Educational Psychology Interactive: Motivation

Motivation to Learn: An Overview

Citation: Huitt, W. (2011). Motivation to learn: An overview. Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. Retrieved from

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The following definitions of motivation were gleaned from a variety of psychology textbooks and reflect the general consensus that motivation is an internal state or condition (sometimes described as a need, desire, or want) that serves to activate or energize behavior and give it direction (see Kleinginna and Kleinginna, 1981a).

Franken (2006) provides an additional component in his definition:

While still not widespread in terms of introductory psychology textbooks, many researchers are now beginning to acknowledge that the factors that energize behavior are likely different from the factors that provide for its persistence.

Importance of motivation

Most motivation theorists assume that motivation is involved in the performance of all learned responses; that is, a learned behavior will not occur unless it is energized.  The major question among psychologists, in general, is whether motivation is a primary or secondary influence on behavior.  That is, are changes in behavior better explained by principles of environmental/ecological influences, perception, memory, cognitive development, emotion, explanatory style, or personality or are concepts unique to motivation more pertinent.

For example, it is known that people respond to increasingly complex or novel events (or stimuli) in the environment up to a point and then the rate of responding decreases.  This inverted-U-shaped curve of behavior is well-known and widely acknowledged (e.g., Yerkes & Dodson, 1908).  However, the major issue is one of explaining this phenomenon.  Is this a conditioning (is the individual behaving because of past classical or operant conditioning), another type of external motivation such as social or ecological, an internal motivational process (e.g., cognition, emotion, or self-regulation), or is there some better explanation?

The relationship of motivation and emotion

Emotion (an indefinite subjective sensation experienced as a state of arousal) is different from motivation in that there is not necessarily a goal orientation affiliated with it (Huitt, 2003a).  Emotions occur as a result of an interaction between perception of environmental stimuli, neural/hormonal responses to these perceptions (often labeled feelings), and subjective cognitive labeling of these feelings (Kleinginna and Kleinginna, 1981b).  Evidence suggests there is a small core of core emotions (perhaps 6 or 8) that are uniquely associated with a specific facial expression (Izard, 1990).  This implies that there are a small number of unique biological responses that are genetically hard-wired to specific facial expressions.  A further implication is that the process works in reverse: if you are motivated to change how you feel and your feeling is associated with a specific facial expression, you can change that feeling by purposively changing your facial expression.  As most people would rather feel happy than otherwise, the most appropriate facial expression would be a smile.

Explanations of influences/causes of arousal and direction may be different from explanations of persistence

In general, explanations regarding the source(s) of motivation can be categorized as either extrinsic (outside the person) or intrinsic (internal to the person).  Intrinsic sources and corresponding theories can be further subcategorized as either body/physical, mind/mental (i.e., cognitive/thinking, affective/emotional, conative/volitional) or transpersonal/spiritual.

In current literature, needs are now viewed as dispositions toward action (i.e., they create a condition that is predisposed towards taking action or making a change and moving in a certain direction; Franken, 2006).  Action or overt behavior may be initiated by either positive or negative incentives or a combination of both.  The following chart provides a brief overview of the different sources of motivation (internal state) that have been studied.  While initiation of action can be traced to each of these domains, it appears likely that initiation of behavior may be more related to emotions and/or the affective area (optimism vs. pessimism; self- esteem; etc.) while persistence may be more related to conation (volition) or goal-orientation. 

Sources of Motivational Needs
  • elicited by stimulus associated/connected to innately connected stimulus
  • obtain desired, pleasant consequences (rewards) or escape/avoid undesired, unpleasant consequences
  • imitate positive models
  • acquire effective social competence skills
  • be a part of a dyad, group, institution, or community
  • increase/decrease stimulation (arousal)
  • activate senses (taste, touch, smell, etc.
  • decrease hunger, thirst, discomfort, etc.
  • maintain homeostasis, balance
  • maintain attention to something interesting or threatening
  • develop meaning or understanding
  • increase/decrease cognitive disequilibrium; uncertainty
  • solve a problem or make a decision
  • figure something out
  • eliminate threat or risk
  • increase/decrease affective dissonance
  • increase feeling good
  • decrease feeling bad
  • increase security of or decrease threats to self-esteem
  • maintain levels of optimism and enthusiasm
  • meet individually developed/selected goal
  • obtain personal dream
  • develop or maintain self-efficacy
  • take control of one's life
  • eliminate threats to meeting goal, obtaining dream
  • reduce others' control of one's life
  • understand purpose of one's life
  • connect self to ultimate unknowns

Theories of motivation

Many of the theories of motivation address issues introduced previously in these materials. The following provides a brief overview to any terms or concepts that have not been previously discussed.


