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Learn More About Theories of Student Motivation

The study of motivation, as it pertains to adult learners, has rarely occupied the attention of adult educators. Frequently, adult educators have discussed motivation in the context of reasons why adults participate (or decline to participate) in various learning activities and programs. Yet, motivation is a key variable in student learning and achievement and a psychological construct that adult educators ignore at their peril.

Adult literacy learners must have sufficient motivation to acquire the basic skills of reading, writing, and numeracy. As adults become more competent, self-efficacious, and self-determining in regards to their literacy skills, they are more likely to be internally motivated to engage in literacy for its own sake.

A variety of theories exist regarding motivational processes in learners. Some of these theories attempt to explain the role of environmental variables in shaping human learning (e.g., stimulus-response theory or behaviorism). Other theories examine how individual difference factors contribute to students' achievement (e.g., Weiner's attribution theory, Covington's self-worth theory, Bandura's self-efficacy theory, Deci & Ryan's self-determination theory).

A useful idea for practitioners is to think about some of the key motivation concepts and constructs organized around person, task, and situational variables.

Person Variables

Perceptions of ability or competence (self-efficacy): Individuals' judgments about their capabilities to achieve goals are crucial to determining their behaviors. If students believe they are capable of succeeding, then they are more likely to approach learning tasks with competence and feelings of being in control of the situation. Attributions for success: Attributions are perceived causes of outcomes. To what do student attribute their successes and/or failures in learning to read? The most common attributions are ability ("I don't read well because I'm dumb") and effort ("I studied hard for that test!"). Other, less common attributions pertain to luck, teacher variables, task difficulty, and temporal matters ("I was sick the night before the test").

Curiosity and interest: Learners are more likely to be motivated when they are engaged in tasks pertaining to topics they are curious about, or which they find interesting. Teachers should strive to learn what students want to know, encourage them to follow their interests, and create learning situations based on students' interests.

Perceived importance or value of the to-be-learned topic: Even topics that are not inherently interesting to students have value. The learning tasks themselves may have value in terms of increasing students' skills, knowledge, or interest. It is important to know how students perceive the value of a to-be-achieved skill or to-be-learned topic.

Involvement in and effort (persistence) at the task: Students' involvement in, or effort at accomplishing, a given task is indicative of their motivation for the activity.

Task Variables

Difficulty or challenge: Tasks that are too easy will not help learners to develop feelings of competence. Conversely, tasks that are too difficult are not intrinsically motivating whenever repeated attempts at the task do not lead to mastery. It is important that teachers match the challenge of tasks to students' level of ability. Tasks should be of moderate difficulty for any given level of ability.

Purpose for learning task: Different learning activities will have different purposes, e.g., reading for information versus reading for pleasure. The student and teacher may not always agree on the purpose for the learning task.

Variability: Presenting a variety of activities and tasks for learners is a good way to increase motivation. Teachers should strive to avoid predictability in assignments and work activities whenever possible, such as through the use of alternative formats (e.g., small group work, hands-on activities).

Multidimensionality: Learning activities that have multiple components, activities, outcomes, or products (e.g., class newsletter) can facilitate intrinsic motivation. Extended, rather than short-term or one-shot, learning activities are preferred. Such activities afford students multiple opportunities to try out new skills, receive feedback, and change unproductive behaviors.

Situation Variables

Choice in learning goals: Adult learners learn best when given some choice over what to learn and how to go about learning it. Allowing students choices in learning activities respects their individual autonomy.

Individual versus cooperative learning: Cooperative learning has been demonstrated to have many advantages to students' achievement. Adult learners in cooperative learning groups can provide support to and learn from one another. Mixing individual and cooperative learning activities promotes both students' autonomy and sense of responsibility to others.

Teacher expectations: The teacher's behavior can have a significant impact on students' performance. When teachers expect adult learners to succeed, students are more likely to live up to those expectations.

Classroom climate: The classroom is a social environment where much personal interaction takes place and students get many messages about their individual value. The ways in which the teacher structures the classroom environment (e.g, cooperative versus competitive) will impact learners' motivation.

Rewards: Motivation is partially based on the value a student places on success and the student's estimate of the likelihood of success. Incentives should have value for students.

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

Covington, M., & Beery, R. (1976). Self-worth and school learning. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Deci, E., & Ryan, R. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum.

Weiner, B. (1986). An attributional theory of motivation and emotion. New York: Springer-Verlag.

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