Motivation and Learning: It’s the type, not the quantity that counts

16 May


Learner motivation in educational settings is of particular interest to me. Currently, I’m involved with two forms of e-learning. Firstly, I’m developing stand alone e-learning modules for compliance training such as ‘Work, Health and Safety’ and ‘Bullying and Harassment’. Secondly, I facilitate units (as part of a Diploma) in a virtual learning environment (VLE); in this case I’m working with Moodle. While there are many benefits of e-learning, learner motivation is an important factor to consider as it can influence the success of the learning experience.

Both these types of learning environments produce challenges in terms of learner motivation – people are required by their organisation to complete compliance training or people may study via distance education or as part of a blended program and they may complete most, if not all, of their learning online and in isolation. So, as educators, how can we motivate our learners in these environments?

Motivation has been and continues to be a widely studied area across many of life’s domains. Motivation is the energising force that initiates and sustains behaviour and ultimately produces results. Many motivation theories focus on the amount of motivation, with a larger quantity said to result in improved outcomes. However, we should not focus on generating more motivation from our learners but instead focus on creating conditions that facilitate the internalisation of motivation from within our learners. Let me explain.

As part of my studies, I’ve come across a theory of motivation that I had not seen before (and I do like it because it makes sense and has been researched and tested many times). It’s called self-determination theory (SDT) by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan and it focuses on control versus autonomy as the differentiating factor between intrinsic motivation (engaging in activities because they are enjoyable or interesting) and various forms of extrinsic motivation (activities that lead to a separable outcome).

SDT proposes that all humans require the satisfaction of three basic psychological needs, namely:

  • Autonomy (a sense of control and freedom),
  • Competence (a sense of being able to do something i.e. being competent), and
  • Relatedness (a sense of being associated or connected to others).

Contexts that satisfy these basic needs will support people’s actions, resulting in more optimal motivation and positive outcomes. Another difference with SDT and other motivation theories is that extrinsic motivation exists as four separate constructs according to the “extent to which the motivation for behaviour emanates from one’s self”.

Self-Det Theory

As can be seen in the diagram (from left to right), the types of motivation along the continuum relate to increasing levels of internalisation and regulation. Greater internalisation “is critical for effective psychological and academic functioning among students at all education levels”. So, if we can use strategies to support autonomy, competence and relatedness needs we can assist learners to internalise their motivation.

So what do these support strategies look like in practice?

In my experience and from what I’ve found from reading about motivation and learning (gamification seems to be popular at the moment), we should:

  • Give learners some level of control as they work through the module or course
  • Provide regular, meaningful feedback throughout the learning experience
  • Incorporate social elements
  • Provide opportunities for collaboration between learners
  • Keep the stakes low and allow learners to practice
  • Allow learners to make meaningful choices and pursue challenging goals

What else can we do to increase the internalisation of learner motivation? What do you do?


Deci, E. L. & Ryan, R. M. (2008) Facilitating optimal motivation and psychological well-being across life’s domains. Canadian Psychology. 49 (1), 14-23.

 Ryan, R. M. & Deci, E. L. (2000) Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology. 25, 54-67.

Also, check out this website for more info on self-determination:


Posted by on May 16, 2013 in Motivation


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

11 responses to “Motivation and Learning: It’s the type, not the quantity that counts

  1. Tanya Lau

    May 16, 2013 at 1:23 pm

    I love self determination theory too Matt! Such an elegant, simple and – as you’ve said – well tested theory of motivation. We covered it in the gamification MOOC that I did recently – in the context of supporting the development of intrinsic motivation and sustaining behaviour change. It made a lot of sense!

    • learningsnippets

      May 16, 2013 at 10:18 pm

      Thanks Tanya, as far as theories go it really does make sense. I’d be interested to hear more about the MOOC you participated in.

  2. Tanya Lau

    May 17, 2013 at 11:05 pm

    I think you’d really like the Gamification MOOC! Happy to tell you more about it…maybe I can write a blog post about it ; )

    • learningsnippets

      May 18, 2013 at 12:31 am

      That’s a great idea! I don’t really know too much about MOOCs and it would be good to hear about it from the perspective of someone who is participating in one.

  3. Zharif Zahri

    June 11, 2013 at 3:33 am


    Greetings from HR REPUBLIC

    We are interested in re-posting this particular post in our e-magazine called Guild of HR e-MAG. I’m writing to seek your permission to do so. Kindly let me know your thought on this

    Thank you

    • learningsnippets

      June 11, 2013 at 4:46 am

      Hi there, thank-you for your interest and message. I’m happy for you to re-post in your e-MAG. If you could pass along any feedback to me, that would be great.


      • Zharif Zahri

        June 12, 2013 at 1:00 am

        Hi Matt,

        Thank you for your prompt reply and we are very grateful to have your permission in re-posting the article. As a contributing writer, we would like to have your photo (high resolution) and a short profile of you (around 100 words) to be inserted together with the post. We will also send you a copy of the eMAG once completed.

        Kindly send the mentioned materials to my email and you can always contact me if there any further enquiries

        Thank you again Matt

      • learningsnippets

        June 12, 2013 at 3:47 am

        Thank-you Zharif, I’ve e-mailed the information to you.


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