For Teachers,  Philosophy & Science of Learning

Learning and Motivation

Motivation is used as a catchall term to describe how people are moved to act in a certain manner or direction.  In everyday use there is a tendency to conceptualise motivation as mono-dimensional we often seek the motive for why a person acted in a particular way.   

Single explanations for people’s actions or goals are often inadequate and misleading.  People tend to justify past-behaviour and will report a retrospective rationale.  However, models of motivation, if they are to be of use, need to provide predictions of future behaviour.

The term motivation is used in many different contexts and can mean different things in everyday language. Motivation is often used to describe a level of commitment even energy such as during half time at a football match where a manager gives a team a motivational talk to ‘lift’ the team for the second half. 

In such uses of the term motivation is likened to a psychic booster; one could imagine an internal M meter reading either high or low. This meaning of motivation is not limited to physical activity – people might say “coming up to the exam I became really motivated and studied for five hours every day”. It’s even the case that certain speakers at business conferences describe themselves as ‘motivational speakers’. However important it is to be ‘psyched up’ and however interesting it might be to study motivation as degree-of-determination or drive toward a particular goal – this is not the aspect of motivation that is of interest here. 

What I wish to focus on is the decision to set goals, the ‘why’ of action and in particular, decisions to learn.  In order to explain most human behaviours a fuller spectrum of influences needs to be appreciated.  Serious consideration of the concept of motivation leads to a realisation that motivation is both complex and multi-dimensional.  

Ryan and Deci (2000) refer to motivation in terms of the ‘energy, direction, persistence and equifinality of activation and intent’.  Equifinality, a term borrowed from systems theory, in this case meaning that the same result can be arrived at through many different paths or trajectories.   

A dictionary definition such as in Colman’s A Dictionary of Psychology (Colman, 2006), describes motivation as a driving force or forces responsible for the initiation, persistence, direction, and vigour of goal-directed behaviour.  This introduces the notion of goals and goal-directedness within an individual.  Where learning is the goal we may, within the framework of the above definition, regard motivation-for-learning as having a cuasal relationship with learning oriented behaviours.

Ahl (2006) summaries different theoretical orientations gleaned from her extensive literature review of learning motivation.   Ahl argues that the concept of motivation is itself questionable and she challenges three assumptions that are often implicit in many of the theories: first that such an entity as motivation exists; second, that it resides with the individual; and third, that motivation causes behaviour (Ahl, 2006).  Ahl argues the large variety of definitions of motivation from the literature contribute to the questionability of the motivation construct.  

Wlodkowski (1999) seems to support this:

We have invented a word to label this elusive topic –motivation-  but even its definition continues to baffle the most scholarly of minds.
  (Wlodkowski, 1999: 1)
Ahl also points out that motivation is socially and psychologically construed and that operational measures such as self-report surveys are mearly reinforcing research-generated concepts.  For example, to ask people to report on their need for achievement is to create the notion of a ‘need for achievement’.   

The importance of learning decisions cannot be over-emphasised; almost all learning theorists make a seemingly obvious point that adults learn what they choose to learn.  Time and again the capacity to make one’s own decisions and to self-initiate and self-manage learning is identified as a key characteristic of adult learning – see for example Knowles (1978), Cyr (1999) and Merriam, Cafferella and Baumgartner (2007).  

Learning decisions are therefore important sites of investigation and can provide powerful insights for educators and policy makers on the development of skills and competence in future populations.


Ahl, H. (2006). Motivation in adult education: a problem solver or a euphemism for direction and control? International Journal of Lifelong Education, 25(4), 385 – 405

Colman, A. M. (2006). A Dictionary of Psychology: Oxford University Press.

Cyr, A. V. (1999). Overview of Theories and Principles Relating to Characteristics of Adult Learners: 1970s-1999. Access ERIC: FullText (070 Information Analyses). Florida.

Knowles, M. S. (1978). The adult learner : a neglected species (2d ed.). Houston: Gulf Pub. Co., Book Division.

Merriam, S. B., Caffarella, R. S., & Baumgartner, L. (2007). Learning in adulthood : a comprehensive guide (3rd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being, American Psychologist (Vol. 55, pp. 68-78).

Wlodkowski, R. J. (1999). Enhancing adult motivation to learn : a comprehensive guide for teaching all adults. The Jossey-Bass higher and adult education series.


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