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).
  • 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.
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, for example, can be interpreted either mechanically or organically:
  • Attention (Selective Attention) – Theories of Attention offer models and explanations to account for what one notices, 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. Multiple discourses have arisen around the construct of Attention:
    • 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)
  • Interest – Sometimes conflated with, but more often seen as an aspect of or complement to, Curiosity, Interest is generally interpreted through metaphors of “being pulled by” and “gravitating toward.” That is, Interest precedes and orients Curiosity.
  • Curiosity – Typically seen as a complement to or elaboration of Interest, Curiosity is generally interpreted in terms of urges, drives, or motivations to explore and understand – that is, to learn.
  • Anxiety – a usually debilitating emotional response that is typically associated with both mental symptoms (e.g., worry, stress) and physical symptoms (e.g., muscle tension, increased blood pressure). Types of Anxiety include:
    • State AnxietyAnxiety that is triggered by situation-specific environmental factors outside of one’s control
    • 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:
    • Yerkes–Dodson Law (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


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.


  • Anxiety
  • Arousal
  • Attention (Selective Attention)
  • Conscious Motivations (Conative Component of Motivation; Conation) 
  • Curiosity
  • Externalisms
  • Interest
  • Internalisms
  • State Anxiety
  • Trait Anxiety
  • Unconscious Motivations (Habitual Component of Motivation; Habit)
  • Yerkes–Dodson Law (Inverted-U Hypothesis)

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2022). “Motivation Theories” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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