What Engages Learners?
Here is the position of the different theories with regards to the role of motivation in learning and instruction.

In addition to the text here, a summary of the theorists' views on motivation is available as a PowerPoint file or as a pdf. Click on either to download. p

According to Ausubel, students are forever integrating new material into their cognitive structures by seeking to make connections between the new information and that which they already know. This is a naturally occurring process; it is how we make sense of the world and how we learn. It is not necessary that a student be motivated in order for this process to work. It is just how our brains function.

Motivation is not such a big deal for Ausubel. Certainly it is not a necessary precursor for learning to occur. If anything, motivation is more a result or outcome of instruction rather than a cause of it. He would never say anything like, "You have to motivate your students to learn." We naturally seek to integrate new information into our existing cognitive structures. Students don't require activities to increase their motivation.

Ausubel was prescriptive with regards to how to develop effective lessons and instructional materials. This is built around his idea of subsumption, taking in new information and anchoring it to preexisting contents within a student's cognitive structure. If we conduct lessons as Ausubel suggests, then motivation is not an issue. In fact, motivation will follow from a well-conducted lesson. Ausubel would have us pay attention to following his instructional prescriptions, not to motivation. If students are taught as he envisions, then motivation will not be an issue.


Bandura indicated that motivation had more of an effect on our actions than our learning. Thus, he would not use reinforcers in the same way as a behaviorist such as Skinner.

Several factors can influence the motivation of students. One important factor is the student's self-efficacy. Bandura has repeatedly shown that when students have high self-efficacy for a certain learning task, they will put forth more effort to accomplish this task. They will work harder and persist longer with this learning task. As a result they are more likely to be successful than students with lower self-efficacy. Self-efficacy has a motivating effect on students.

Bandura recognizes that our motivation is effected by others through vicarious experiences. If we observe someone put forth effort to accomplish something, achieve it and be rewarded as a result, then this act of observation motivates us to engage in that practice. Our motivation is increased through the vicarious experiences of observing others. Indeed, if you think about it, this is the basis for most advertising. Companies motivate us to buy their products or services by showing someone use their product or service and the satisfying result that follows. The model selects a certain type of toothpaste or clothing and then he or she becomes more interesting to others.

Bandura would have teachers ensure that there are opportunities for students to observe effective models who are reinforced for taking the desired actions. Teachers should also encourage students as a way to enhance their self-efficacies and thus improve their learning. p

Bruner sees motivation as essential for learning – a necessary precondition. However, he does not want to use extrinsic motivators such as rewards. Rather Bruner wants the motivation to be intrinsic arising within the students. Bruner would not be inclined to motivate students with the promise of stars, good grades, extra time for recess, extra points or any kind of a reward like behaviorists would. For Bruner, these external rewards hinder intrinsic motivation and true learning.

Bruner would activate intrinsic motivation by letting the students have a say in what they study and how they go about studying. He would stress building lessons around students' natural curiosity so as to ensure high levels of intrinsic motivation.

A key aspect of Bruner's view on instruction is discovery learning. He favors discovery learning because he believes this results in more learning how to learn and more problem solving, which are the major outcomes schools should seek according to Bruner. Another advantage of discovery learning is that it produces higher levels of intrinsic motivation. By engaging students in a discovery learning environment, you come closer to ensuring that students will be inherently motivated to learn. Bruner suggest that we stay from direct instruction, that we avoid lecturing, and instead place students in a discovery learning environment working on problems that interest them. p

Gagne bases his view of motivation on the concept of competence. He believes that we all seek to become more capable, so in a sense learning becomes its own reward. Because of his early behavioral roots, Gagne sees a role for reinforcement in promoting motivation.

To increase a student's level of motivation, Gagne would appeal to that student's sense of becoming more capable following instruction. In a sense, this is similar to giving the student the objectives for a lesson and point out explicitly what the student will be able to do when he or she completes the lesson. Gagne would also appeal more broadly to the sense of success and its benefits that will follow to establish expectancy for what will happen when a student is successful in a lesson. He would also stress the practical application of what will be learned as a way to further motivate students.

You recall Gagne's 9 Instructional Events that form the basis of any lesson. The first instructional event is "gain the learner's attention". Some assume incorrectly that this is how Gagne handles motivation. This is not the case. The purpose of "gain the learner's attention" is simply to get the learner's attention so that he or she will hear and see the rest of the lesson. It is not to motivate the learner. That is a separate matter.p

Skinner was forever the behaviorist who would not speculate on any internal process because they are unobservable. So for Skinner motivation must be defined in behavioral terms, not as some internal drive or desire. Thus, Skinner does not deal with intrinsic motivation. He simply focuses on observable behavior and what increases it. You recall that for Skinner behavior that is followed by a reinforcer is increased. He has no need to talk about motivation separately. If you want a behavior to increase, make sure it is reinforced. That's the whole of the matter to him. He does not see that talking about motivation adds anything to our understanding.

Simply put, if you want to motivate students to do something, you define those specific behaviors and then provide reinforcers following the behaviors. There is nothing more to the deal in Skinner's view. p

Vygotsky believes that motivation is somewhat important for learning, but not essential. We can enhance students' motivation by selecting problems that are interesting to the students as the basis of instruction. Further, teachers can ensure the cultural relevance and appropriateness of the curriculum and instructional activities.

The zone of proximal development (ZPD) is a key concept of Vygotsky. This states that learning is optimal when students are working at those tasks in the ZPD, i.e. those tasks they can't accomplish on their own but can when working with a more knowledgeable other. Motivation is also optimal when students are working on tasks within their ZPDs. So it would be important for teachers to monitor students to ensure they are working within their ZPD as a way to promote sufficient motivation for learning. A task that is appropriately challenging will be motivating.