Motivation Theories


Dynamic Psychology


Making sense of why people do what they do

Principal Metaphors

Owing the range of foci and interpretations covered by this array of theories, a single cluster of associations cannot be specified. That said, most perspectives on “motivation” assume or assert some sort of goal– and so a large portion of Motivation Theories align with the Attainment Metaphor:
  • Knowledge is … a goal
  • Knowing is … goal-attaining action
  • Learner is … a seeker, striver (individual)
  • Learning is … journeying, arriving at, reaching, progressing, accomplishing, achieving
  • Teaching is … leading, guiding, directing, facilitating




Motivation Theories are attempts to explain the “why” of human action, and most of them are developed around lists of factors. It is difficult to offer overarching categories of these theories, but we find the following distinctions to be helpful:
  • Extrinsic Motivation Discourses versus Intrinsic Motivation Discourses – “Extrinsic motivation” refers to motivating influences that come from outside the learner (e.g., rewards, punishments). “Intrinsic motivation” refers to engagement with the task itself is sufficient to maintain interest. Most Motivation Theories consider both categories, but some lean heavily in one direction or the other (e.g., Behaviorisms are almost entirely concerned with extrinsic motivation, whereas Flow is focused exclusively on intrinsically motivating activities).
  • Being pulled versus being pushed models of motivation:
    • Pull Model – resting on the same cluster of metaphors as Motivation Theories, any perspective that emphasizes positive experiences that “draw” (toward goals, meanings, activities, etc.)
    • Push Model – resting on the same cluster of metaphors as Motivation Theories, any perspective that emphasizes negative experiences that “compel” (toward goals, meanings, activities, etc.)
  • Externalisms versus Internalisms – Essentially a rephrasing of the previous distinction, Externalisms encompass discourses in which it is assumed or asserted that one's justifications and motivations are largely determined by conditions external to the agent. Internalisms encompass discourses in which it is assumed or asserted that one's justifications and motivations are principally matters of beliefs, desires, and other internal predilections. (Note: should not be confused with Externalisms of Socio-Cultural-Focused Discourses.)
  • Conscious Motivations (Conative Component of Motivation; Conation) versus Unconscious Motivations (Habitual Component of Motivation; Habit) – Most Motivation Theories address both these categories, but some focus mainly on aspects of motivation that are consciously and deliberately oriented to meeting perceived wants and needs (e.g., Self-Efficacy), while others attend almost entirely to aspects of motivation that manifest as automatic sequences of acting, with little or no conscious intent (e.g., Psychoanalytic Theories).
  • Drives, Needs, & Desires Theories versus Cognitive Motivation Theories – This distinction is a bit hazier and more problematic. Some Motivation Theories focus more on meeting needs and satisfying desires, whereas others concern themselves with thought-mediated actions. See Drives, Needs, & Desires Theories and Cognitive Motivation Theories for examples of each.
  • Incentive Theory – the perspective that motivation arises in a blend of internal (“drive states”) and external (“stimulus objects”) influences
Against the backdrop of the distinctions associated with the above discourses, the following construct has gained some popularity:
  • Motivational Style – an umbrella term that captures a range of distinctions used to identify one’s preferred or dominant forms of motivation. Examples of such distinctions include intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation, cooperative vs. competitive attitude, and growth vs. fixed orientation.
Over the past half-century, trends in formal education have shifted from extrinsic, unconscious, drives/needs/desires to intrinsic, conscious, cognitive – reflecting a broader conceptual shift from Newtonian mechanics to Darwinian dynamics as the preferred means of making sense of human learning. Those shifts are especially evident in ways commentators and researchers frame “factors” that are typically associated with motivation. The following factors, for example, can be interpreted either mechanically or organically:
  • Anxiety – a usually debilitating emotional response that is typically associated with both mental symptoms (e.g., worry, strain) and physical symptoms (e.g., muscle tension, increased blood pressure)
    • Aspects of Anxiety include:
      • Worry – the conscious and cognitive aspect of Anxiety (manifesting as, e.g., self-questioning, pessimism, escape behavior, etc.)
      • Emotionality – the affective and physiological aspect of Anxiety (manifesting, e.g., as tense muscles, raised heartrate, pacing, etc.)
    • Broadly speaking, Anxiety is either enabling or disabling:
      • Facilitating Anxiety – situations and conditions in which elevated Anxiety enhances performance, such as with easy and automatic tasks
      • Debilitating Anxiety – situations and conditions in which elevated Anxiety interferes with performance, such as multi-step and unfamiliar tasks
    • Types of Anxiety include:
      • Fear of Failure (Academic Anxiety; Academic Fear) – persistent anxiety about meeting one’s own or others’ expectations
      • Fear of Success (Fear of Success Syndrome; Horner Effect) (Matina Horner, 1960s) – persistent anxiety about the consequences of achieving one’s own hopes or otherwise becoming successful. Fear of Success is theorized as an emotion that might arise when personal needs for achievement conflict with prevailing social values.
      • Performance AnxietyAnxiety associated with either performing a task at all or performing it at a level that will increase expectations for future performances
      • State AnxietyAnxiety that is triggered by situation-specific environmental factors outside of one’s control
      • Test AnxietyAnxiety associated with a formal evaluation, typically contributing to disappointing performance
      • Trait Anxiety – a personality trait, typically used to explain why different people under similar circumstances can have very different levels of State Anxiety
  • Arousal – a combination of awareness and awakeness – that is, of psychological and physiological alertness. In the education literature, Arousal is often associated with:
    • Arousal Theory – any theory that posits a relationship between individual performance and environmental stresses