Each of the major theoretical approaches in behavioral learning theory posits a primary factor in motivation.  Classical conditioning states that biological responses to associated stimuli energize and direct behavior (Huitt & Hummel, 1997a).  Operant learning states the primary factor is consequences: the application of reinforcers provides incentives to increase behavior; the application of punishers provides disincentives that result in a decrease in behavior (Huitt & Hummel, 1997b).


There are several motivational theories that trace their roots to the information processing approach to learning (Huitt, 2003b).  These approaches focus on the categories and labels people use to help identify thoughts, emotions, dispositions, and behaviors.

One cognitive approach is attribution theory (Heider, 1958; Weiner, 1974).  This theory proposes that every individual tries to explain success or failure of self and others by offering certain "attributions."  These attributions are either internal or external and are either under control or not under control.  The following chart shows the four attributions that result from a combination of internal or external locus of control and whether or not control is possible.

Internal External
No Control Ability Luck
Control Effort Task Difficulty

In a teaching/learning environment, it is important to assist the learner to develop a self-attribution explanation of effort (internal, control).  If the person has an attribution of ability (internal, no control) as soon as the individual experiences some difficulties in the learning process, he or she will decrease appropriate learning behavior (e.g., I'm not good at this).  If the person has an external attribution, then the person will have a believe that nothing the person can do will help that individual in a learning situation (i.e., responsibility for demonstrating what has been learned is completely outside the person).  In this case, there is nothing to be done by the individual when learning problems occur.

A second cognitive approach is expectancy theory (Vroom, 1964) which proposes the following equation:

Motivation = Perceived Probability of Success (Expectancy) *
Connection of Success and Reward (Instrumentality) *
Value of Obtaining Goal (Valance, Value)

Since this formula states that the three factors of Expectancy, Instrumentality, and Valance or Value are to be multiplied by each other, a low value in one will result in a low value of motivation.  Therefore, all three must be present in relatively high levels in order for motivation to occur.  That is, if an individual does not believe he or she can be successful at a task OR the individual does not see a connection between his or her activity and success OR the individual does not value the results of success, then the probability is lowered that the individual 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 to be high.

The third cognitive approach is cognitive dissonance theory which is in some respects similar to disequilibrium in Piaget's theory of cognitive development (Huitt & Hummel, 2003).  This theory was developed by Leon Festinger (1957), as social psychologist, and states that when there is a discrepancy between two beliefs, two actions, or between a belief and an action, individuals will act to resolve conflict and discrepancies.  The implication is that if an appropriate amount of disequilibrium is created, this will in turn lead to the individual changing his or her behavior which in turn will lead to a change in thought patterns which in turn leads to more change in behavior.


To summarize the cognitive approaches, notice the relationship between William James' (as cited in Huitt, 2009) formula for self-esteem (Self-esteem = Success / Pretensions) and the attribution and expectancy theories of motivation.  If a person has an external attribution of success, self-concept is not likely to change as a result of success or failure because the person will attribute it to external factors.  Likewise, if the person has an Internal/Ability explanation, his or her self-concept will be tied to learning to do a new activity quickly and easily (I do well because I am naturally good at it). If failure or difficulty occurs, the person must quickly lower expectations in order to maintain self-esteem.  However, if the person has a Internal/Effort explanation and high expectations for success, the person will persevere (i.e., stay motivated) in spite of temporary setbacks because one's self-esteem is not tied to immediate success.  

