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V.3 #4 Counseling/School Psychology - Increasing Motivation

A key component in good instructional strategies includes motivational techniques. Anita Woolfolk (2004), a key educator and researcher in the area of student engagement, defines motivation as “an internal state that arouses, directs, and maintains behavior” (p. 350). On a classroom level, student motivation can be enhanced by understanding Attribution Theory and incorporating techniques to enhance extrinsic and intrinsic motivation for students.

Attribution Theory

Much research has supported attribution theory as a way to increase academic motivation in students (Ahles & Contento, 2006). Weiner (2000), who applied attribution theory to education, proposed that students attribute their academic success or failure based on the following three dimensions.

  1. Locus of Control—internal or external to the student (we may perceive our success or failure due to factors that we believe have their origin within us or due to factors that originate in our environment).

  2. Stability—whether the cause is permanent or varies (if we perceive the cause is stable, then the outcome will likely be the same if the behavior is performed on another occasion. If it is unstable, the outcome is likely to be different on future occasions).

  3. Controllability—whether the student can control the cause (if we believe that a behavior is within our control, then we can alter it if we wish to do so. If we believe that a behavior is outside our control, then we cannot change it.

Students who are typically successful academically yet fail on a specific academic task may perceive their failure to be due to controllable and internal events. For example, they may attribute a specific failure as due to a lack of necessary studying, not getting help from the teacher, or misunderstanding the directions. This attribution could result in a change of study strategies that ultimately leads back to success. One can combine the three attribution dimensions to form different variations of perceived causes of success or failure that affect motivation (Weiner, 2000). For example, students who do not do well on a particular test may perceive the cause due to an external—stable—controllable combination. Students who explain their poor grade in this specific scenario may blame their friends for not helping them.

Additionally, teachers’ interactions with students convey information about the causes of their success or failure (Weiner, 2000). If a teacher perceives that the students’ failure is due to uncontrollable circumstances, they may express sympathy instead of providing corrective feedback or consequences. If the teacher conveys to the student that the failure was controllable and due to a lack of effort by the student, the teacher provides corrective feedback. The student explains his success or failure at least partially as a function of the teacher’s feedback and thus, teacher feedback has important implications for motivating behavior. The student could perceive a teacher’s praise for effort when there was none or little, a teacher’s pity, or a teacher’s unsolicited help potentially meaning that their failure was due to uncontrollable reasons. The student may therefore conclude that they are lacking in ability. These self-perceived notions will limit the students’ motivation for change.

Intrinsic versus Extrinsic Motivation

Motivation can be understood further by considering extrinsic or intrinsic explanations for motivation. Intrinsic motivation satisfies internal needs or personal interests and does not require external incentives (Reeve, 1996). In contrast, extrinsic motivation requires external incentives, such as getting praise from others, receiving a high grade for an assignment, receiving money, or other tangible benefits/reinforcers that have little to do with the task itself (Reeve, 1996). The causes or reasons for the act/behavior whether the student is operating from an extrinsic or intrinsic motivation.

It is most likely not correct to view extrinsic and intrinsic motivation on a continuum, but rather, as two independent possibilities that each contribute, albeit unequally, to a person’s motivation in completing a task. Nevertheless, both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations are important in stimulating students in a classroom environment. Although intrinsic motivation is what every teacher aspires to instill in his or her students, it is unreasonable and impractical to expect students to be intrinsically motivated in all activities required by the classroom curriculum. In cases when students are not intrinsically motivated, extrinsic reinforcement can be used in motivating the students that over time will hopefully be internalized and in turn, increase intrinsic motivation.

Students’ Academic Needs

Garcia (1999) proposed a number of teacher characteristics and instructional strategies associated with a highly conducive educational environment for students from varied cultural backgrounds. Some important teacher behaviors include:

  1. Fostering instruction based on intrinsic motivating factors when possible by giving students choices when assigning coursework.

  2. Implementing constructivist instructional strategies that promote critical thinking rather than rote memorization. Teachers can build on students’ fund of information by activating prior knowledge and requesting students to reflect on the material by providing personal examples.

  3. Communicating a warm relationship and high academic expectations. Teachers can provide positive reinforcement when students exhibit correct behavior or effort along with corrective feedback when the behavior or effort is lacking.

Although incorporating a variety of extrinsic motivators and reinforcers in a classroom can be challenging, it is a necessary task to initiate some academic behaviors. However, increasing and sustaining motivation for long periods of time is a difficult task for most teachers. This is why it is also necessary to employ instructional techniques that emphasize intrinsic motivation. Moreover, when students’ behavior is motivated based on self-determination and intrinsic factors, even when extrinsic reinforcers are not available in the environment, learning is more likely to take place.

In conclusion, motivation is an important factor in keeping student learning high. Intrinsic motivational factors are key components for facilitating appropriate behavior in the classroom in getting a student to self-direct his behavior to attain specific goals. Teachers’ use of techniques based on attribution and intrinsic/extrinsic motivational theories are good examples of ways to elicit student cooperation to promote a positive classroom environment.


Ahles, P. M., & Contento, J. M. (2006). Explaining helping behavior in cooperative learning classroom setting using attribution theory. Community College Journal of Research & Practice, 8, 609-626.

Garcia, E. (1999). Student cultural diversity: Understanding and meeting the challenge. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Reeve, J. (1996). Motivating others: Nurturing inner motivational resources. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Weiner, B. (2000). Interpersonal and intrapersonal theories of motivation from an attributional perspective. Educational Psychology Review, 12, 1-14.

Woolfolk, A. (2004). Educational psychology. New York: Pearson Education.

Michael David Benhar, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the Social Sciences Department at Suffolk County Community College. Dr. Michael David Benhar teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in Developmental Psychology, Exceptional Child, Classroom Management, and Assessment. He has co-authored a chapter on students with disabilities. In addition, he has worked as a school psychologist in a preschool for children with special needs.

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