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What Motivates Learning?

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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According to a neurological perspective, when the brain receives new information it searches existing neural networks for a place for the information to "fit." If there is a connection, the new information makes sense. Prior knowledge-what we already know-allows us to understand the new information. However, in order to have meaning, the new information has to be connected to something that matters to us (Sousa, 2006).




The posting below looks at four fundamental conditions to promoting intrinsic motivation for learning. It is from Chapter 2, Using a Motivational Framework to Enhance Learning in Accelerated and Intensive Courses, in the book, Teaching Intensive and Accelerated Courses: Instruction That Motivates Learning, by Raymond J.Wlodkowski and Margery B. Ginsberg. Copyright (c) 2010 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved. Published by Jossey-Bass: A Wiley Imprint 989 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94103-1741 []. Reprinted with permission.




Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Toward A Science of Learning



Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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What Motivates Learning?


When we ask the question, "What motivates learning?" we know that the answer "intrinsic motivation" most benefits learners as well as ourselves as instructors. It is necessary, however, to translate the abstract concept of intrinsic motivation into concrete action that will permeate not just a class lasting up to eight hours but also an entire course. We approach this goal by attempting to understand and put into action four motivational conditions that are fundamental to developing intrinsic motivation for learning: inclusion, attitude, meaning, and competence. Let us take a look at how each condition evokes motivation to learn within and across diverse student groups.


Each condition has two criteria so that instructors and learners can assess whether the condition exists in the learning environment. These criteria help us to know when the condition is present. If the condition is not present, the same criteria help us to understand how to create the condition with the appropriate teaching strategies and learning activities.




The criteria for establishing inclusion are respect and connectedness. People generally believe they are included in a group when they feel respected by and connected to the group. Respectful environments welcome each person's form of self-expression without threat or blame. People generally feel safe and accepted under these circumstances. They feel respected because they know their perspectives matter. ln a climate of respect, intrinsic motivation emerges because people are able to be authentic and accept responsibility for their actions. Fear and alienation do not prevent them from voicing their opinions.


Connectedness is a person's sense of belonging in a learning group-of knowing that he or she is cared for by at least some of the group and cares for others in turn. When connectedness is present, students feel a shared purpose to support one another's well being. Learners experience trust and community, which allow for a measure of uncertainty and dissent. Feeling connected elicits intrinsic motivation because learners can meet their basic social needs and speak to what matters to them. Conversely, when people feel excluded, they tend to protect themselves through withdrawal or aggression, guarding their resources and weaknesses. For learners, inclusion and community are at the core of their empowerment and intrinsic motivation because such factors help them feel free enough to indicate and work toward learning goals they value.




An attitude is a combination of information, beliefs, values, and emotions that results in a learned tendency to respond favorably or unfavorably toward particular people, groups, ideas, events, or objects (Samovar, Porter, and McDaniel, 2005). Attitudes powerfully affect behavior and learning because they help us make sense of our world and give cues as to what behavior will be most helpful in dealing with that world. Relevance and volition are the two criteria for developing a positive attitude toward learning among adults.


A course's personal relevance to students is understood by the degree to which they can identify their own perspectives and values in the course content, discussions, and methods of learning. The presence of instructional relevance means the learning processes are connected to who the students are, what they care about, and how they perceive and know. For example, if you were learning about the economy which of the following topics would be most relevant to you: home mortgages for low-income borrowers, credit card interest for community college students, or employment opportunities for African American college graduates? If you chose one of these topics, what would be the most relevant way for you to pursue learning about it? Would you rather read about it in a newspaper or magazine, view a television special, surf the Internet for information, or interview local bank representatives? As we hope these questions show, relevance is present when learning is contextualized within the personal and cultural meanings and learning orientations of the student. Relevance is intrinsically motivating because it stimulates natural curiosity (Hodgins and Knee, 2002). We want to make sense of things that matter to us, and we are prone to seek out challenges to further our understanding. We usually experience this feeling as interest, the emotional nutrient for a positive attitude toward learning.


Interest usually leads to volition, the second criteria for developing a positive attitude. Depending on one's cultural orientation, volition can range from choice or self-determination to personally valued compliance. In the latter situation, some learners will follow suggestions or directives because they adhere to their culturally approved norms. For example, research by Chirkow Kim, Ryan, and Kaplan (2003) indicates that in some East Asian societies, people willingly comply with choices that significant societal figures make for them. These significant individuals may be familial, religious, or educational leaders. Another source for compliance may be the learner's own beliefs about collective values. In any case, for learning to be intrinsically motivating, learners have to see themselves as able to personally endorse their own learning. Psychological research and global history merge to support the fact that people consistently strive to shape their lives as expressions of their beliefs and values (Ryan and Deci, 2002).


Translating this knowledge into an instructional question means asking, how can we provide adults with relevant learning options that respect their perspectives, values, strengths, and needs? As we will see in Chapter Four, part of the answer lies in collaboration and coauthorship with learners to construct these options.