    • Processing-Efficiency Theory – a theory on the relationship among Anxiety,  Arousal, and Attention. It suggests that Anxiety has positive and negative effects. While it can place excess demands on one’s Attention, it can also trigger one's Arousal, enabling one to focus more on the task at hand.
    • Surprise Effect –  the positive responses associated with sudden encounters with the unexpected. While extreme surprises are often linked to negative emotions (e.g., fear responses), non-extreme surprises are associated with pleasure, focus, and concentration – which are theorized as neurological responses to enable one to find meaning in the surprise.
    • Yerkes–Dodson Law (Anxiety–Performance Relationship; Arousal–Performance Relationship; Inverted-U Hypothesis) (Robert Yerkes, John Dodson; 1910s) – a formalization of the common observation that performance usually improves with arousal, but can be negatively impacted when too intensely aroused
  • Attention – Theories of Attention offer models and explanations to account for what one is motivated to notice, given that only a tiny portion of the information that floods one’s senses ever bubbles to the surface of consciousness. (For example, one's eyes can register roughly 10,000,000 sensory events per second, but one can consciously deal with only 20–40 discernments per second. Corresponding estimates for other sensory systems are: skin – 1,000,000 events, 5 discernments; ears – 100,000 events, 15–30 discernments; nose – 100,000 events, 1 discernment; tongue, 1,000 events, 1 discernment.) Typically, theories of Attention employ metaphors of sieves, filters, funnels, meshes, and networks – all of which, to varying extents, are imagined to be enabled by biology, shaped by experience, and influenced by Interest, Curiosity, Anxiety, and Arousal. (See also AwarenessConsciousness, and Perception, under Cognitive Science.) Constructs and pedagogical advice associated with Attention include:
    • Apprehension Span (Span of Apprehension) – an aspect of Short-Term Memory (see Memory Research) that is measured by counting how many specific items one can recall when briefly exposed to a large array of varied items.
    • Attentional Narrowing – the ability to focus one’s Attention on relevant information in a high-stress situation
    • Bite-Sized Learning – the limiting of lessons to 1- to 15-minute bursts of focused activity, a move which is presented as an accommodation to the many and varied demands on children and which advocates contend might improve their attention
    • Controlled Attention (Attentional Control; Directed Attention; Executive Attention; Selective Attention) – one’s capacity to determine what to focus on and what to ignore
    • Focal Attention (Focused Attention) – one’s concentration on specific items (which entails ignoring everything else)
    • Meta-Attention – one’s awareness of the influences on one’s own attentions (see Metacognition)
    • Movement in Learning (Movement-Based Instruction) – a cluster of teaching emphases and approaches that share the conviction that learners should have opportunity to move during class time. Advice on such movement varies from unstructured Brain Breaks (see below) to highly choreographed gestures that align with topics of study. Associated constructs include:
      • Brain Break (2020s) – brief, 5- to 10-minute stretches of physical activity (e.g., stretching, swaying, dancing) inserted to break up extended periods of mental focus. Brain Breaks are asserted to support Attention – that is, concentration and engagement – while reducing stress and boredom.
    • On-Task Behavior / Off-Task Behavior (Academic Learning Time; Engaged Time; Student Engagement) – effectively, an operationalized version of Attention – typically stated in terms of lists of appropriate and/or desired learner behaviors (e.g., reading, listening, responding) and inappropriate and/or undesired behaviors (e.g., looking around, sleeping, chatting)
    • Scope of Attention – one’s capacity to effectively distribute Attention across multiple items. Types include:
      • Conceptual Scope of Attention – one’s capacity to deal effectively with multiple ideas at the same time
      • Perceptual Scope of Attention – the size of one’s perception – that is, the variety and extent of possible perceptions to which one can have conscious access at any instant
    • Subitizing – the ability to recognize how many items are present without counting them
    • Underintensity – a compromised or suboptimal state of awareness – owing to, e.g., stress, disinterest, distraction
  •  Attention Theories – Multiple perspectives have arisen around the construct of Attention
    • Multiple Resource Model – a perspective on Attention based on a metaphor of “multiple pools of resources,” whereby tasks that draw on multiple pools are more sustainable and readily managed than tasks that drawn on the same pool
    • Unitary Resource Model (Single-Capacity Model) – a perspective on Attention based on a metaphor of a “single pool of multipurpose resources,” whereby allocation strategies become necessary because single tasks can sometimes tax the pool excessively
  • Stress – the mental, emotional, physical, and/or social strains that can be triggered by needs for action or attention. Regarding learning, Stress affects the interactions among several systems associated with learning and memory – although, importantly, not necessarily in negative ways. Indeed, Stress can serve as motivator and catalyst for learning:
    • Positive Stress (Eustress) – those stressors that accompany desirable life events (e.g., holiday travel, pregnancy). Positive Stress can positively influence the immune system, memory, perception, and analytic skills.
    • Negative Stress (Distress) – those stressors that trigger debilitating Stress responses, such as a fight-or-flight reaction
Other constructs that have been proposed to be foundational to motivation include Affect and Aspiration:
  • Affect Theory (Silvan Tomkins, 1960s) – the suggestion that the primary motivators for humans are “affects” – that is, innate (but socially modified) responses that orient cognition and give rise to consciousness. Eight affects in three categories are hypothesized: Positive Affects (excitement, enjoyment); Negative Affects (distress, fear, shame, disgust, anger); Neutral Affect (interest)
  • Level-of-Aspiration Theory (Aspiration Theory; Aspiration Level Theory) (Pauline Sears, 1940s) – a perspective on individual and group performance that suggests that initial motivations – that is, hopes and intentions – both influence performance and have psychological consequences


