Motivation, Learning, And Instruction Research Paper

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In popular language, motivation is equated with goal-directed behavior and is, as such, easily understood. However, educational researchers who wanted to include this seemingly clear construct into their models of learning and instruction soon discovered that it is a blanket term which refers to a variety of interrelated self-perceptions and affects, including outcome expectations, self-efficacy, goal orientation, goal setting, perception of control, interest, self-concept of ability, goal intentions, goal striving, persistence, and effort expenditure. Each of these facets of the motivation construct has been intensively researched within its own conceptual niche, a situation which has resulted in a kaleidoscope of overlapping constructs and complementary measurement instruments. Quite clearly, the presence of too many motivation-related constructs has hindered the integration of the concept within models of learning and instruction. This research paper begins with a brief historical tour of the motivation theories that are relevant to the study of learning and instruction. Next, some recent developments in motivation research will be discussed. These developments have been instrumental in giving motivation the prominent place in pedagogical practice and instruction models that is long overdue.

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1. A Brief History Of Motivation

An examination of the history of motivation reveals that the significance of the motivation construct was acknowledged in the 1940s and 1950s, when interpretation problems plagued the study of goal achievement. Researchers argued that individuals have access to a large amount of prior knowledge which facilitates the formation of expectancies about various goals. In the late 1950s Atkinson (1958) published his famous ‘expectancy by value’ model in which he described action tendencies as the outcomes of the interactions between goals, expectancies, and motives related to success and failure. The theory of need achievement is, in fact, one of the first comprehensive theories of human motivation. It was expanded and refined several times. Heckhausen (1977) introduced some extrinsic and content-related components into the model, including novelty and task specificity, and illustrated how these components may contribute to students’ action tendencies in a learning context.

Another comprehensive theory of motivation, namely the theory of intrinsic motivation, developed in parallel to the theory of need achievement. It is important to note that in both these theoretical frameworks motivation refers to a process whereby goal-directed behavior is instigated and sustained. However, the assumptions made about the reasons why students make conscious and deliberate efforts to attain specific goals are at variance. Indeed, Deci (1975) and DeCharms (1976) defined intrinsic motivation as motivation that is inherent in the activity being pursued and the meaning assigned to it. A striking finding reported by Harter (1981) is that intrinsic motivation, as an important energizer for learning, is being lost as children move up in the elementary school system. Deci and Ryan (1985) identified a number of factors in the learning environment that are supportive of intrinsic motivation, and they put forward principles to foster this type of motivation.

For quite some time, proponents of the two theoretical traditions have competed for dominance in the field of education, but they were not successful in convincing educational psychologists that their constructs should be incorporated into theories of learning and instruction. Fortunately, in the 1980s, the two motivation theories were integrated into a new theoretical framework, displaying a theoretical richness that has enlightened researchers investigating cognitive skills and school achievement. Findings stemming from this new research tradition, called goal orientation, substantially contributed to our knowledge of student motivation in the life classroom. It became clear that the quality of the learning process depends to a large extent on the students’ goal orientation, more specifically on the type of criteria students use to determine the success of a particular learning activity (Dweck 1986, Nicholls 1984). Students who perceive school tasks as opportunities to learn predominantly use mastery criteria to determine the merit of their work (task orientation); they focus on cues in the learning situation that invite them to build up their competence and confidence and solicit feedback to assess their progress. In contrast, students who rely on performance criteria to determine their successes view school tasks as opportunities to demonstrate their (in)ability.

Several research groups argued that students’ goal orientation is a prominent motivational unit, since it is directly linked to cognitive engagement and strategy use. It was demonstrated that students of different age groups who score high on task orientation select deeper processing strategies than students high on ego orientation (e.g., Meece et al. 1988). These results were applauded by researchers who study the development of ‘higher order’ skills, mainly because they saw for the first time that motivational beliefs directly affect cognitive strategy use. They finally had a motivational unit on a par with cognitive strategy use. However, equivalent positive relationships were demonstrated between cognitive strategy use and other motivational beliefs including interest, intrinsic motivation, self- efficacy, and self-concept of ability. The profusion of motivation constructs which were introduced into the educational literature created complexity, ambiguity, and tension, not least because researchers found it hard to choose the most appropriate motivation constructs to integrate into their models. They also lost their way in the forest of motivation questionnaires. This situation of abundance, linked to the fact that researchers in the field of metacognition had renamed several motivation constructs and grouped them together under the heading of ‘metacognitive experiences,’ turned the field of metacognition and learning strategies into a jungle where motivation researchers and metacognitive specialists compete for dominance.