On the other hand, cognitive dissonance theory suggests that individuals will seek balance or dynamic homeostasis in one's life and will resist influences or expectations to change.  How, then, does change or growth occur. One source, according to Piaget, is biological development.  As human beings mature cognitively, thinking processes and organizations of knowledge (e.g., schemas, paradigms, explanations) are reworked to more accurately reflect one's understanding of the world.  One of those organizations involves explanations or attributions of success or failure.  After puberty, when biological change slows down considerably, it is very difficult to change these attributions.  It requires a long-term program where constant feedback is provided about how one's behavior is responsible for one's success.

Psychoanalytic theories

The psychoanalytic theories of motivation proposed a variety of fundamental influences.  Freud (1990) suggested that all action or behavior was a result of internal, biological instincts that are classified into two categories: life (sexual) and death (aggression).  Many of Freud's students broke with him over this concept.  For example, Erikson (1993) and Sullivan (1968) proposed that interpersonal and social relationships are fundamental, Adler (1989) proposed power, while Jung (1953, 1997) proposed temperament and search for soul or personal meaningfulness.

Humanistic Theories

One of the most influential writers in the area of motivation is Abraham Maslow (1954), who attempted to synthesize a large body of research related to human motivation. Prior to Maslow, researchers generally focused separately on such factors as biology, achievement, or power to explain what energizes, directs, and sustains human behavior.  Maslow posited a hierarchy of human needs based on two groupings: deficiency needs and growth needs.  Within the deficiency needs, each lower need must be met before moving to the next higher level.  Once each of these needs has been satisfied, if at some future time a deficiency is detected, the individual will act to remove the deficiency.  The first four levels are:

1) Physiological: hunger, thirst, bodily comforts, etc.;

2) Safety/security: out of danger;

3) Belonginess and Love: affiliate with others, be accepted; and

4) Esteem: to achieve, be competent, gain approval and recognition.

According to Maslow, an individual is ready to act upon the growth needs if and only if the deficiency needs are met.  Maslow's initial conceptualization included only one growth need--self-actualization. Self-actualized people are characterized by: 1) being problem-focused; 2) incorporating an ongoing freshness of appreciation of life; 3) a concern about personal growth; and 4) the ability to have peak experiences.  Maslow later differentiated the growth need of self-actualization, specifically naming two lower-level growth needs prior to general level of self-actualization (Maslow & Lowery, 1998) and one beyond that level (Maslow, 1971).  The growth needs in this revised formulation are:

5) Cognitive: to know, to understand, and explore;

6) Aesthetic: symmetry, order, and beauty;

7) Self-actualization: to find self-fulfillment and realize one's potential; and

8) Self-transcendence: to connect to something beyond the ego or to help others find self-fulfillment and realize their potential.

Maslow's basic position is that as one becomes more self-actualized and self-transcendent, one becomes more wise (develops the ability to efficiently and effectively make decisions and solve problems based on personal experience) and becomes fluid in interacting with the environment in a wide variety of situations.  Maslow's ultimate conclusion that the highest levels of self-actualization are transcendent in nature is especially important as it comes from someone who spent most of his professional life investigating the topic.

Norwood (1999) proposed that Maslow's hierarchy can be used to describe the kinds of information that individual's seek at different levels.  For example, individuals at the lowest level seek coping information in order to meet their basic needs. Information that is not directly connected to helping a person meet his or her needs in a very short time span is simply left unattended. Individuals at the safety level need helping information.  They seek to be assisted in seeing how they can be safe and secure.  Enlightening information is sought by individuals seeking to meet their belongingness needs. Quite often this can be found in books or other materials on relationship development.  Empowering information is sought by people at the esteem level.  They are looking for information on how their ego can be developed.  Finally, people in the growth levels of cognitive, aesthetic, and self-actualization seek edifying information.  While Norwood does not specifically address the level of transcendence, I believe it safe to say that individuals at this stage would seek information on how to connect to something beyond themselves or to how others could be edified and empowered.

Maslow published his first conceptualization of his theory almost 60 years ago (Maslow, 1943) and it has since become one of the most popular and often cited theories of human motivation.  An interesting phenomenon related to Maslow's work is that it enjoys such wide acceptance despite a lack of evidence to support the hierarchy as he described it (Wahba & Bridgewell, 1976; Soper, Milford & Rosenthal, 1995).

