10 contemporary motivation theories and how they explain why your students just aren't 'into it'

Is this the road to success?
Courtesy of @SueAnnan

This is a post summarising contemporary notions on what motivation involves, along with questions to encourage reflection on why some students don’t enjoy our classes.

Why isn’t he coming to class?

Why does she come to class and not do anything?

Why is he so confident of passing when he’s done so little work?

Why does she think she’ll fail when she’s working so hard?

Why do they spend so much time talking about IELTS when this is a TOEFL preparation course?

Does he even want to be in this room?

It feels like she’s deliberately trying to fail this course… why would that be?

Do any of the above questions look familiar to you? How many of them have you uttered yourself? Do you find from time to time that you are utterly perplexed by a student’s complete lack of interest in your marvelously prepared classes? Well, it’s time for you to take a chill pill and understand that there is always a good reason why a given student is not motivated to perform to their peak in your class. It might not always be an obvious reason, but it is invariably a good one.

Occasionally in life, you get to kill two birds with one stone. When that happens with a blog post, it’s an absolute joy, I can tell you. In this instance, I’m part of a task group looking into what motivates our learners, and I’m doubling up on the use of some of my initial findings in this here blog post. As you read through the theories, I’d like you to consider the cases of demotivated students you’ve encountered in the past and think if their situation is more understandable when you put it in the context of what the research says.

The following list is adapted from one compiled by the wonderful Zoltan Dörnyei (2001), with questions to help you reflect on instances when you’ve encountered students who ‘weren’t into it’.

1. Expectancy-value theory

Brophy (1999) and Eccles & Wigfield (1995)

Key components: The expectancy of success / The value attached to that success

  • The two key factors which influence the motivation to perform are a person’s expectancy to succeed and the value they place on having succeeded in doing that particular task.
  • A person will be more highly motivated when both of these are developed.

How might this manifest itself in our classrooms?

To start off, do our students expect to pass the course? What is it worth to them if they do pass the course? Is there any other course of action (by which I could mean any other course) which can deliver the same outcome? Could they expect, rightly or wrongly, to pass a different course more easily? Is it unreasonable to expect them to attach greatest value to the course of action that will most likely be successful for them?

2. Achievement motivation theory

Atkinson & Raynor (1974)

Key components: The expectancy of success / Need for Achievement / Fear of failure

  • Achievement motivation is determined by conflicting approach and avoidance tendencies.
  • Positive influences include the expectancy of success, the incentive values of successful completion and a need for achievement.
  • Negative influences the expectancy of failure, the incentive to avoid failure and the fear of failure.

How might this manifest itself in our classrooms?

Are the fear of failure and the need for success leading our students to alternatives which offer (perceivably higher) chances of success? Are the incentives to avoid failure so great that they dare not risk trying to succeed?

Courtesy of @cerirhiannon
3. Self-efficacy theory

Bandura (1997)

Key components: Perceived self-efficacy

  • Self-efficacy concerns a person’s assessment of their ability to carry out a given task.
  • Consequently, their sense of efficacy will influence the choice of task they choose to carry out, as well as the amount of effort they put in and the level of persistence displayed.

How might this manifest itself in our classrooms?

Do they think that they have it in themselves to fulfill the requirements of the course?

4. Attribution theory

Weiner (1992)

Key components: Attributions about past successes and failures

  • Causal attributions are a person’s explanations as to why past successes and failures occurred, and these have consequences on the way they initiate future actions.
  • Most commonly, people attribute failure to a lack of ability on their part, rather than to insufficient effort.

How might this manifest itself in our classrooms?

Do they understand why they’ve passed or failed in the past? To what extent do they equate success to effort rather than ability?

5. Self-worth theory

Covington (1998)

Key components: Perceived self-worth

  • People are naturally inclined to behave in ways that enhance their feelings of personal value and worth.
  • If anything threatens these perceptions, the resultant face-saving behaviour may manifest itself in many unique ways.

How might this manifest itself in our classrooms?

Is it better to not try than to try and fail?

