Motivation: The inner game

Mr Mark Sullivan, Director of Instrumental Music

Why is it that some students are focused, organised, and fully engaged and others are easily distracted, disorganised and continually procrastinate? In all kinds of educational settings, the challenge of motivation is one of the essential concepts that is encountered on a daily basis, but it is sometimes the absence of it in students that teachers and parents find most noticeable and of most concern. What is motivation, how is it measured, and how can students become more motivated to learn?

The word motivation comes from the Latin motare — to move or to motor. Robert Slavin, psychologist from the Johns Hopkins University, defines motivation as ‘what gets you going, keeps you going, and determines where you are trying to go’ (cited in Brown, 2008).


Motivation is about energy and direction. It explains what we do and why we do it. It concerns psychological processes behind an individual’s behaviour and involves value components such as intentions, plans, goals, interests and purposes. It has an expectancy of success, confidence in the capacity to succeed and the belief that the results of learning are under personal control. It also contains affective components such as feelings of self-worth and achievement anxiety.

Numerous diverse theories about motivation have been developed over the past sixty years. According to Woodfolk and Margetts (2007), motivation can be grouped into four general approaches: behavioural, humanist, cognitive and socio-cultural.

For the behaviourist, student motivation begins with an analysis of the incentive or rewards available. If a reward is presented as a consequence of an action, the action is likely to be repeated and eventually form a habit. Rewards can include money, marks, stickers, affection, power, prestige, privilege and recognition. Rewards can be used to encourage and discourage behaviours.

From the humanist perspective, to motivate means to encourage a person’s inner resources — their sense of competence, self-esteem, autonomy and self-actualisation. This approach emphasises personal freedom, choice, and striving for personal growth.


Cognitive theorists believe that behaviour is determined by our thinking. Behaviour is initiated and regulated by plans, goals, attribution and expectations; rather than responding to external events or conditions, people respond to their interpretation of these events. People are seen as active and curious, searching for information to solve personally relevant problems.

The socio-cultural view emphasises participation in communities of practice where people engage in activities to maintain their identity and their interpersonal relations within the community. There is a deep relationship between the individual and participation in social communities as a student moves within the group from peripheral participation to central participation.

Motivation is often divided into two types: extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation occurs when a student does something purely to avoid punishment or attain a reward, such as good grades, money, recognition and influence. This means that the student is motivated by the pleasure of the reward and is not really interested in the activity for its own sake. It often leads to decreased interest in the task, thereby diminishing the likelihood that the task will be continued in the future.

Intrinsic motivation refers to doing something because a student is motivated from within and is driven by curiosity, interest, and enjoyment to achieve personal goals. A student who is intrinsically motivated does not need to be externally rewarded, but is excited by the challenging nature of the task. Educational researchers (Brewster & Fager, 2000) now believe that intrinsically motivated students:

  • are more likely to earn higher grades
  • are better personally adjusted to school
  • employ strategies that demand more effort
  • use more logical information gathering and decision making strategies
  • are more likely to persist and complete assigned tasks
  • retain information and concepts longer
  • are more likely to be lifelong learners.

This simplistic view implies that extrinsic motivation is negative and intrinsic motivation is positive, but Edward Deci and Richard Ryan’s theory of self-determination (2000) suggests that motivation is a developing process. They identify four levels of extrinsic motivation, focusing on the extent to which human behaviours are self-determined. They place motivation on a continuum with amotivation at the left, four stages of extrinsic motivation in the middle and intrinsic motivation at the right.

Understanding the different types of extrinsic motivation is important for those who cannot always rely on intrinsic motivation to foster learning. Self-Determination Theory describes the concept of fostering the internalisation and integration of values and behavioural regulations by promoting a greater sense of choice, more self-initiation and greater personal responsibility. Each type of extrinsic motivation on the continuum indicates the degree to which internalisation and integration are achieved and reflects a range of extrinsic motivational behaviours from unwillingness, to passive compliance, to active personal commitment.


