Psychological Perspectives on the Role of Motivation in Learning

Dr. Donna L. Roberts

There’s Actually a Mathematical Formula for Motivation

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Motivation refers to “the process of instigating and sustaining goal-directed activities,” while motivated learning refers more specifically to the motivation “to acquire new knowledge, skills and strategies rather than merely to complete activities” (Schunk, 2004, p. 484). As such, these concepts represent explanatory models which seek to understand why individuals behave in certain ways under certain conditions. While some forms of learning and cognitive change can occur in the absence of motivation, in general motivation plays a key role in most learning situations, providing the impetus for pursuing and persisting in activities that facilitate learning processes.

From a classical conditioning perspective, learning involves “the acquisition of an involuntary response as a result of encountering two stimuli at approximately the same time” (Ormrod, 2004, p. 426). From this perspective, motivation does not play a fundamental role in the progression of learning due to its basic internal focus, which is de-emphasized in classical conditioning orientation. In contrast, from the cognitive and social learning perspectives, motivation is considered paramount in influencing various aspects of the learning process, including whether and to what extent learning is actively and persistently pursued.

Cognitive theories view motivation as closely related concepts that share many processes and functions. Cognitive theories emphasize that motivation directs an individual’s attention and influences how information is processed. Numerous theories of human motivation are founded in the cognitive information processing approach to learning. These perspectives emphasize the categories and labels people use help to identify thoughts, emotions, dispositions, and behaviors (Huitt, 2003; Ormrod, 2004; Santrock, 2003; Sternberg, 2003).

Cognitive theories of motivation focus on the learner’s need for order, predictability and an understanding of events. Individuals are considered to have natural motivation to learn when their experience is inconsistent with their current understanding or when they encounter irregularities in information that are not yet represented in their cognitive schema. Piaget first addressed this through his concept of equilibrium, whereby he posited that when individuals are unable to explain experiences with their existing schemas, they are motivated to modify the schemes, thus resulting in cognitive development (Ormrod, 2004; Santrock, 2003; Singer, 1996; Woolfolk, 2003).

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Cognitive dissonance theory developed by Leon Festinger further addresses this concept of cognitive disequilibrium positing that when discrepancy exists between two beliefs, two actions, or between a belief and an action, individuals are motivated to resolve the resulting cognitive conflict and discrepancy. The existence of this dissonance, being psychologically uncomfortable, motivates the individual to reduce the dissension. This leads to avoidance of information likely to increase the dissonance and adherence to or pursuit of information that will resolve the dilemma. A greater magnitude of dissonance results in greater psychological discomfort and a greater motivation to reduce the dissonance (Matlin, 2002; Schunk, 2004; Sternberg, 2003).

According to this theory, dissonance can be reduced by cognitive adjustments (e.g. learning, thought or behavior change) that functions to remove dissonant cognitions, add new consonant cognitions, reduce the importance of dissonant cognitions, or increase the importance of consonant cognitions. The likelihood that a particular cognition will change to reduce dissonance is determined by the resistance to change of the cognition. Cognitions that are less resistant to change will adjust more readily than cognitions that are more resistant to change. Resistance to this kind of change is based on the responsiveness of the cognition to the individual’s perceived reality and on the extent to which the cognition is consonant with other espoused cognitions. Resistance to change of a behavioral cognitive element depends on the extent of pain or loss that must be endured and the satisfaction obtained from the behavior (Matlin, 2002; Schunk, 2004; Sternberg, 2003). In this way, motivation and cognition are intimately tied to the pursuit of particular avenues of inquiry and learning. The implication for learning environments and behavior modification is reciprocal and circular — if the appropriate amount of disequilibrium is created, it will motivate the individual to change his/her behavior which in turn will lead to a change in thought patterns which in turn will lead to further behavior change.

Another cognitive approach to motivation is represented by the attribution theory, which proposes that every individual tries to explain success or failure of self and others by offering certain logical attributions. These attributions are further characterized in terms of three distinguishing dimensions, including: locus — location of the cause as internal or external to the person; stability — whether the cause stays the same or can change; and responsibility — whether the person can control the cause. Attribution theory is founded on the notion that individuals are motivated to determine the underlying causes of actions and reactions in order to more fully understand and interpret human behavior, specifically in relation to their perceived success and failures. As such, it attempts to describe how individuals’ explanations, justifications, and excuses — i.e., their cognitive constructs — influence their motivation. Attributions, according to motivational theorists, refer to the specific cognitive schemas that represent beliefs and explanations about the consequences of behavior (Ormrod, 2004; Pintrich & Schrunk, 2002).

In teaching/learning environments, it is paramount for teachers to foster the development of healthy cognitive attributions — specifically a self-attribution explanation of effort (internal, control) — in order to maintain motivation and optimize performance. If a student embraces an attribution of ability (internal, no control) the experience of difficulties in the learning process will tend to decrease appropriate learning behavior and applied effort based on the ensuing conclusions (e.g. — I’m not good at this). Likewise, adoption of an external attribution will lead to the learner to the assumption that nothing the person can do will help him/her in a learning situation because responsibility for demonstrating what has been learned is completely outside his/her control. Therefore, in this case, the learner will conclude that there is nothing to be done when learning problems occur and will thus lack motivation to persist at learning tasks (Ormrod, 2004; Pintrich & Schrunk, 2002). Again in this perspective, cognition and motivation interact in an interdependent, reciprocal manner.