The few major studies that have been completed on the hierarchy seem to support the proposals of William James (1892/1962) and Mathes (1981) that there are three levels of human needs.  James hypothesized the levels of material (physiological, safety), social (belongingness, esteem), and spiritual. Mathes proposed the three levels were physiological, belonginess, and self-actualization; he considered security and self-esteem as unwarranted. Alderfer (1972) developed a comparable hierarchy with his ERG (existence, relatedness, and growth) theory.  His approach modified Maslow's theory based on the work of Gordon Allport (1960, 1961) who incorporated concepts from systems theory (Boulding, 1956) into his work on personality.

Alderfer's Hierarchy of Motivational Needs  

Level of Need




Impel a person to make creative or productive effects on himself and his environment Satisfied through using capabilities in engaging problems; creates a greater sense of wholeness and fullness as a human being


Involve relationships with significant others Satisfied by mutually sharing thoughts and feelings; acceptance, confirmation, under- standing, and influence are elements


Includes all of the various forms of material and psychological desires When divided among people one person's gain is another's loss if resources are limited

Maslow recognized that not all personalities followed his proposed hierarchy.  While a variety of personality dimensions might be considered as related to motivational needs, one of the most often cited is that of introversion and extroversion.  Reorganizing Maslow's hierarchy based on the work of Alderfer and considering the introversion/extraversion dimension of personality results in three levels, each with an introverted and extroverted component.  This organization suggests there may be two aspects of each level that differentiate how people relate to each set of needs. Different personalities might relate more to one dimension than the other.  For example, an introvert at the level of Other/Relatedness might be more concerned with his or her own perceptions of being included in a group, whereas an extrovert at that same level would pay more attention to how others value that membership.  

A Reorganization of Maslow's and Alderfer's Hierarchies  

Level Introversion Extroversion
Growth Self-Actualization (development of competencies [knowledge, attitudes, and skills] and character) Transcendence (assisting in the development of others' competencies and character; relationships to the unknown, unknowable)
Personal identification with group, significant others (Belongingness) Value of person by group (Esteem)
Physiological, biological (including basic emotional needs) Connectedness,  security

Maslow's work lead to additional attempts to develop a grand theory of motivation, a theory that would put all of the factors influencing motivation into one model.  An example is provided by Leonard, Beauvais, and Scholl (1999).  These authors propose 5 factors as the sources of motivation: 1) Instrumental Motivation (rewards and punishers), 2) Intrinsic Process Motivation (enjoyment, fun), 3) Goal Internalization (self-determined values and goals), 4) Internal Self Concept-based Motivation (matching behavior with internally-developed ideal self), 5) External Self Concept-based Motivation (matching behavior with externally-developed ideal self).  Individuals are influenced by all five factors, though in varying degrees that can change in specific situations. 

Factors one and five are both externally-oriented.  The main difference is that individuals who are instrumentally motivated are influenced more by immediate actions in the environment (e.g. operant conditioning) whereas individuals who are self-concept motivated are influenced more by their constructions of external demands and ideals (e.g., social cognition).

Factors two, three, and four are more internally-oriented.  In the case of intrinsic process, the specific task is interesting and provides immediate internal reinforcement (e.g., cognitive or humanistic theory).  The individual with a goal-internalization orientation is more task-oriented (e.g., humanistic or social cognition theory) whereas the person with an internal self-concept orientation is more influenced by individual constructions of the ideal self (humanistic or psychoanalytic theory).

Social Learning

Social learning (or observational) theory suggests that modeling (imitating others) and vicarious learning (watching others have consequences applied to their behavior) are important motivators of behavior (Huitt, 2004).

Social Cognition

Social cognition theory proposes reciprocal determination as a primary factor in both learning and motivation (Huitt, 2006).  In this view, the environment, an individual's behavior, and the individual's characteristics (e.g., knowledge, emotions, cognitive development) both influence and are influenced by each other two components.  Bandura (1986, 1997) highlights self-efficacy (the belief that a particular action is possible and that the individual can accomplish it) and self-regulation (the establishment of goals, the development of a plan to attain those goals, the commitment to implement that plan, the actual implementation of the plan, and subsequent actions of reflection and modification or redirection.  The work of Ames (1992) and Dweck (1986) discussed below is a major component of social cognitive views on motivation.

