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Learning motivation: importance, key theories & more

• 10 min read

Learning motivation


Motivation; it’s what drives us to take certain actions or move towards a goal.

It’s also a somewhat mysterious force. What pushes some people to run an ultramarathon, while others can’t seem to ever get off the couch?

Theorists and researchers in psychology have been trying to answer these questions for a long time.

The result is a set of theories that try to explain how and why people are motivated.

These theories also apply to educational psychology. Educators and learning experience designers can use them to create learning environments that increase student motivation.

In this guide, you’ll learn why motivation is important for academic achievement, examine leading theories on motivation, and explore the role of learning technologies.

You’ll also discover some actionable tips to motivate students, learners, and employees.

We hope that will motivate you enough to read this article. So without further ado, let’s get started!

Why is learning motivation important?

Learning motivation is important because it affects how students learn. More motivated people will push themselves to complete challenging tasks.

Learners with strong intrinsic motivation will also reflect deeper on the learning materials and won’t accept the easiest answers.

Conversely, those with a purely extrinsic motivation (to simply pass the course and move on) will have low interest and lower knowledge retention.

Finding ways to increase student motivation in a learning environment can help you:

  • Change learner behavior
  • Develop student competencies
  • Spark curiosity
  • Set better learning goals
  • Increase student engagement

Promoting motivation also has beneficial effects on learners.

It fosters critical thinking

Critical thinking is the ability to analyze and evaluate information to form well-reasoned conclusions and judgments. Critical thinking plays an important role in comprehension and knowledge retention.

Learners who are intrinsically motivated and interested in the subject matter will ask themselves (and the instructor!) interesting and well-thought questions that relate the material to real-world situations.

Because they are motivated to think longer and harder about such questions, these students will also retain more knowledge.

Intrinsically motivated learners want to understand the relatedness of different subjects. This interest drives them to ask questions and examine the information from more than one perspective.

Therefore, critical thinking leads to better academic performance and problem-solving.

It encourages creativity

Motivation encourages learners to be creative. Whether they’re college students or employees in corporate training, a high level of motivation gives learners the self-confidence to explore new ideas, take risks, and put in the hard work.

These are the key components that enable creativity. Motivated learners will gladly engage in learning activities such as brainstorming and experimentation, and not just because they’re required to do it as part of the course plan.

It promotes self-assurance

Motivation enhances an individual’s sense of self-efficacy, which is their belief that they possess the capacity to act in ways necessary to achieve a goal.

People with high self-efficacy have higher self-esteem, so they can bounce back after disappointments and setbacks.

For instance, a learner with high self-efficacy won’t be as discouraged by a low test score or harsh criticism from an instructor or peer. Since they’re more likely to have a growth mindset, they’ll see setbacks as challenges to overcome rather than problems that threaten their feeling of self-assurance.

So far, we’ve only mentioned intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, but there are several other ways to look at the issue. We’ll explain them in the next section.

4 theories of motivation

Motivation is a critical force that helps us get things done, whether it’s getting our steps in or achieving academic success.

Education research has long dealt with the subject, examining how it works in real-life situations and what interventions educators can implement to boost student motivation.

Theories of motivation borrow from a variety of disciplines, including pedagogy and social psychology.

While these four ways to talk about motivation differ, they all present useful insights you can incorporate into your learning and development strategy.

Let’s take a closer look at each.

Theory #1: Intrinsic vs. extrinsic

The distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is one of the most basic ways to approach the issue. It’s used in many theories of motivation, such as the self-determination theory.

Intrinsic or internal motivation refers to being motivated to do something – like dancing or reading a book – by the pure joy of doing it.

This kind of motivation is admittedly rare in the context of education and even more so when talking about things like compliance training.

Most often, learners have extrinsic motivations for learning. And while it might sound like this type of motivation is always inferior, that’s not the case.

There are positive and negative types of extrinsic motivation. For instance, a learner can be motivated by fear of failure, or a high school student might fear punishment from their parents. Another learner might have extrinsic motivation because they realize learning is important to achieve their career goals.

Both have extrinsic motivation, but the second learner is more likely to show creativity, independent learning, and critical thinking because they understand the value of external rewards.

