Motivational Learning

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When students like Jenny experience a decline in motivation and enthusiasm for learning, the cognitive approach to psychology and education can help identify the origins of the problem and suggest solutions. Jenny’s conversation with her teacher after her last project reveals that she is likely experiencing a decline in self-efficacy. This condition may stem from an increased need for autonomy and the adoption of an entity theory of intellect. Addressing these needs will likely improve her motivation and performance.

Analysis of Possible Motivational States

Jenny’s detached attitude and the declining quality of her work show a lack of attention in class and toward her homework. Since Jenny performed well in previous years, it is safe to conclude that her lack of attentiveness is a motivational problem rather than an absence of ability. When Jenny told her teacher that she felt her schoolwork was too difficult, she displayed a marked decline in self-efficacy and self-determination, the belief that she can achieve her future goals. “Self-efficacy beliefs are predictive of two measures of students’ effort: rate of performance and expenditure of energy” (Zimmerman, 2000, p. 86). Since Jenny’s last project was late and indicated a lack of effort, a lack of self-efficacy is strongly indicated. Self-efficacy is not a constant; if Jenny had received negative feedback or taken up the habit of making negative self-statements, her sense of efficacy or future ability might have suffered as a result. (Bruning, Schraw, Norby, & Roning, 2010, Chapter 6) When presented with classwork at her new grade level, Jenny might have felt a decline in her belief that she was up to the task. This cycle would only have been reinforced by doing poorly on her first assignment.

Jenny’s recent struggles with self-belief might also be partially attributable to a decreased feeling of autonomy. Studies have shown that feelings of control and independence motivate students to take on challenging and difficult tasks, and to persist in their efforts (Bruning et al., 2010, Chapter 6). Simply wanting to do well is not always enough to motivate successful learning practices. “Goals do not automatically activate the self-influences that govern motivation and action.” (Bandura, 2001, p. 8). Jenny’s entry into adolescence would explain her frustration with a tightly controlled academic environment.

Students in Jenny’s situation are often found to hold the belief that intelligence can neither grow nor improve and that the purpose of learning is merely to improve academic results. According to researchers Dweck and Leggett, such beliefs, or “entity theories” can have negative effects on self-efficacy, and lead students to set performance goals, rather than learning goals (Bruning et al., 2010, Chapter 7). It is clear from Jenny’s statement about the further effort being futile, that she does not believe she can improve her intellectual capacity with effort and time. This indicates that a harmful performance-oriented entity theory, and not the more favorable learning behavior theory, may have taken root.

Practical Advice

Jenny would benefit greatly from an increase in self-efficacy. “…student self-efficacy is strongly related to critical classroom variables such as task engagement, persistence, strategy use, help-seeking, and task performance.” (Bruning et al., 2010, p. 110). Her instructors should consider these factors when considering a strategy for improvement.

Jenny’s self-reported boredom might well be a function of her entrance into adolescence, and subsequent need for autonomy, task engagement, and the creative exploration of concepts. Studies show that young students “…exhibit a strong desire to apply themselves in intentional learning situations…where there is no external pressure to improve and no feedback or reward other than pure satisfaction…” (Bransford et al., 2000, p. 102). Jenny would benefit from an autonomy-supporting, rather than a controlling, classroom environment (Bruning et al., 2010, p. 123). Some of Jenny’s assignments could be modified to allow her to set her own goals and strategies for achieving them. Allowing students to choose from a group of assignments often helps foster a sense of autonomy and control over their work. Two other factors to consider are the difficulty of the material, and whether or not it is interesting. Jenny’s comment that the recent material was too boring and hard should perhaps be taken at face value. Overly difficult or bland work can have a negative effect on a student’s intrinsic motivation (Bruning et al., 2010, p. 124). Jenny’s teachers should consider finding material that is less difficult (but still challenging), and more engaging for students of Jenny’s age and interests.

Finally, since it seems likely that Jenny has adopted a performance-based entity theory about her intelligence, it will be important for her instructors to emphasize that learning and intelligence are incremental, rather than fixed and that the most important function of education is learning rather than performing. Students who are thus encouraged “…have learning goals: they seek challenges and show high persistence. They regard their own increasing competence as their goal.” (Bransford et al., 2000, p. 102). It will likely benefit Jenny very much to be reminded that she is capable of consistent improvement in any domain she chooses and encouraged to improve her intellect, rather than simply her grades. Moreover, Jenny’s teacher should express to her that “…mistakes are a normal (and healthy) part of learning.” (Bruning et al., 2010, p. 141). It is important to stress the positive role of failure or mistakes because Jenny’s recent assignments have been poor in quality. She should be made aware that these mistakes are not a serious reflection of her ability.


Our analysis of Jenny’s possible motivational states led us to focus on a decline in feelings of self-efficacy, which is strongly indicated by the poor quality of her last assignment. We attributed this to her entrance into adolescence, and an increased need for autonomy and task engagement. Also indicated is Jenny’s adoption of an entity theory of intelligence and learning, which led her to believe she could not improve over time. The practical advice for Jenny’s instructors is to allow her more time for autonomous assignments of medium difficulty and interesting themes. Also, it is recommended that her teachers encourage an incremental theory of intellect and learning and remind her that mistakes are healthy and acceptable.


Bandura, A. (2001). Social cognitive theory: An agentic perspective. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 1-26.

Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.). (2000). The design of learning environments. In How people learn (Expanded ed.). Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Bruning, R. H., Schraw, G. J., Norby, M. M., & Roning, R. R. (2010). Cognitive psychology and instruction (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Zimmerman, B. J. (2000). Self-efficacy. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25(1), 82-91.