Transpersonal or Spiritual Theories

Most of the transpersonal or spiritual theories deal with the meaningfulness of a person's life or ultimate meanings.  Abraham Maslow (1954) has also been influential in this approach to motivation.  Other influential scholars included Gordon Allport (1955), Victor Frankl (1998), William James (1997), Carl Jung (1953, 1997), Ken Wilber (1998).

Achievement Motivation

One classification of motivation differentiates among achievement, power, and social factors (see McClelland, 1985; Murray, 1938, 1943).  In the area of achievement motivation, the work on goal-theory (Pintrich, 2000) has differentiated three separate types of goals: mastery goals (also called learning goals) which focus on gaining competence or mastering a new set of knowledge or skills; performance goals (also called ego-involvement goals) which focus on achieving normative-based standards, doing better than others, or doing well without a lot of effort; and social goals which focus on relationships among people (see Ames, 1992; Dweck, 1986; Urdan & Maehr, 1995).  In the context of school learning, which involves operating in a relatively structured environment, students with mastery goals outperform students with either performance or social goals.  However, in life success, it seems critical that individuals have all three types of goals in order to be very successful.

One aspect of this theory is that individuals are motivated to either avoid failure (more often associated with performance goals) or achieve success (more often associated with mastery goals).  In the former situation, the individual is more likely to select easy or difficult tasks, thereby either achieving success or having a good excuse for why failure occurred.  In the latter situation, the individual is more likely to select moderately difficult tasks which will provide an interesting challenge, but still keep the high expectations for success.

Other Theories

At this point there is little agreement about the identification of basic human needs, how they are ordered, and which theory of motivation might be most basic or correct.  Drawing on the work of Maslow (1954) and those who have critiqued his theory, Ryan and Deci (2000) suggested three needs, although they are not necessarily arranged hierarchically: (1) autonomy, (2) competence, and (3) relatedness.  Thompson, Grace and Cohen (2001) stated the most important needs for children are: (1) connection, (2) recognition, and (3) power.  Nohria, Lawrence, and Wilson (2001) provided evidence from a sociobiology theory of motivation that humans have four basic needs: (1) acquire objects and experiences; (2) bond with others in long-term relationships of mutual care and commitment; (3) learn and make sense of the world and of ourselves; and (4) to defend ourselves, our loved ones, beliefs and resources from harm.  The Institute for Management Excellence (2001) suggested there are nine basic human needs: (1) security, (2) adventure, (3) freedom, (4) exchange, (5) power, (6) expansion, (7) acceptance, (8) community, and (9) expression.

Pink (2009) suggested there are three basic drives: (1) autonomy,  (2) mastery, and (3) purpose.  The concept of autonomy suggests that human beings are not as easily modifiable as behavioral theorists would suggest.  The use of reinforcement for physical or mechanical tasks works reasonably well (i.e., there is little or no cognitive processing involved.)  However, for any tasks that require even a low level of cognitive skill, offering a larger reward sometimes results in equal or lower performance.  Rather, if people are allowed to be self-directed (i.e., use skills in the conative/volitional domain), they will be more highly engaged in task performance.  The concept of mastery suggests that achievement motivation is an important component of human behavior.  People will engage in activities for no other reason than it offers an opportunity to get better at doing something.  This is especially true if it offers the opportunity to engage in Pink's third component, a purposeful activity that provides for the greater good.

Pink's conceptualization fits well with Conley's (2007) ideas about leadership in organizations.  He proposed three levels of meeting human needs: (1) survival, (2) success, and (3) transformation.  He related this hierarchy to three different groups: (1) employees, (2) customers, and (3) investors and suggested that meeting the needs of these different groups at where they are can lead to a more satisfied personal life.  Most importantly, he proposed that measurement of the intangibles related to meaningfulness and purpose are just as important, if not more important, than measuring the tangibles associated more with survival.