According to Deci and Ryan (2000), the primary factors that drive motivation are the basic psychological needs of autonomy (self-determination), competence and relatedness (sense of belonging). They assert that self-determined people experience a sense of freedom to do what is interesting, personally important and vitalising. An environment that supports these three needs facilitates the process of becoming self-determined and, eventually, intrinsically motivated.

How is student motivation measured?

Student motivation can be effectively measured by their engagement or disengagement in the learning process. Russell, Ainley, and Frydenberg (n.d.) suggest that if motivation is perceived as a driving force, then engagement can be thought of as this force in action. Engagement is the connection between the person and the activity, and they articulate three types of engagement: behavioural, emotional and cognitive.

  • Behavioural engagement is about positive conduct, rule following, adhering to norms, effort, persistence, participation in class and other school activities.
  • Emotional engagement refers to affective matters and involves emotional reactions to teachers, classmates, learning tasks, and the school. It can be observed by students’ interest, boredom, happiness, and anxiety.
  • Cognitive engagement refers to the use of effective learning strategies, self-regulation, intrinsic motivation and mental effort.

While there is no magic formula for motivating students, Deci and Ryan et al. (1991) state that promoting greater self-determination is an important developmental goal and the avenue to attaining outcomes such as creativity, cognitive flexibility and self-esteem. They suggest that, by supporting the achievement of autonomy through offering choice, minimising controls, acknowledging feelings and providing the right information for decision making and task performance, students will retain their natural curiosity and achieve intrinsic motivation for learning.

Barbara Gross Davis (n.d.) from the University of California states that in order for students to be self-motivated they have to believe that they can succeed, want to succeed and know how to succeed. They need to:

  • have confidence in their ability so that they will approach tasks with energy and enthusiasm
  • see value in the tasks and work to learn not just to achieve a good grade
  • believe that success will come when they apply good learning strategies
  • stay focused when things get difficult and not be worried about failure.

Gross Davis identified some of the approaches that teachers and parents employ to encourage students to become self-motivated independent learners. They include:

  • helping students connect with their needs, and their sense of curiosity to find personal meaning and value in the material
  • ensuring opportunities for students’ success by assigning tasks that are neither too easy nor too difficult and provide active participation
  • creating an atmosphere that is open and positive
  • giving frequent, early, positive feedback that supports students’ beliefs that they can do well
  • providing suitable role models for students with which to connect
  • adopting a supportive style
  • helping students feel that they are a valued member of a learning community.

Extensive research continues to be undertaken to extend and clarify motivational theories and their application. Although some students seem to be naturally enthusiastic and self-motivated about learning, others expect their teachers to inspire, stimulate and challenge them. In gaining even a general understanding of what motivation is — and how it is measured and encouraged —teachers and parents can greatly enhance the educational contexts that facilitate conceptual understanding, flexible problem-solving, personal adjustment and social responsibility.

On a final note, it was most rewarding to witness the Year 11 cohort paying tribute to their Year 12 mentors in such an organised, thoughtful, creative and generous way at the Music Farewell event this week. Independent of staff direction, they arranged groups of students and planned, organised and presented every aspect of the evening. This event and the Gala Concert last week are impressive examples of the motivational levels that young people can achieve when they are immersed in an environment that nurtures self-determination with the ultimate goal of intrinsic motivation. The overwhelming joy experienced at the Gala Concert, as well as the genuine engagement and respect shown to each other at the farewell function, are the corollaries of intrinsically motivated students.


Brewster, C., & Fager, J. (2000). Increasing student engagement and motivation: From time-on-task to homework. Retrieved September 26, 2013, from

Brown, M. (2008). Environmental influences on academic motivation. Retrieved September 26, 2013, from

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Retrieved September 27, 2013, from

Deci, E. L., Ryan, R. M., Vallerand, R. J., & Pelletier, L. G. (1991). Motivation and education: The self-determination perspective. Retrieved September 27, 2013, from

Gross Davis, B., (n.d.) Motivating students. Retrieved September 28, 2013, from

Russell, V. J., Ainley, M., & Frydenberg, E. (n.d.). Schooling issues digest: Student motivation and engagement. Retrieved August 18, 2008, from

Woodfolk, A., & Margetts, K. (2007). Educational psychology. Frenchs Forest: Pearson Education Australia.

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