance and competition.
WHAT CAN BE DONE TO HELP UNMOTIVATED STUDENTS?
A first step
is for educators to recognize that even when students use strategies that are
ultimately self-defeating (such as withholding effort, cheating,
procrastination, and so forth), their goal is actually to protect their sense of
A process called ATTRIBUTION RETRAINING, which involves modeling,
socialization, and practice exercises, is sometimes used with discouraged
students. The goals of attribution retraining are to help students to (1)
concentrate on the tasks rather than becoming distracted by fear of failure; (2)
respond to frustration by retracing their steps to find mistakes or figuring out
alternative ways of approaching a problem instead of giving up; and (3)
attribute their failures to insufficient effort, lack of information, or
reliance on ineffective strategies rather than to lack of ability (Brophy 1986).
Other potentially useful strategies include the following: portray effort as
investment rather than risk, portray skill development as incremental and
domain-specific, focus on mastery (Brophy 1986).
Because the potential payoff--having students who value learning for its own
sake--is priceless, it is crucial for parents, teachers, and school leaders to
devote themselves fully to engendering, maintaining, and rekindling students'
motivation to learn.
Ames, Carole A. "Motivation: What Teachers Need
to Know." TEACHERS COLLEGE RECORD 91, 3 (Spring 1990): 409-21.
Brophy, Jere. ON MOTIVATING STUDENTS. Occasional Paper No. 101. East Lansing,
Michigan: Institute for Research on Teaching, Michigan State University, October
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....... "Synthesis of Research on Strategies for Motivating Students To
Learn." EDUCATIONAL LEADERSHIP (October 1987): 40-48. EJ 362 226.
Condry, J., and J. Chambers. "Intrinsic Motivation and the Process of
Learning. In THE HIDDEN COSTS OF REWARD, edited by M.R. Lepper and D. Greene.
61-84. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 1978.
Lepper, Mark R. "Motivational Considerations in the Study of Instruction."
COGNITION AND INSTRUCTION 5, 4 (1988): 289-309.
Maehr, Martin L., and Carol Midgley. "Enhancing Student Motivation: A
Schoolwide Approach." EDUCATIONAL PSYCHOLOGIST 26, 3 & 4 (1991): 399-427.
Marshall, Hermine H. "Motivational Strategies of Three Fifth-Grade Teachers."
THE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL JOURNAL 88, 2 (November 1987): 135-50. EJ 362 747.
Raffini, James. WINNERS WITHOUT LOSERS: STRUCTURES AND STRATEGIES FOR
INCREASING STUDENT MOTIVATION TO LEARN. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1993. 286
Stipek, Deborah. MOTIVATION TO LEARN: FROM THEORY TO PRACTICE. Englewood
Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1988. 178 pages.