Seligman (2011) offers yet another viewpoint.  His earlier work on the types of happiness (Seligman, 2002) has been modified to focus more on a high level of well-being, called flourishing, rather than happiness.  His most recent theory includes five components that he labels as PERMA:

  1. Positive emotion: this was the first element in Seligman's (2002) theory of happiness and is the focus of such researchers as Fredrickson (2009).
  2. Engagement: this was the second element in Seligman's (2002) theory and relates to the use of personal strengths (Peterson & Seligman, 2004;) in the involvement with challenging tasks that creates an experience of flow (Csikszentmihihaly, 1991). (complete the Values in Action Signature Strengths Questionnaire)
  3. Positive Relationships: this is a new element in Seligman's theory, reflecting the work of many researchers as to the importance of social connections (Huitt & Dawson, 2011).
  4. Meaning and Purpose: this is the third element of Seligman's theory, defined as serving something larger than self.  It is similar to Maslow's (1971) concept of transcendence and Pink's (2009) concept of purpose.
  5. Accomplishment or Achievement: this is also a new element in Seligman's theory of well-being and related to Pink's concept of mastery.


Notice that there does not seem to be a lot of overlap in the motivating factors mentioned by all theorists. Franken (2006) suggested this lack of accord may be a result of different philosophies of researchers rather than differences among human beings. In addition, he reviewed research that showed a person's explanatory or attributional style will modify the list of basic needs. Therefore, it seems appropriate to ask people what they want and how their needs could be met, then observing their reactions when those are provided, rather than relying completely on any specific theory (i.e. use an action research approach to identifying what motivates specific individuals or groups; Ferrance, 2000). For example, Waitley (1996) advised having a person imagine what life would be like if time and money were not an object in a person's life. That is, what would the person do this week, this month, next month, if he or she had all the money and time needed to engage in the activities and was secure that both would be available again next year.  With some follow-up questions to identify what is keeping the person from engaging in those activities presently, this open-ended approach is likely to identify the most important needs and potential goals of the individual.  As the individual develops and implements an action plan to work towards those goals, data can be collected on the effort expended and whether that effort was sustained.  After several cycles it will become much clearer what is actually motivating the individual.

There is much work still to be done in this area before those interested in motivating themselves and others can rely on a theory as more than a good starting hypothesis.  However, this body of research can be very important to parents, educators, administrators and others concerned with developing and using human potential.  It provides an outline of some important issues that must be addressed if human beings are to achieve the levels of character and competencies necessary to be successful in the information age.

Impacting Motivation in the Classroom

Sternberg (1994) and Stipek (1988) suggested there are a variety of reasons why individuals may lack in motivation and Stipek provided a list of specific behaviors associated with high academic achievement.  This is an excellent checklist to help students develop the conative or self-regulation component of their lives.  In addition, teacher efficacy is a powerful input variable related to student achievement as it impacts a teacher's motivation to engage students in the teaching/learning process (Proctor, as cited in Huitt, 2000).

There are a variety of specific actions that teachers can take to increase motivation on classroom tasks (Huitt, 2005).  In general, these fall into the two categories discussed above: intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation.



  • Explain or show why learning a particular content or skill is important
  • Allow students some opportunities to select learning goals and tasks
  • Create and/or maintain curiosity
  • Provide a variety of activities and sensory stimulations
  • Provide games and simulations
  • Set goals for learning
  • Relate learning to student needs
  • Help student develop plan of action
  • Provide clear expectations
  • Give corrective feedback
  • Provide valuable rewards for simple learning tasks
  • Make rewards available
  • Allow opportunities for students to observe more correct exemplars
  • Allow for opportunities to engage in social learning activities
  • Provide for scaffolding of corrective feedback

As a general rule, teachers need to use as much of the intrinsic suggestions as possible while recognizing that not all students will be appropriately motivated by them.  The extrinsic suggestions will work, but it must be remembered that they do so only as long as the student is under the influence of the external factors.  When outside of that influence, unless the desired goals and behaviors have been internalized, the learner will cease the desired behavior and operate according to his or her internal standards or to other external factors.


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