Motivation: The Four Factors
Last updated 11-12-2015
See related Motivation Application Activity.


 I. Reward and Avoidance - Using reward-avoidance factors for classroom motivation involves applying the principles of operant conditioning, i.e. students are motivated to achieve pleasant or satisfying consequences and avoid unpleasant ones. In the textbook, this concept is referred to as "psychological hedonism," or seeking pleasure and avoiding pain (Lefrancois, p. 53, 2000). In the classroom, of course, we generally do not give reinforcers or punishments that are physically pleasurable or painful. Rather, we more often give reinforcers that are psychologically pleasurable or painful. These are called "Secondary reinforcers," meaning they are reinforcers that are learned (such as grades) as opposed to "Primary Reinforcers" that are innately rewarding (such as food or drink).   

A. When using reinforcement to promote classroom motivation, be aware of the following guidelines:

1)      Use a variety of reinforcers;

2)      Try to match reinforcers to student preferences;

3)      When verbally reinforcing, use specific praise, which involves telling the student exactly what s/he did that was worthy of praise (“I like the way you . . .”). 

4)      Try to encourage intrinsic motivation by saying things like, "You must be very proud of the hard work you did on this project.” This helps students see that their success is attributable to their effort.

5)      When teaching new behaviors, reinforce frequently.

6)      When reinforcing for persistence, gradually reduce the frequency of the reward until it is given only every so often (intermittent reinforcement). This both encourages persistence and helps to avoid overuse of reinforcement. Research has shown that behaviors which are reinforced only intermittently are much more resistant to extinction (cessation) than those which are reinforced very frequently.

B. Overusing reinforcement is a relatively common error made by novice teachers, and it can have very negative effects including satiation (the reinforcers lose their motivating capacities), feelings of being manipulated, and over-dependence on the teacher. In fact, when students are given excessive reinforcement following behaviors for which they are already intrinsically motivated, their motivation may actually decrease. The best practice is to reinforce frequently at the beginning of the year and then gradually reduce the frequency until an intermittent schedule is reached.

C. Avoidance of unpleasant or aversive consequences (such as failing or public humiliation) can be a powerful form of motivation. However, negative feelings such as dislike for the teacher, subject matter, or school in general are often associated with avoidance motives. Therefore, using rewards is typically preferable.    
D. Cooperative rewards, such as those provided as a result of cooperative learning activities, tend to increase self-esteem, enhance abilities to work cooperatively, promote acceptance of others (particularly in a diverse classroom), and yield higher achievement for tasks involving problem-solving. However, individual rewards may be better for factual knowledge and basic skills (Slavin, 1995). The various approaches to cooperative learning include Donald and Roger Johnson's Learning Together (Johnson & Johnson, 1994); Teams-Games-Tournaments, developed at John's Hopkins University (Slavin, 1995); and the Jigsaw, developed by Elliot Aranson (2000). Descriptions of these approaches are provided in Chapter Seven of Psychology for Teaching (Lefrancois, 2000).

II. Intrinsic Needs – The word intrinsic means innate or within. Therefore, intrinsic motivation comes from stimuli or drives stemming from within oneself. Such natural drives as curiosity and the need to achieve are important intrinsic needs that teachers can utilize to enhance student motivation.
A. Curiosity is an important motive in learning. Students often seek information about something simply out of “curiosity.” Therefore, teachers can increase motivation by piquing (provoking) students’ curiosity regarding a topic they are teaching. One might also think of this in terms of the equilibration process: The teacher provides a problem, demonstration, or task that confuses (disequilibrates) the student and, therefore, arouses curiosity. Since students typically find confusion unpleasant, they are naturally (intrinsically) motivated to solve the problem, complete the task, or understand the demonstration and clear up the confusion (i.e. return to a state of mental equilibrium). This process explains the basis for motivation in discovery learning/constructivism.     

