Psychological Strategies for Improving Motivation and Learning – Strategy 5: Self-Imposed Contingency

Dr. Donna L. Roberts

Learning Self-Regulation
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Various researchers (Cruz & Cullinan, 2001; Maslow, 1987; Pintrich & Schrunk, 2002) have demonstrated a strong positive correlation between motivation and achievement. Motivated learners approach tasks eagerly, exert high levels of effort, and persist in the face of difficulty. When students lack adequate motivation, they often become restless and disruptive in the classroom as well. Borrowing from the behaviorist and social learning theory perspectives, teachers can employ various strategies to encourage positive classroom behavior, increase motivation and facilitate student achievement.

Self-Imposed Contingency

Self-imposed contingencies refer to techniques of self-regulation whereby students impose upon themselves reinforcements (and/or punishments) contingent upon the accomplishment or maintenance of identified appropriate (or inappropriate) behaviors. These self-reinforcers or self-punishers can manifest in various forms from internal self-talk to more tangible rewards. As such, this strategy can represent one of the final steps in the series of a self-management program that includes learner participation in determining target behaviors, setting criteria for success, self-monitoring and self-evaluating to determine when criteria are met and the selection of reinforcers — with the ultimate target being the internalized sense of accomplishment that results from setting and meeting challenging goals (Fetsco & McClure, Jones & Jones, 2001).

It is generally considered important for students to learn to reinforce their own behaviors in order to become effective self-regulated learners. Employing techniques of self-imposed contingencies represents another step in facilitating the internalization of standards of behavior and performance. Bandura (1986) argued that providing oneself rewards for accomplishments leads to higher levels of performance than merely setting the goals and tracking progress. However, other researchers (Alberto & Troutman, 1999; Jones & Jones, 2001) have cautioned that learners have a tendency to set relatively lenient criteria for success when not adequately monitored. If this occurs, they argue, the inflated reinforcement becomes meaningless and lowers achievement levels. This difficulty can be addressed through the use of cooperative goal-setting or contracting that realistically guides students toward individual goals that correspond to their level of ability while at the same time providing stimulating challenges.

As students’ success plans progress, they can gradually work toward the implementation of self-imposed contingency practices. Modeled after the earlier steps where the students and the teacher created objectives for self-monitoring and self-evaluation, they can be encouraged (perhaps through shaping) to assess and reinforce their own success. Specifically, this could be implemented by awarding tokens (where a token economy system is used), points or stickers on a chart or claiming small rewards or privileges. The system can be managed by a contract between the teacher and the students that is periodically reviewed and, if necessary, modified. In this way, students can become more fully engaged in participating, not only in the primary learning task (e.g. the math curriculum), but also in the process of her acquisition of skills and behavior strategies. This will engage the natural striving for autonomy and independence that children exert even as toddlers with their first insistence of “I can do it myself!”


Self-management, with regard to learning, refers to an individual’s efforts at maintaining control of his/her learning process. An important goal of overall classroom management is assisting students in self-management by facilitating the internalization of rules, procedures and strategies that enhance learning. By supporting students in developing their ability to understand, control and evaluate their own learning, teachers promote the development of responsibility and lay the foundations for successful lifelong learning.
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash


Alberto, P. & Troutman, A. (1999). Applied behavior analysis for teaching (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Cruz, L. & Cullinan, D. (2001). Awarding points using levels to help children improve behavior. Teaching Exceptional Children, 33(3), 16–23.

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

Jones, V. F. & Jones, S. (2001). Comprehensive classroom management: Creating communities of support and solving problems (6th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Maslow, A. (1987). Motivation and personality (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Harper & Row.

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

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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.


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