6. Goal setting theory

Locke & Latham (1990)

Key components: Goal properties include specificity, difficulty and commitment

  • The driving cause of human activity is purpose. So, for any action to take place, goals must both be set and pursued by choice.
  • If an individual is committed to the goal, the goal needs to be specific and sufficiently difficult to lead to the highest level of performance.

How might this manifest itself in our classrooms?

Is the course too difficult (or easy)? Do they have a clear idea of where they’re heading? Are they committed to their goals?

Courtesy of @JoshSRound
7. Goal orientation theory

Ames (1992)

Key components: Mastery goals and performance goals

  • Mastery goals focus on the learning of content.
  • Performance goals focus on demonstrating ability and getting good grades.
  • Mastery goals are better because they tend to lead to a preference for challenging work, to intrinsic interest in learning activities and to positive attitudes towards learning.

How might this manifest itself in our classrooms?

What have they been required to do throughout their academic careers thus far? Are our students aware of what it means to learn content rather than perform for a piece of assessment?

8. Self-determination theory

Deci & Ryan (1985) and Vallerand (1997)

Key components: Intrinsic motivation / Extrinsic motivation

  • A person’s intrinsic motivation is concerned with the doing of something for its own sake, in order to derive pleasure and satisfaction. This may be the joy of doing an activity or the satisfying of curiosity.
  • A person’s extrinsic motivation is concerned with the doing of something as a means to an end, i.e. there will be some reward at the end of it all, or to avoid punishment.
  • Motives can be placed along a continuum between self-determined (intrinsic) and controlled (extrinsic) form of motivation.

How might this manifest itself in our classrooms?

To what extent is the desire to fulfill the requirements of the course based on the joy of learning? To what extent is it based on receiving a reward or avoiding punishment from an interested party?

9. Social motivation theory

Weiner (1994) and Wentzel (1999)

Key components: Environmental influences

  • A large proportion of motivation is actually derived from the socio-cultural context rather than from the individual.

How might this manifest itself in our classrooms?

What is the culture of the classroom? What are the overriding moods and emotions circulating among those on the course or in the university dormitory?

10. Theory of planned behaviour

Ajzen (1988) and Eagly & Chaiken (1993)

Key components: Attitudes / Subjective norms / Perceived behavioural control

  • Attitudes exert a direct influence on a person’s behaviour because a person’s attitude towards the goal will influence their responses to that attaining that goal.
  • Things that can influence this are the person’s subjective norms (the perceived social pressures to achieve the goal) and also perceived behavioural control (the perceived ease or difficulty of performing the behaviour).

How might this manifest itself in our classrooms?

Does everybody feel like they can or can’t pass this course? Is there a collective feeling about the ease or difficulty of passing?

Investigating these theories has really helped me to understand those cases where I really couldn’t get why the student wasn’t performing as well as I thought they could. Like I said at the start of this post, the reason certainly isn’t always obvious, but hopefully it’ll now make a lot more sense to you too.

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40 thoughts on “10 contemporary motivation theories and how they explain why your students just aren't 'into it'

    1. Thanks a lot for the link, Ceri.

      Actually, this post is kind of an intro for people who haven’t thought about investigating the links between motivation and what goes on in the classroom. I’m a massive Zoltan-head so I’ll definitely be checking out the link, as I’ve got to discuss this issue at length with my colleagues soon.

  1. Hi Adam, thank you very much for the reference. This is a truly excellent post. I’m going to make notes on it. I hope you get the chance to kill more metaphorical birds with yur blog.

  2. Thanks David, me too! I originally planned to add links to each of the theories and think I should get onto that right now.

    Comment much appreciated.

  3. You might find interesting a book that was written as a result of an European language project, called Don’t Give Up! The book listed 49 best practices, in depth, to motivate adult language learners.

  4. Thanks Joel, I’ve had a look at the link and it looks very interesting. As we’re currently investigating this issue where I work, some of the ideas presented might come in handy.

    1. Thanks, Ann.

      I’d like to reiterate what Ann says: this is a fantastic place for sharing what you or another blogger has written about ELT!

  5. I am really fascinated with the theories posted in it which was my long-search item.I will write an article based on these theories elucidating the situation I usually encounter in my ELT classes Nepal.

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