B. Achievement Motivation (Need to Achieve and Need to Avoid Failure) - Everyone has a need to achieve as well as a need to avoid failure. However, the relative strength of these needs can vary greatly. Since we as teachers typically have high needs to achieve and avoid failure, particularly in regard to school learning, we sometimes assume that our students do as well. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Students may come from families or subcultures that do not value education, and these students are unlikely to have a high need to achieve in a school setting. Therefore, teachers cannot rely solely on achievement motivation to inspire all students to make their best effort. 

C. Deficiency Needs, as described by Abraham Maslow (1970), include physiological, safety, belongingness, and esteem. Humanists believe it is essential that these needs be met in order to free the student to pursue the higher-level (growth) needs involved in self-actualization, which include learning and aesthetics. Humanists, therefore, recommend that teachers make every effort to develop a classroom climate in which students feel physically and psychologically safe, accepted, and comfortable.  

D. Attribution or Locus of Control helps explain to what students attribute their successes and failures. Those with internal attribution (an internal locus of control) assume that whether they succeed or fail is up to them. If they do well on a test, for instance, they believe it is due to their preparation, effort, and ability. If students with internal attribution do poorly on a test, they assume that they did not study enough or perhaps did not study correctly. Those with external attribution (an external locus of control), on the other hand, assume that success or failure is out of their control. If they do poorly on a test, their assumption is that the test was unfair or they we poorly taught. Even if they do well on a test, those with external attribution are unlikely to take credit, instead assuming that they were lucky or that the test was easy. It should be noted that those with an internal locus of control generally have a high need to achieve while those with an external locus of control are more likely to have low achievement motivation (Lefrancois, 2000). Obviously, we would like all of our students to have internal attribution, at least in our classrooms. Research suggests that helping students understand that successes and failures are primarily a result of their personal efforts is the best way to move students toward internal attribution. Strategies to accomplish this goal include praising students for their effort, teaching them better learning strategies, and maximizing the opportunity for success (Lefrancois, 2000).

E. Arousal refers to the person’s level of alertness or attention. It is often considered an intrinsic need because learners find arousal that is too low (extreme boredom) or too high (excessive anxiety or excitement) unpleasant. Therefore, they attempt to maintain a moderate level of arousal. It is important to note that the best learning occurs with moderate arousal (Lefrancois, 1997). Excessively-high arousal levels are unlikely to occur in classroom settings (except, perhaps during exams). However, very low arousal, even to the point of inducing sleep, is all too common, particularly in primarily lecture-based (expository) classes. Suggestions for increasing student arousal are offered in Topic III, Task Factors.


III. Task Factors – These are aspects of the teaching/learning task itself, in other words, content and methodology.

A. Arousal and the Teaching/Learning Task - Though arousal is definitely an intrinsic need, it can be greatly influenced by both content and methodology. Meaningfulness, (relevance), novelty, complexity (particularly gradually increasing the complexity of the task or content), and incongruity (something that is unexpected or seems out of place) are all likely to increase, or at least not decrease, student arousal. Physical activity and variety are also very helpful in keeping students’ arousal at an appropriate level.
B. Variety in pedagogy is crucial in maintaining student motivation. No matter how skilled a teacher may be in using one teaching technique, students will eventually grow tired of it, and motivation will decrease. Additionally, the use of multiple techniques is essential in meeting the needs of students with different learning styles. Therefore, employing a variety of teaching techniques is essential in promoting student motivation.
C. Organization – Not only is being organized essential in helping students understand a lesson, but it is also important for motivation (Sass, 1989). Students often perceive disorganization as a lack of preparation. If the teacher appears unprepared, students are less likely to feel the need to prepare or work hard in class.
D. Difficulty – Students are more likely to be motivated when task difficulty level is appropriate (Sass, 1989). Obviously, students have different preferences and needs regarding difficulty, and this preference is often associated with achievement motivation (need to achieve). For instance, students with a high need to achieve typically prefer moderately difficult tasks (which combine challenge with the likelihood of success) while those with a low need to achieve tend to prefer very easy tasks (where success is quite likely) or very difficult tasks (where there is no shame in failure). Helping students with a low achievement motivation to experience academic success as well as assisting them in setting realistic learning goals may result in increased motivation. In general, providing tasks with a moderate level of difficulty is typically most appropriate for the majority of students.