2. Impact Of Motivation On Instruction

How do different instructional practices influence student motivation? Although many studies have been designed to answer this question, much more research is necessary to understand how instruction variables interact with student and group characteristics. One of the difficulties in answering the question is that teachers use an enormous repertoire of strategies to create different learning settings. A helpful categorization of learning settings was put forward by Ames and Ames (1984), who made a distinction between competitive, individualized, and cooperative learning settings and reported typical motivational practices which impact on students’ goal orientation. Ames (1992) argued that motivation practices which make social comparisons salient in the classroom, such as using ability groupings, evaluation of individual abilities, and providing public feedback, elicit ego-focused cognitions and affects. There is evidence that teachers can play down ego-focused learning goals by focusing on what students have already mastered rather than on what has gone wrong. The extent to which teachers succeed in creating a mastery-oriented learning setting, where everybody who puts in effort can experience some degree of success, is considered to be an indication of one’s professional expertise (Brophy 1999).

Moreover, research on motivation (see e.g., Pintrich and Schunk 1996, Stipek et al. 1998, Wigfield et al. 1998) suggests that students are more motivated when teachers (a) supply interesting tasks, meaning that they present an optimal level of challenge to the learners, (b) put greater emphasis on process and on seeking alternative solutions, (c) encourage and reward effort, (d) put emphasis on social goals, (e) avoid the use of controlling techniques, (f) manage to embed newly learned cognitive and motivation strategies within a variety of tasks and activities so that students can make use of these strategies within a wide range of application contexts. Although these principles are highly recommendable, there is still much to be learned about the motivational practices for students who prefer to work individually and for those who like to work in groups. Emerging findings justify the conclusion that teachers and students have different views on the effectiveness of motivational practices (see Thorkildsen et al. 1994). For example, not all teachers agree that drawing students’ attention away from ability judgments is the way to proceed. There are also large groups of students who still think that teachers should take the responsibility for their learning, meaning that they should provide instructional support and motivate them to keep going. Researchers should further explore the degree to which various learning settings support students’ values and basic psychological needs (needs for competence, autonomy, and social relatedness, cf. Deci and Ryan 1990).

3 Bridging The Gap Between Motivation And Strategy Use

At this point, it is important to refer to three recent developments in motivation research that have the potential of providing more structure to the study of student motivation and of bridging the gap between research on motivation and the literature on learning and instruction. First, a clear distinction was made between two intricately related aspects of goal-directed behavior, namely motivation and volition. The second development refers to new measurement instruments which emanated from process-oriented models of student motivation and allowed researchers to assess student motivation in situ. The third development embodies a new framework for studying the interrelations between motivation and metacognition, called self-regulated learning.

3.1 Making A Distinction Between Motivation And Volition

Several authors (e.g., Kuhl and Goschke 1994, Snow et al. 1996) argued that it is necessary to separate ‘motivation’ from its twin construct ‘volition.’ Snow et al. reviewed the literature on motivation and volition and concluded that, consonant with the bulk of theory and research, the motivation construct can best be conceptualized in terms of decision making and choice with respect to individual goals. It refers to a ‘commitment pathway’ which results when students contemplate or deliberate over options to enactment and implementation. They argued that volition begins when the goal has been set. Kuhl and Goschke (1994) explained that in the post-decisional phase, students mainly have to inhibit counter-intentional impulses and protect their intention from competing action tendencies. Following this line of argument, the study of motivation for learning is restricted and expanded at the same time: it is confined to the predecisional phase and expanded to include all the ‘commitment pathways’ that are, or are not, being established in relation to events, tasks, and activities that are part of a student’s life.

3.2 Measuring Motivation, As Commitment Pathways, In Relation To Learning

Traditionally, motivation was measured as a personality characteristic, meaning that it was equated with relatively stable beliefs that are important reasons for action. This approach to motivation led to the development of trait questionnaires that measure students’ inclination to act as an enduring characteristic, thus categorizing them into either one of two opposite categories, such as ‘intrinsically motivated vs. extrinsically motivated students,’ ‘success-oriented students vs. failure-oriented students,’ ‘ego-oriented students vs. task-oriented students.’ Several authors cautioned against generalizations based on ‘dispositional’ motivational characteristics and warned about the use of favorable and unfavorable traits for learning. For example, Pintrich and Garcia (1991) provided evidence that it is incorrect to suggest that extrinsic motivation is an unfavorable trait for all students. These authors observed that the association between intrinsic motivation and the use of a deep level processing style was only evident in those students who scored low on extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation also showed a positive association with deep level processing, but this relationship was only evident in those students who were low on intrinsic motivation.

It is important to realize that the trait approach to motivation describes general commitment pathways based on enduring motivational characteristics, thus ignoring the fact that students may have a tendency to react in a specific way to particular domains of knowledge (e.g., mathematics, science, language learning), based on their theory of mind and self. In the terminology of Cantor et al. (1986) students form subcategories of the self, related to various domains. Higgins (1987) referred to similar motivational units, contrasting ‘the actual self’ to the ‘ideal self’ and the ‘ought self.’ These different aspects of the self are viewed as self-directive standards or acquired self- guides.

