Motivation to Learn

Levels of Motivation

Motivational Hygiene

Motivation and Anxiety

Broadly speaking, motivation is either intrinsic/expressive (doing something for its own sake) or extrinsic/ instrumental (doing something for some other reason). A useful, slightly more detailed, categorisation is:










Characteristics  Interest for its own sake: satisfaction derived directly from understanding/ skill  Desire to succeed: “I'm not going to let this beat me”: mastery represents something important  In order to gain social acceptance, either within the class/course etc. (“Pleasing teacher” or being one of the in-crowd, or outside  In order to gain a tangible reward or avoid negative consequences 
Strengths  Enthusiasm, commitment  Commitment  Co-operativeness if class-oriented  Can develop into more significant commitment 
Weaknesses  May get “carried away”: lose sight of wood for trees  Potentially fickle 

What the learning represents to the student may not be the same as what it represents to you 

May concentrate on the appearance of achievement to the detriment of “deep” learning 

Social aspirations may change 

Achievement rests on strict criteria of “relevance” 

Aspirations may be met in other ways 

Anxiety may impede learning 

Also look at the useful categorisation suggested by Morgan (1983).

Levels of Motivation

Maslow is the classic model here. Abraham H Maslow (1908-1970) was a humanistic psychologist who rejected the prevalent paradigm of exploring psychology either from experimentation with animals (behaviourism) or from the experience of mixed-up people (principally psycho-analysis), and concentrated on human potential for self-actualisation. He is chiefly known for his “hierarchy of needs” (but beware, because this is often mis-represented) See Maslow (1987)  

 Maslow's original (1954) 5-stage model of the Hierarchy of Needs

Click here for more on Maslow and other theories of motivation (primarily in a business context)

The essence of the hierarchy is the notion of “pre-potency”, which means that you are not going to be motivated by any higher-level needs until your lower-level ones have been satisfied. Note however, that pre-potency only makes sense over a substantial time-scale. I ate a good breakfast this morning, but I shall be hungry again tonight: thus I may become concerned about Physiological needs again then. But if I “know where the next meal is coming from”, concern about meeting those needs will not be a great motivator.  

Where the model is useful is in identifying individuals who get stuck on the lower levels, and who because of early insecurity or later trauma, cannot afford to be concerned with the higher levels: but this is chiefly relevant to mental health professionals rather than teachers. It also, of course, draws attention to how very basic problems—such as being too hot or too cold—can inhibit motivation to learn at higher levels, but we did not really need Maslow to tell us that.

The major difficulty with Maslow is that although his hierarchy makes sense in general terms — if I am pre-occupied with physical needs, I am not usually going to be interested in self-esteem needs, for example — there are equally many occasions on which it does not hold good. It is excessively individualistic, and does not allow for altruism. And although most of Motivation and Personality is about defining “self-actualisation”, he never really succeeds in doing it. It is one of those models in which there is actually less to it than meets the eye!

Motivational Hygiene

A similar point is made in Herzberg's “motivational hygiene” theory, according to which demotivators (or "hygiene factors") have to be reduced as well as motivators (or incentives) increased, to develop positive motivation (Herzberg 1966):


(Note that the factors shown are for illustration only: the balance may be very different for any particular person and/or situation. In particular, Herzberg argued that pay is at best a hygiene factor; poor pay reduces motivation, but good pay does not of itself create enthusiasm... It's a fine point and may depend on the pay structure, but we are concerned with learning rather than job performance, so I'll let the diagram stand. Or am I just not motivated enough to change it? Discuss!)

The analogy here is with the tuning of a radio: turning up the volume (increasing the motivators) on a badly-tuned station will only increase the noise level as well, and not the clarity of the reception. Tuning out the interference is the major task.

In practical terms, most courses are beset with de-motivators of one sort or another, ranging from unhelpful administrative procedures and poor communication, to teachers' distracting mannerisms: infuriatingly, some of those are often beyond our control.

They count most at the start of the course, before the positive motivators have had time to kick in, and when students may already be rather anxious. Even so, everyone in a learning group is motivated to do something: the question is whether the motivation fits with the requirements of the programme. The issue is not an absolute one about motivation, it is about our assumption that people ought to be motivated to learn what we want them to. (See “What is taught and what is Learned”)  

See "The Course of a Course" and "Process and Content" See also Motivation and Anxiety Raj Persaud's (2005) The Motivated Mind London; Bantam Books is now available in paperback

To reference this page copy and paste the text below:

Atherton J S (2013) Learning and Teaching; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.

Search and associated sites:

Delicious Save this on Delicious        Click here to send to a friend     Print

This site is independent and self-funded, although the contribution of the Higher Education Academy to its development via the award of a National Teaching Fellowship, in 2004 has been greatly appreciated. The site does not accept advertising or sponsorship (apart from what I am lumbered with on the reports from the site Search facility above), and invitations/proposals/demands will be ignored, as will SEO spam. I am of course not responsible for the content of any external links; any endorsement is on the basis only of my quixotic judgement. Suggestions for new pages and corrections of errors or reasonable disagreements are of course always welcome. I am not on FaceBook or LinkedIn.

Back to top