An obvious first criticism of Motivation Theories is that they are overwhelmingly focused on individuals, with little attention paid to systems of activity. Educationally speaking, it’s difficult to know what to do with Motivation Theories, given the vast array of models and recommendations. More fundamentally, even though the word motivation only entered English in the late 1800s, Motivation Theories are ubiquitous in educational discourse. The concept originated in physics, and its grounding metaphor has do with applying force to move things. As with so many elements of Standardized Education, this emphasis arrived via business and industry, which makes sense. Schools were encountering the same issues with interest and focus among students as industry was facing with assembly-line workers.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences


Status as a Theory of Learning

Some Motivation Theories can be classified as theories of learning. Departing from most theories of learning, they focus more on the why’s than the how’s.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Most Motivation Theories are concerned more with influencing learning than understanding learning, and so a majority are properly described as theories of teaching.

Status as a Scientific Theory

As might be expected with the stunning range of foci and interpretations, Motivation Theories span the full gamut of Folk Theories through rigorously scientific theories.


  • Affect Theory
  • Anxiety
  • Apprehension Span (Span of Apprehension)
  • Arousal
  • Arousal Theory
  • Attention
  • Attentional Narrowing
  • Bite-Sized Learning
  • Brain Break
  • Conceptual Scope of Attention
  • Conscious Motivations (Conative Component of Motivation; Conation) 
  • Controlled Attention (Attentional Control; Directed Attention; Executive Attention; Selective Attention)
  • Debilitating Anxiety
  • Emotionality
  • Externalisms
  • Facilitating Anxiety
  • Fear of Failure (Academic Anxiety; Academic Fear)
  • Fear of Success (Fear of Success Syndrome; Horner Effect)
  • Focal Attention (Focused Attention)
  • Incentive Theory
  • Internalisms
  • Level-of-Aspiration Theory (Aspiration Theory; Aspiration Level Theory)
  • Meta-Attention
  • Motivational Style
  • Movement in Learning (Movement-Based Instruction)
  • Multiple Resource Model
  • Negative Stress (Distress)
  • Perceptual Scope of Attention
  • Performance Anxiety
  • Postive Stress (Eustress)
  • Pull Model
  • Push Model
  • Scope of Attention
  • State Anxiety
  • Stress
  • Subitizing
  • Surprise Effect
  • Test Anxiety
  • Trait Anxiety
  • Unconscious Motivations (Habitual Component of Motivation; Habit)
  • Underintensity
  • Unitary Resource Model (Single-Capacity Model)
  • Worry
  • Yerkes–Dodson Law  (Anxiety–Performance Relationship; Arousal–Performance Relationship; Inverted-U Hypothesis)

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2024). “Motivation Theories” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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