Motivation from Behaviorism, Cognitivism and ...

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Motivation from Behavioral, Cognitive and Constructivist Perspectives

and Its Application in Instructional Design

Sha Yang

Purdue University


Motivation is a significant issue in education. It plays different roles in learning in behaviorism, cognitivism and constructivism. As the trend of learning theory moves from research on learners’ observable behaviors to learners’ thinking process and then to learners’ own construction of knowledge, motivation plays an increasing important role. This paper presents three positions on motivation for learning (behavioral, cognitive and constructivist), and then examines how to use rewards effectively in promoting motivation from behavioral perspective and which perspective of motivation better facilitates learning dull tasks and learning in general. Finally, this paper explores three ways of reinforcing intrinsic motivation that can be applied in instructional design: giving reward appropriately, creating a motivating environment and scaffolding less efficient learners.

Keywords: motivation, behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism, application

Motivation from Behavioral, Cognitive and Constructivist Perspectives

and Its Application in Instructional Design

Motivation has different roles in behaviorism, cognitivism and constructivism. In psychology, motivation is categorized into intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation. Behaviorists believe that people’s operant behaviors can be changed by external conditioning. Whether or not people have interest in learning tasks is unknown, but their motivation for behavior reoccurrence is enhanced by external factors. As cognitivism replaced the dominant position of behaviorism in the 1960s and 1970s, learners’ motivation is closely associated with their cognitive processes rather than external conditioning, and intrinsic motivation explains learners’ actions. Later in constructivism, intrinsic motivation displays more significant role than ever and constructivist learning activities are designed to promote intrinsic motivation as well as facilitate learning. Above all, intrinsic motivation for learning is valued most by educators.

There is a rich body of literature review of motivation for learning from psychological perspective, and there is also literature review of motivation reinforcement in education, but few articles discuss motivation and its application combining the perspectives of behaviorism, cognitivism and constructivism. This paper examines three perspectives of motivation for learning, and then explores the role of rewards in promoting motivation and which perspective of motivation is more useful in acquisition of dull tasks and learning in general. Finally, this paper discusses three measures of reinforcing intrinsic motivation in learning.

Motivation from Behavioral Perspective

Behaviorism studies observable behaviors rather than unobservable ones. In radical behaviorism, whether or not a person is intrinsically motivated to finish a task is not concerned. Rather, it emphasizes that a person’s desired behaviors can be reinforced by external factors such as reward, something more motivating or something he/she wants to avoid. Williams (1999) holds that in radical behaviorism, consequences are considered to affect behavior more than antecedent do. He (1999) further explains that “[s]ome consequences are natural outcomes of one’s actions… Other consequences, such as praise, privileges, and tangible payoffs, are not naturally linked to student learning” (p.53). Behaviorism suggests that in some situations, some extrinsic consequences can promote intrinsic interest in academic tasks but in other situations weaken intrinsic interest. Keller indicates that “even when people are intrinsically motivated to learn the material, there are likely to be benefits from extrinsic forms of recognition” (as cited in Driscoll, 2005, p.325). Generally, when intrinsic interest in an activity is low, unnatural extrinsic rewards are most helpful, whereas extrinsic rewards are most harmful when intrinsic interest in an activity is high (Lepper, Keavney & Drake, 1996, Williams, 1999).

Motivation from Cognitive Perspective

Since cognitivism emphasizes learners’ thinking processes, motivation is perceived to come from learners’ cognitive activities. William (1999) points out that cognitivists recognize that environment only has moderate impact on learning. What really explain a student’s learning are psychological states or traits that facilitate or inhibit learning. One of the most common internal factors that inhibit learning is low motivation. According to Bandura, much of classroom motivation research relates to social cognitive theory that considers students’ beliefs mediate efforts and cognition (as cited in Hickey, 1997, p.179). That is to say, the learner’s motives affect the amount of efforts and application of one’s abilities, skills and knowledge. Hickey (1997) proposes that research has shown that “motivational factors such as goal orientation, self-efficacy, and interest had a fundamental role in cognitive processing…” (p.177). He (1997) continues to explain that in social cognitive models of motivation, individuals’ effort at an activity results from their expectancies for success and their motives for successful consequences. This idea is consistent with Keller’s model of motivation, performance and instructional influence (as cited in Driscoll, 2005, p.333). However, learners’ motivation should not be isolated from the learning context. Many contemporary theorists propose that cognitive activity is “context bound” so that the learners’ cognitive ability, affective state, the learning activity and the context should be considered as a whole (Hickey, 1997, p.178).

Motivation from Constructivist Perspective

As the cognitive perspective shifts to constructivist perspective, there is more emphasis on students’ intrinsic motivation. According to Chaile (2008), “from the constructivist perspective, children do not learn through transmission of knowledge and information, nor are they motivated through extrinsic means such as reinforcements and rewards” (p.5). Scaffolding in constructivist teaching helps increase learners’ motivation by providing them with practical goals and new skills as well as building their confidence (Collins, Brown, & Newman, 1989). By contrast, if the learners receive minimal guide in their inquiry, their confusion and frustration outweigh their increased motivation (Linn, 1986).