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Motivation is further described by the cognitive approach represented by Vroom’s expectancy theory which proposes the following mathematical equation:

Motivation = Valence × Expectancy × Instrumentality


Valence = Value of Obtaining Goal

Expectancy = Perceived Probability of Success

Instrumentality = Connection of Success and Reward

Since this formula states that the three cognitive factors of Expectancy, Instrumentality, and Valance or Value are to be multiplied by each other, a low value in one will result in an overall low value of motivation. Therefore, all three must be present in order for motivation and the behavior it encourages to occur. More specifically, if students do not believe they can be successful at a task or do not see a connection between their activity and success or do not value the results of success, then the probability is significantly lowered that the students will engage in the required learning activity. From the perspective of this theory, all three variables must be high in order for motivation and the resulting behavior and performance to be high (Pintrich & Schrunk, 2002; Woolfolk, 2003). Thus, the classroom teacher has the responsibility for teaching the curriculum, but also for encouraging students’ sense of self-efficacy, promoting competence and mastery and instilling meaning into learning tasks in order to create the optimal learning environment.

The concepts of competence, self-efficacy and self-determination also form a bridge between the constructs of motivation and cognition. Bandura defined self-efficacy as “people’s beliefs about their capabilities to exercise control over their own level of functioning and over events that affect their lives.” (1993, p. 118). Thus, students with high levels of self-efficacy form cognitive schemas about themselves based on their belief that they can succeed if they put forth effort, while those with low levels doubt their ability to succeed. In this way, self-efficacy involves very personalized cognitions and associated judgments about the likelihood of success on particular tasks and strongly influences individual’s thoughts, motivations and behavior.

Learners’ self-efficacy beliefs develop in reaction to their cognitive evaluations of their own experiences with success and failure, vicarious experiences and the verbal persuasions of others. Such beliefs influence thought processes, emotions and behavior. More specifically, perceived self-efficacy can affect choice of activities, the quality and quantity of efforts, persistence in the face of adversity and emotional responses (Bickhard, 2003: Fetsco & McClure, 2005; Kruglanski, 2001). Such decisions can have significant and long-term effects on student learning and intellectual development. Specifically, students with higher levels of self-efficacy are more likely to be motivated to persist at a task even in the face of difficult challenges or set-backs. Conversely, when faced with similar problems, students with low efficacy are more likely to become discouraged and abandon the task.

Motivation directly affects what and how information is processed. Reinforcement, for example can motivate students, but its effect is dependent upon cognitive interpretations. Motivated students display increased levels of attention, thus facilitating the encoding and storage of information in working and long-term memory. Furthermore, these learners tend to become more engaged in the learning processes, making learning meaningful rather than merely engaging in rote or superficial learning (Driscoll, 2005; Huitt, 2003; Kruglanski, 2001; Ormrod, 2004; Santrock, 2003).

Cognitive theories of motivation developed, at least in part, as a reaction to the stringent and restrictive behavioral views. Cognitive theorists argue that behavior is determined by one’s thinking, not simply by the historical repertoire of rewarded and punished past behavior. Behavior is initiated regulated and sustained through plans, goals, schemas, expectations and attributions. One of the central tenets of this view is that individuals respond not just to external events or physical conditions in the environment but rather to the internal representations and the personal meaning that they attach to the events and conditions of their lives — the intrinsic motivations that propel them into action.

Thus, cognition and motivation work together to create the human experience. Through feedback and reciprocity, individual reality is formed by the interaction of the environment and one’s cognitions. In a very real way, you are what you think. So, make sure those thoughts are leading you to where and who you want to be.


Bandura, A. (1993). Perceived self-efficacy in cognitive development and functioning. Educational Psychologist, 28(2), 117–148.

Bickhard, M. H. (2003). An integration of motivation and cognition. Development and Motivation — Joint Perspectives Monograph Series, 1(1), 41–56.

Driscoll, M. P. (2005). Psychology of learning for instruction (3rd ed.). New York: Pearson.

Fetsco, T. & McClure, J. (2005). Educational psychology: An integrated approach to classroom decisions. New York: Pearson.

Huitt, W. (2003). The information processing approach to cognition. Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta State University web site:

Kruglanski, A. W. (2001). Motivation and social cognition: Enemies or a love story? International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy, 1(1), 33–45.

Matlin, M. W. (2002). Cognition (5th ed.). New York: Harcourt College Publishers.

Ormrod, J. E. (2004). Human learning (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall.

Pintrich, P. R. & Schrunk, D. H. (2002). Motivation in education, (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Santrock, J. W. (2003). Psychology (7th ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Schunk, D. H. (2004). Learning theories: An educational perspective, (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Singer, D. G. & Revenson, T. A. (1996). A Piaget primer: How a child thinks (Rev. ed.). New York: Plume.

Sternberg, R. J. (2003). Cognitive psychology (3rd ed.). Belmont, CA: Thompson/Wadsworth.

Woolfolk, A. (2003). Educational psychology (9th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

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Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, addiction psychology, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology.

Canandaigua, NY

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