According to the adult learning theorist Jack Mezirow (1997, p. 5), a "defining condition of being human is that we have to understand the meaning of our experience." Although making, understanding, and changing meaning is imperative for adults and a vital condition for evoking intrinsic motivation, meaning is a difficult concept to define. Here are three perspectives of meaning, each of which provides its own insight. Together, these perspectives broaden our understanding of meaning and of how to make instruction enhance meaning and thus more motivating for students.


According to a neurological perspective, when the brain receives new information it searches existing neural networks for a place for the information to "fit." If there is a connection, the new information makes sense. Prior knowledge-what we already know-allows us to understand the new information. However, in order to have meaning, the new information has to be connected to something that matters to us (Sousa, 2006). For example, an adolescent watching television and seeing a commercial about early retirement planning might make sense of it, but the advertisement would likely not matter to her. To a working older adult, the same information would likely make sense and also hold meaning.


We can also see meaning as an increase in the complexity of an experience, as it relates to our values and purposes. For example, when we have experiences that relate to strong cultural, spiritual, or philosophical beliefs, those experiences take on a deeper meaning because of the relevance of these beliefs to how we live our lives. Topics ranging from morality to friendship to environmentalism can have great significance for us. Sometimes the meaning may be beyond articulation but of extraordinary importance, as in the case of art and spirituality, elements that are essential to human existence (Tisdell, 2003).


Meaning may also be understood as an interpreting of information that gives greater clarity such as when we say that the word "shadow" means "the dark figure cast upon a surface by a body intercepting the rays from a source of light" or when we recognize our address in a listing. This kind of meaning involves facts, procedures, and behaviors. It contributes to an understanding of how things relate, operate, or are defined, but it doesn't deeply touch us. As instructors, we know that to make information and skills meaningful or significant for learning we have to recast them within a context of goals, problems, or interests that are relevant to students, so that they in turn can infuse them with deeper meaning. To illustrate, the previous definition of the word shadow, if presented to learners with the following example, might initially seem clear but technical or dull. "While standing in sunlight we cast a shadow." So we might ask the learners if this word has ever had significance for them. Maybe someone has seen an image of a shadow that was frightening or memorable. Maybe someone has shadowed someone or has been shadowed by someone for an important reason. We could ask, "What significant associations do you have with the word shadow?" For learners to imbue any form of information with deeper meaning, we want to be mindful to give them an opportunity to relate that information to their own cultural or personal contexts.


The criteria for enhancing meaning for learning are engagement and challenge. When engaged with learning, the learner is active and involved. He or she might be searching, evaluating, constructing, creating, or organizing some kind of learning material into new or better ideas, memories, skills, values, feelings, understandings, solutions, or decisions. Usually the learner creates a project or reaches a goal. The student often has transformed concepts and exerted mental, emotional, or physical energy (Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi, 2003).


We are challenged when we have to apply current knowledge or skills to situations that require further development or extension of them (Wlodkowski, 2008). A challenge could include a range of behaviors, from talking with an instructor about a vague idea to conducting a complex experiment. For clarification, it helps to think of a challenge as the available learning opportunity and engagement as the kind of action a person has to take to meet the challenge. Successful engagement requires that the learner possess some capability, knowledge, or skill. For example, reading a challenging book with understanding requires a certain vocabulary and level of comprehension. A challenging learning experience in an engaging format about a relevant topic is intrinsically motivating because it develops conscious understanding for reaching an important goal. Acting purposefully to reach relevant goals is essential to human existence (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997).




People naturally strive for effective interactions with their world (White, 1959). We are genetically programmed to explore, reflect, and change things in order to have a more influential interaction with our environment. The desire to be competent extends across all cultures. Mastering such tasks as moving a hanging mobile or playing with building blocks evokes positive emotions among infants everywhere (Watson and Ramey 1972). All adults need to be competent, to be effective at what they value: competence is part of our human will to matter and to have dreams that we may reach.


The criteria for engendering competence are effectiveness and authenticity. Socialization and culture largely determine what we think is worth accomplishing, what we value and want to do effectively (Plaut and Markus, 2005). When we have evidence, usually through feedback, that we are learning, we make such internal statements as, "I understand" or "I can do this." We experience intrinsic motivation because we are competently performing an activity that leads to a valued goal. Biologically, our prediction of the expected outcome of our learning is confirmed, activating pleasure structures in the brain as we proceed (Schultz and Dickinson, 2000).


Authenticity is present when learning is connected to an adult's actual life circumstances, frames of reference, and values. For example, an authentic assessment of learning would ask students to solve problems that have a parallel in the real world or their future work: a graduate student in education designs a lesson plan for the grade level he is teaching and for students likely to be in his class, or a student in a construction course practices safety routines with high-voltage batteries she might actually use on the job. Authenticity evokes intrinsic motivation because adults can see their learning as the grasp of important knowledge that is applied in a realistic context that they actually may face. They know that the problems they solve and the projects they develop are relevant to their families, jobs, and communities.




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