A subset of students’ theory of self, namely their motivational beliefs (e.g., self-efficacy beliefs, values, expectancies, wishes), are activated when they are confronted with tasks, learning activities, or specific courses and interact with these concrete aspects of reality (e.g., with mathematics as a subject-matter domain), thus giving meaning and value to all learning activities that are part of that domain (Boekaerts 1996). It is clear that students’ motivational beliefs about the various subject-matter domains taught in school and about specific leisure activities may be rather weak at the beginning of primary school. However, these beliefs grow steadily once students realize that different academic subjects and leisure activities have their own inherent structure, rules, and standards. Once they are established, domain-specific motivational beliefs give rise to domain-specific motivation or domain-specific commitment path-ways.

Although it is feasible that a positive inclination towards homework will be translated into domain- specific motivation to do homework for mathematics, there is no guarantee that students will form a domain- specific commitment pathway. This will depend on the unique way in which they have mentally represented that subject-matter domain, particularly in terms of motivational beliefs. In a similar vein, it is not certain that students who have favorable domain-specific motivational beliefs will always display that behavior in a given situation. Indeed, domain-specific motivational beliefs activated from memory interact with current learning opportunities giving rise to ‘situation- specific motivational beliefs’ or ‘appraisals.’ In other words, students who are invited to invest effort in a specific mathematics problem-solving activity may or may not translate their domain-specific needs, expectations, and wishes into concrete behavioral intentions. Behavioral intentions generated in the situation are called goal intentions. They reflect the individual’s decision to use his or her personal resources to reach the goal. In learning situations, these goal intentions are referred to as ‘learning intentions’ because they denote the students’ intentions to engage in a specific learning activity, given local conditions (context- specific commitment pathways).

The point being made is that one can only study student motivation as an actual state of the learner when students are invited to observe the unique properties of a current situation; only then will their unique cognitions and feelings surface and reveal context-sensitive or insensitive behavior. The experience sampling method makes it possible to record such ‘student by situation transactions’ while students are actually participating in unfolding learning episodes. Boekaerts (1999), Krapp (1999), Vermeer et al. (2000), and Volet (1997) studied the impact of situational factors on student motivation in concrete learning situations. Preliminary evidence suggest intraindividual and gender differences in appraisals and goal intention.

In conclusion, regularities in student behavior, defined in terms of stable motivational characteristics should not be confused with (a) students’ tendency to react favorably or unfavorably in relation to a domain of study, and (b) with their sensitivity, given local conditions. The distinction made between inclination, tendency, and sensitivity allows researchers to describe the time frame of different ‘commitment pathways.’ Both domain-specific motivation and situationspecific motivation can be viewed as explicit behavioral intentions. However, only motivation measured at the subordinate level (in the situation), is a deliberate choice to initiate a specific task or activity, because it is based on a student’s appraisal of (a) the learning situation, given the local context, and (b) rivaling tendencies.

3.3 Studying Metacognition And Motivation As Interwoven Aspects Of Self-Regulated Learning

It has already been emphasized that researchers who investigate the use of learning strategies have largely ignored motivational constructs in their theories and models, while researchers working within the motivation tradition have always assumed that motivation for learning is associated with higher school performance, without bothering to examine whether highly motivated students have access to better learning strategies. Fortunately, these two lines of research have merged. However, researchers still concentrate too much on academic goals and devote little attention to the social and well-being goals that children and adolescents also pursue in a school setting. Yet, as Wentzel (1996) argued convincingly, the social worlds of youngsters, and thus their social goals, play a dominant and influential role in their lives at school. Wentzel drew attention to social motivation, documenting that there are strong links between academic and social components of motivation (e.g., wanting to help others, to share information with classmates, to take responsibility for the learning of others).

Since the early 1990s, researchers have become fully aware of the multiple goals that students pursue in a classroom context and also of the fact that these goals may be in harmony or disharmony. The unique ways in which students steer and guide their behavior to meet these multiple goals are viewed as indicators of their self-regulatory skills. Self-regulated learning offers a new perspective on the study of motivation for learning, since it encourages researchers to go beyond the mere description of activity in the one control system (cf. Boekaerts and Niemivirta 1999). When researchers are prompted to study cognitive and metacognitive processes in close connection with motivation, mutual influences are the focus of attention, and emerging properties of the system as a whole will be noted. This new approach will hopefully tell us how different forms of control are realized in a classroom context, how feedback processes operate in different control systems, and how students coordinate the interacting processes.

4. Conclusion

The study of motivation has always been the study of inferred causes for goal-directed behavior, but several shifts in focus have been noted: a shift from needs to cognitions, from extrinsic to intrinsic values, from performance-oriented criteria for success to activity oriented criteria. Recent developments in theory and instrument construction announce a new era for research on motivation for learning. The construct of self-regulated learning inspires researchers to explore the factors that facilitate adaptive motivational patterns that are instrumental to learning in school and beyond (lifelong learning). In focusing on self-regulated learning, motivation researchers have also ventured beyond the traditional motivation agenda, investigating motivation control as an important aim in itself. They advocate that the ability to elicit favorable motivational beliefs in learning situations, but also at choice points in one’s career and life, is an important resource.


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