Posted in: Briefings

Motivation may be a major factor in the approach taken to learning by students. Changing attitudes within the student body, increasing diversity amongst the student population, widening participation, outreach work, fees, and national policy and debates may all mean that the motivations observed by staff shift over time and context. The study of motivation in education (at all levels) is a large field and so presented here is a short summary of some categorisations regarding student motivation from the literature, along with an example question that we can ask about our own students to help understand their differing motivations better.

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic

Are students motivated by external factors, or their internal drives?

Perhaps the most common distinction found in educational texts (at least in the past) is that between “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” motivations. The distinction is primary between motivating factors that are internal and external to the person respectively and could be summarised as enjoyment versus reward. Those with intrinsic motivation tend to be guided by their wish to master a topic for its own sake or by their enjoyment and internal satisfaction. Extrinsic motivation is controlled by factors external to the person, a common example being money, but also career and rewards such as praise and social approval (including family approval). It may also include the motivation that comes from others, friend or foe, in the form of competition. We may also consider the difference between personal and social motivations. This distinction is often associated with the deep vs surface approaches taken to study, though the more complicated mix of motivations in reality for many also sits alongside the more strategic approach also observed.

Performance vs. learning motivations

Is the student’s goal performance or learning related?

Similarly, Dweck and Leggett (1988) describe a distinction between the ‘type’ of goal which a student may be aiming for in the first place. Performance goals are those in which a student is motivated by the achievement of a positive result or evaluation of their achievement (for example a good grade). Learning goals on the other hand are those for which the student aims are focused on mastering a subject and improving their abilities. These are linked, respectively, with entity and incremental views. Again these provide a distinction between the relative importance of internal and external factors on motivation and success.


How do students view their potential? Are results due to factors within their control?

More recent work often increases the distinctions in between the intrinsic and extrinsic factors (Deci et al., 1991).  Deci and Ryan (1985) build on these concepts to connect with students’ view on ‘self-determination’. ‘Self’ theories move from behaviourist models of impulses (Markus & Ruvolo, 1989) to consider how students view their potential.  Intrinsic motivation is closely aligned with the students’ belief that educational results are dependent on factors that they can control i.e. that they are effective agents in affecting their results and reaching their goals. Other beliefs focus more on factors external to the student influencing their success.

Incremental vs. Entity

Is ability/intelligence fixed or malleable?

Two significant conceptions of ability and intelligence have been identified to produce another distinction. An incremental conception holds that intelligence is a “dynamic and malleable quality that can be cultivated through your efforts” (Dweck 2000, p20). An entity conception on the other hand views ability as a fixed entity, which you either have, or do not.

These two distinctions raise the danger of labelling students and also thoughts on how to support and encourage the initial low-achievers. Can we design our courses such that students can see progress, particularly as a result of efforts on their part? Formative feedback and early comparative performances may be useful.


Do students avoid ‘failure’?

Competency motivation refers to the trend for people to seek situations in which they are likely to succeed and will demonstrate their competence, and to avoid situations in which one might fail, or appear incompetent (Nicholls, 1984). This motivation is therefore related to how a person perceives their own success and “self-efficacy” (Bandura, 1977). It is linked to both past performance, which may lead to a positive feedback loop, and comparison with those considered similar (Schunk, 1989).

Students at elite universities in particular have generally been very successful in high stakes assessments aiming for the very top grades. Academically they may be unused to the experience of failure and avoid experimenting or moving out of their comfort zone. This could have a major impact on their ability to adapt to a new (university) learning environment and new methods and may be a factor to consider if students are reluctant to change behaviours or engage with something 'new' or more ambiguous. The question then becomes how do we create space in the learning environment for failure, mistakes and experimentation as part of learning (and ultimately success).

Motivator vs. Hygiene

Satisfaction due to presence or ‘motivators’? Or dissatisfaction due to absence of ‘hygiene’ factors?

An alternative distinction is made by Herzberg (1959) in his work on job satisfaction, producing his two factor theory describing motivators and hygiene factors. Motivators are related to satisfaction (or lack of it if missing) and tend to be internal to the work itself. Hygiene factors are those, often external factors like salary and status, whose presence may not lead to satisfaction, but whose absence can lead to dissatisfaction (hygiene is an issue if it is absent, but its presence is simply the status quo). There is therefore the need to consider motivation factors in terms of absence as well as presence.

This absence is linked to student expectations of what they think should be present and managing expectations is part of addressing motivation, particularly if we identify a factor which will be absent for whatever reason (including a good reason!). What was previously not expected as the status quo can develop into such over time: technology is a good example of this and how our expectations grow or evolve in time.


Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, 84, 191-215.

Deci, E.L. and Ryan, R.M., 1985. The general causality orientations scale: Self-determination in personality. Journal of research in personality, 19(2), pp.109-134.

Dweck, C.S., 2000. Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality, and development. Psychology Press.

Dweck, C.S. and Leggett, E.L., 1988. A social-cognitive approach to motivation and personality. Psychological review, 95(2), p.256.

Herzberg, 1959. The Motivation to Work, New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Markus, H. & Ruvolo, A. (1989). Possible Selves: personalized representations of goals. In Pervin, L. A. (Ed.) Goal Concepts in Personality and Social Psychology. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Nicholls, J. G., 1984. Achievement motivation: conceptions of the nature of ability, subjective experience, task choice and performance. Psychological Review, 91, 328-46.

Schunk, D. H. (1989) Self-efficacy and Cognitive Skill Learning. In C. Ames & R. Ames (Ed.), Research on Motivation in Education: Goals and Cognitions”, Academic Press.

Posted in: Briefings