General Discussion

Driscoll (2005) comments that “reward can mean a variety of different things, and each meaning can have different motivation-and learning-consequences” (p.311). Even from behaviorist perspective, reward does not work all the time. Deci finds that rewards given in a controlling manner reduce the learners’ natural interest in the learning task (as cited in Driscoll, 2005, p.311). Deci, Koestner and Ryan (2001) argue that tangible rewards damage intrinsic motivation, especially that of school-aged children, while verbal rewards reinforce intrinsic motivation in general, but if they are controlling, they weaken intrinsic motivation. Furthermore, college students are more easily motivated by verbal rewards than children. Additionally, Deci argues that rewarding learners for finishing an easy task seems to suggest that the learners are not capable (as cited in Driscoll, 2005, p.311). Besides undermining self-efficacy, giving rewards easily may also inhibit the learner from challenging themselves.

Which perspective of motivation works for learning dull tasks? Driscoll (2005) points out that when learning tasks are boring or their value is not recognized by the learners, rewards can be very useful. Nevertheless, from constructivist perspective, rewards are not the best solution in this situation. Rather, to try to arouse learners’ intrinsic motivation is the solution. Deci, Koestner and Ryan (2001) hold that reward neither weakens nor enhances people’s intrinsic motivation for dull tasks. The solution would be to enable learners to understand the tasks’ relevance to themselves and to build their willingness of self-regulation so that they feel motivated to perform the tasks. However, if the boring task is of little importance to the learners, rewards are helpful; if the boring task is important to learners’ knowledge structure, intrinsic motivation is essential.

Which perspective of motivation for learning is valued most by educators? According to Deci, Koestner and Ryan (2001), research shows that “rather than focusing on rewards for motivating students’ learning, it is important to focus more on how to facilitate intrinsic motivation” (p.15). They (2001) gave examples like beginning from students’ perspectives, designing more interesting activities, offering more options and making the tasks “optimally challenging” (p.15). Additionally, learning-oriented heterogeneous peer composition enables students to closely connect their goal orientation with their problem-solving skills development, and thus have high motivated to complete the task. “Students in the learning-oriented context had significantly higher intrinsic motivation than those in the performance-oriented context” (Song & Grabowski, 2006, p.445). Students in the heterogeneous peer group show better problem-solving skills than those in the homogeneous peer groups. Relatively more advanced learners can process information deeply when scaffolding their peers, whereas the less advanced learners can learn from the more efficient learners (Song & Grabowski, 2006).


Giving Reward Appropriately

An instructor designer can arrange more verbal rewards than tangible rewards either to children or adults. Verbal rewards are especially useful for adults. Additionally, compliments involving personal feelings should be avoided as much as possible. For example, in Responsive Classroom system which focuses on Community, Assertion, Responsibility, Empathy, and Self-Control, instead of saying “Ann, I like the way you solve this problem”, a more appropriate compliment would be “Ann, the problem is solved with accuracy and efficiency, can you solve another one?” This helps reinforce desired behaviors of children without involving the instructor’s personal opinions (Dana, 2011). Additionally, since rewards for easy tasks may hurt learners’ self-efficacy, such rewards should be used carefully either in classroom teaching or computer-based instruction.

Creating a Motivating Environment

Since a motivating learning environment is closely associated with constructivism, instructional designers could refer to the constructivist conditions for learning. Those conditions are: complex and relevant learning environment, social negotiation, multiple perspectives and multiple modes of learning, ownership in learning and self-awareness of knowledge construction. Motivation can be improved by multiple forms of teaching in the classroom. For instance, a classroom can employ meaningful and different tasks, decision making activities, cooperative learning activities as well as highlight the skills and knowledge of those activities (Blumenfeld, 1991).

Scaffolding Less Efficient Learners

Scaffolding from instructors or more advanced learners is helpful in promoting students’ motivation. Greenfield proposes that an instructor should neither give biased information nor provide specific steps towards the learning goal. Instead, the instructor should guide learners to bridge their existing knowledge and the desired knowledge. Guidance would be unnecessary if learners no longer need help in finishing the same tasks (as cited in Driscoll, 2005, pp.257-258). In group work, the instructor can arrange learners with different levels in one group and emphasize learning process more than learning performance so that the less efficient learners could benefit from more advanced learners and thus become more motivated.


From behaviorism to cognitivism to constructivism, the approach of promoting motivation shifts from external stimulus to internal occurrence. Learners’ intrinsic motivation in learning tasks is not paid attention to until cognitivism, which perceives motivation to have heavy impact on learners’ efforts and their cognitive activities. Constructivists hold that learners’ intrinsic motivation plays a fundamental role in learning, and constructivist learning activities and intrinsic motivation reciprocate each other. Although intrinsic motivation in learning is valued most by educators, reward can still be useful in facilitate learning if applied in an appropriate way. Finally, this paper provides three ways of enhancing motivation in instructional design.


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