This kind of motivation is also easier to sustain long-term because it doesn’t require the educator to constantly dole out extrinsic rewards and punishments.

Over time, positive extrinsic motivation can become intrinsic motivation. For example, a student can be motivated to learn computer science because of the possibility of a lucrative IT career. But as they improve their coding skills, they begin to enjoy the learning process. In turn, this motivates them intrinsically.

Theory #2: Achievement goal theory

According to achievement goal theory, motivation can be linked to an individual’s goal orientation.

As Science Direct explains, “When performing achievement-related tasks, individuals can fluctuate in their state of involvement directed toward task or ego goals.”

Ego goals (or performance goals) are aimed at satisfying one’s ego. It’s the desire to be recognized as smart, knowledgeable, and superior. That’s something to consider when implementing social learning methods.

Task goals, or mastery goals, are motivated by the desire to master a certain skill or knowledge.

Different learners can have these two goal orientations in different amounts. A person can have high performance and high mastery orientation or any other combination.

Learners exhibiting a strong mastery goal orientation will tend only to submit a project when they’re fully satisfied with it and not when they fulfill the minimum requirements.

If we relate this theory with the previous one, mastery orientation fits more with intrinsic while performance goals are more akin to extrinsic motivation.

Theory #3: Flow theory

As a motivation theory, flow was introduced in 1970 by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He observed people who do activities without many external rewards, such as recreational athletes and artists.

Surprisingly, their enjoyment didn’t come from relaxing or a stress-free life, but from being fully absorbed during intense tasks.

Flow is a psychological state in which an individual is purely intrinsically motivated. The individual loses perception of time and focuses solely on the task at hand.

If you’ve ever played Tetris or a competitive sport, you’re familiar with this feeling. Self-consciousness falls away in this state, as does self-concept worries about how we look to others.

During any learning experience, a learner can feel many different emotions: wonder, worry, confusion, helplessness, joy, pride, and others. But of all the emotional states, flow is the most conducive to learning.

Nevertheless, flow is a very elusive state that’s hard to get into but easy to fall out of. The best predictor of flow is when a task is challenging but not too difficult. It’s the classic Goldilocks scenario: if a task is too hard, it will frustrate learners, but if it’s too easy, it will bore them.

There are significant implications here for any professional development program – learning experience designers need to balance the challenge of the material to allow learners to enter the flow state.

Theory #4: Expectancy value theory

Psychologists Jacquelynne Eccles and Allan Wigfield developed the expectancy value theory to explain how motivation is connected to two main components: expectations for success and subjective task value.

According to this theory, the way a learner perceives the expectations and values of a task influences how they approach it.

A student’s effort, the level of challenge they choose, and their performance will follow from their expectations of success or failure. In other words, students who expect to fail are more likely to fail.

A learner’s belief about their self-efficacy applies here, as well as their idea of how hard a task will be.

The other component, subjective task value, also influences performance and effort. Every student has their own beliefs about how valuable mastery of a certain skill is. For instance, one employee might think that soft skills training is very useful, while another might believe it’s a waste of time.

All these perceptions are influenced by a range of factors, from personal beliefs to cultural attitudes and socialization.

These days, a big portion of learning happens online through learning platforms. Do these platforms play a role in student motivation? We’ll address that in the next section.

Technology in learning motivation

E-learning has become a force to be reckoned with. Pretty much every organization offers online training in some capacity – from employee onboarding to partner training.

But can you use your learning management system to boost learner motivation?

The answer is yes if you take advantage of engagement-boosting LMS features.

As we mentioned above, extrinsic motivation matters. It’s highly unlikely that you can foster intrinsic motivation for topics like compliance training or knowledge of your employee handbook.

In general, intrinsic motivation is too personal for you to be able to affect it meaningfully.

However, you can use extrinsic motivation and rewards to make learning fun and engaging.

One of the best ways to do this is gamification. Achievement motivation can happen when learners earn badges for completing tasks or participate in leaderboards. Plus, it’s a great way to hit on ego motivation.

Remember, learners’ expectations about task difficulty affect their motivation. So, prioritize presenting your content clearly and use personalized learning pathways to guide learners and avoid steep increases in difficulty.

You can also use mobile learning to help learners get in a flow state. It may be easier for many to achieve this state at home with a mobile device than sitting at their desk in a busy office.