E. Relevance – It is obvious that students are more likely to have high motivation when class topics have personal meaning or relevance (Sass, 1989). In fact, humanists would assert that unless content is perceived as relevant, students are unlikely to learn it at all. Teachers, of course, typically do see the relevance of the content they teach and may take for granted that students see it as well. This is not always the case, however. Therefore, it is important for teachers to assure that students do see the relevance of class topics by explaining their importance (and, therefore, relevance), connecting content to students’ lives, and using real-world examples.   

IV. Teacher Factors – These are factors directly involving the teacher’s personality and/or behavior. Obviously, this is the motivational factor over which the teacher has the most control.
A. Enthusiasm/Energy Level – Teacher enthusiasm is, perhaps, the most important personal characteristic not only in promoting student motivation, but in the overall success a person has in the teaching profession (Sass, 1989). Teachers need to model enthusiasm for and interest in the content they are teaching. After all, if a teacher does not have enthusiasm for teaching a topic, it is very unlikely that students will have enthusiasm for learning it. When teachers find it difficult to have enthusiasm about a specific topic they will be teaching, it is often helpful to choose a methodology (teaching technique) about which they can be enthusiastic.
B. Classroom Climate/Rapport – Students are more likely to be motivated in a class where they feel safe, comfortable, and valued (Sass, 1989). From the humanistic perspective, such a climate helps to meet the students’ deficiency needs (See II C above). However, regardless of one’s perspective, it seems obvious that students will have higher motivation in a setting where there is a comfortable classroom climate and a teacher who has good rapport with her/his students.
C. Teacher Expectations – It has long been known that teacher expectations can affect student motivation and learning. In a landmark study that is often referred to as “Pygmalion in the Classroom,” Rosenthal and Jacobsen (1968) convinced teachers to allow them to administer a test designed to identify “intellectual bloomers” or, in other words, students who were likely to exhibit unusual intellectual and academic gains for the remainder of the school year. The test really was not designed to measure anything of the kind. Rather, Rosenthal and Jacobsen randomly chose 20% of the students who took the test and informed the teachers that those students would be their “intellectual bloomers.”  And they were! The students Rosenthal and Jacobsen had identified not only made greater academic progress than their classmates, but even scored higher on I.Q. tests. The teachers’ high expectations became a “self-fulfilling prophecy,” and students lived up to them. Other studies have shown similar results in a variety of settings, and follow-up research has found that when teachers have higher expectations for students, they demand more from them, give them more attention, and provide them additional help. So what is the moral of this story?  One obvious implication is that teacher expectations matter and impact student motivation and achievement. Though we can’t expect all of our students to be above average achievers (in spite of what the No Child Left Behind law might suggest), we can and should at least anticipate that all students will make their best effort and make whatever progress their ability allows. If we don’t, our low expectations will become a “self-fulfilling prophesy,” and students are likely to “live down” to them!



Aranson, E. (2000). The jigsaw classroom. Wesleyan University: Social Science Network. Available at

Lefrancois, G.R. (1997). Psychology for Teaching (9th Ed.).  Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing Co.


Lefrancois, G. (2000). Psychology for teaching (10th Edition).Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Snowman, J. and Biehler, R. (2006). Psychology Applied to Teaching (11th Ed). Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Company.

Maslow, A. (1970). Motivation and personality (2nd ed.). New York: Harper and Row. 

Rosenthal, R., & Jacobson, L. (1968). Pygmalion in the classroom. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Slavin, R.E. (1995). Cooperative learning: Theory, research, and practice. (2nd ed). Boston: Allyn &bacon.


Sass, E.  (1989). Motivation in the College Classroom:  What Students Tell Us.  Teaching of Psychology, 16(2),

 pp. 86-88.


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