The right learning technology can help motivation. But ultimately, the quality of your learning content and trainers will have the most impact.

With that in mind, we share our top motivation tips in the next section.

5 tips on how to motivate learners

Now it’s time to move from theoretical to practical application.

How can you motivate online learners? We’re glad you asked, because we have some tips for you.

Tip #1: Encourage social interaction

In this influential social learning theory, psychologist Albert Bandura described how crucial social interaction is for learning. As human beings, we learn a lot through the cognitive processing of the behavior and reactions of other people.

Your training programs should leverage this. An LMS with social learning features like Docebo is just what you need.

Using these features, you can let your learners communicate in a style they’re already familiar with through social networks. Tools like chat and discussion forums allow learners to ask questions and share tips and interesting content related to the subject matter.

You can even go a step further by starting virtual Q&A sessions with subject matter experts (SMEs) in discussion forums.

Taking advantage of social learning fosters a culture of learning while making online learners feel less isolated and more connected. As a result, this increases engagement and motivation and shows you care about your learners’ well-being.

Tip #2: Reward growth

According to American psychologist and researcher Carol Dweck, a growth mindset is a belief system that emphasizes the potential for personal development and learning through effort and resilience.

A growth mindset is not something you can build overnight. You need to create a system that rewards learners when they display a growth mindset.

That means more than just giving out rewards when learners meet the minimum objectives or employees meet KPIs. It’s also about rewarding those who are committed to continuous learning and improvement.

Pull LMS reports to discover which employees have completed the most optional training courses or scored highest on specific modules. Then, reward them.

These rewards could be anything from a shoutout on your corporate comms tool to a gift card to a free vacation day. What matters is publically recognizing employees who exhibit the behaviors you’re trying to encourage.

That’s a great way to add some extrinsic motivation for learners to engage and grow.

Tip #3: Improve learner engagement

Motivation and engagement aren’t the same, but they do go hand in hand. Think about it, would you feel motivated to learn if the course was unengaging and boring?

Of course not. So, give your learners a chance to get motivated by engaging them first.

Some things you can do include:

  • Setting clear learning goals: it’s hard for learners to be engaged if they don’t understand why they’re learning something, so ensure the desired learning outcomes are clear.
  • Making learning convenient: mobile learning is your friend here as you want to reduce all barriers to and open access to the learning content as much as possible.
  • Offering personalized learning: tailored learning paths that align with learners’ needs and preferences increase engagement and motivation.
  • Gamification: use a modern LMS like Docebo with gamification features as they add virtual rewards that motivate learners to keep learning.

Generally speaking, engagement comes before motivation. So prioritize creating learning activities that resonate with learners.

Tip #4: Take learner feedback into account

Do you want to gauge if your learners find the online courses engaging and motivating? Ask them.

With top LMSs like Docebo, you can include an anonymous survey at the end of each course to get honest feedback from learners.

To go a step further, make it clear to your learners that they can approach the training teams with any questions, concerns, or general feedback about the learning process.

Setting up a communication channel in your LMS will streamline this process and create a clear and simple way for learners to seek support.

This will especially help adult learners who want to be treated as equals and feel a sense of autonomy.

Tip #5: Conduct performance reviews

Regular performance reviews allow you to assess an employee’s quality of work and give feedback on areas they can improve.

If handled properly, these reviews can motivate employees to learn new skills to perform their jobs better.

Providing training opportunities and rewarding positive changes are both essential when motivating learners.

The goal of a performance review shouldn’t be to scare people but to give them pointers and feedback that will help them grow as professionals.

Now Over to You

Motivation is a key factor in learners’ success. Unmotivated learners won’t connect with the material or see the value of what you’re teaching them.

To motivate students, you need engaging learning content and talented trainers. You also need the right e-learning tools.

With a fully-featured LMS like Docebo, you’ll have access to engagement features such as mobile learning and gamification to create a convenient and fun learning environment.

Plus, you can deliver diverse interactive training content, support social learning, and closely monitor learners’ motivation through actionable data. The results? Engaged, motivated, and autonomous learners.

Ready to see it all in action? Schedule a demo today to chat with our experts about learning motivation.