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Affective factors (long-term emotional states and disposition) such as motivation can have a significant impact on learning. These factors not only affect how well one can concentrate, process information, and retain information, but can also lead students to use effective or ineffective study habits. Psychologists often describe students’ motivation in terms of dimensions like these:

  • intrinsic (or internal) cf. extrinsic (or external) motivation
  • learning cf. performance motivation

Many psychologists focus on the intrinsic / extrinsic distinction today, while some educational psychologists used the classic learning / performance motivation distinction. These two actually overlap with and correlate with each other rather well, and in this article, we'll focus on the intrinsic / extrinsic categories.

Intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation
Intrinsic (internal) Self-motivated, motivated by personal or intellectual interest
Extrinsic (external, pragmatic) Motivated by external factors, e.g., reward-driven (grades, test scores, admission to a good school or program, job placement, financial rewards...)

The intrinsic and learning orientations often correlate with each other; and likewise, the extrinsic with the performance orientation.

Learning vs. performance motivation
Learning Motivated by desire to learn, gain understanding, and gain mastery of contents
Performance Motivated by desire for positive evaluations (e.g., scores, grades), and avoiding negative evaluations / bad grades

1 Basic types of motivation

There are healthy and unhealthy forms of motivation, and psychologists typically distinguish between intrinsic (internally driven) and extrinsic (externally driven) types of motivation. The following distinctions can apply to students of all ages, workers, or anyone undertaking any kind of activity.

1.1 Intrinsic motivation

This is internal motivation, where the student has an intrinsic interest in and motivation for what s/he is studying or doing. That is, the student is internally motivated by his/her own personal goals or desires. Such motivation leads to the most successful learning; such students typically use more effective learning strategies and study habits, focus on deeper understanding of conceptual knowledge, and thus, they tend to be more successful. This can include the following subtypes (and these can overlap with each other).

  • Personal. The student takes a personal interest or pleasure in the subject.
  • Intellectual. The student derives intellectual satisfaction from the subject, and has a strong intellectual interest in the field.
  • Social. In learning a foreign language, the student has a desire to integrate socially and culturally into a different culture, have friendships in the second language, and to some degree identify with the culture and its people, and develop a second language and bicultural identity. In learning a language, this kind of motivation is a particularly strong intrinsic motivation, which can lead to the most successful language learning.

Intrinsic motivation involves successfully meeting the basic psychological needs, according to versions of motivational theory such as Self-Determination Theory (SDT).

  1. Autonomy: Learning out of a sense of personal choice and desire, and thus, learning something because one wants to do so.
  2. Growth: Successful learning leads to a sense of personal / intellectual growth, achievement, or even mastery of the material, which in turn feeds the student's sense of self-esteem.
  3. Connectedness: Learning in some way contributes to a sense of social connection, e.g., in studying and forming friendships with fellow students, or due to the potential for social connection, e.g., by learning a language to later become a part of a linguistic community. For some learners, this need may be less important.

These are described in more detail below.

1.2 Extrinsic motivation

Extrinsically motivated students are not motivated by an intrinsic interest or desire for what they study, but by external factors and pressures. Such students are motivated by goals such as getting good grades, good test scores, getting into a good school, or getting a good job. Such students typically rely on less efficient study and learning methods, such as simply memorizing material for exams, rather than seeking a deeper understanding of conceptual knowledge.

There are several types of extrinsic motivation below. The internal obligation seem somewhat like intrinsic motivation, and can lead a person to be more productive, but the person’s heart and desire are not fully committed; they are internalized, but not fully internal (i.e., not a part of the person’s deeper desires or will).

  • internal obligation motivation: the person feels like “I need to do it” or “I have to do it” - the person has internalized and feels a sense of need or obligation.
  • external obligation motivation: the person does something due to demands imposed by others or by the situation
  • performance motivation: the person wants to perform well, and at some level, this is a need to be seen by others as performing well – they seek affirmation or approval from others; thus, the focus is on external performance, not real learning or growth
  • rewards motivation: the person is expecting a reward for successful accomplishment, such as money, recognition, or good grades
  • punishment avoidance motivation: the person wants to avoid threats, pressures, or punishment for poor performance – this can be the most demotivating of all

1.3 Other types

There exist a couple of other types that have been researched much less.

In between intrinsic and extrinsic, there exists a neutral type of motivation, known as instrumental, utility, or pragmatic motivation, depending on the researcher or theory of motivation. In this utility motivation, the person finds or views something to be personally important or useful. The person does not have an intrinsic interest or desire for the skill or content itself, but finds it valuable and useful for learning or accomplishing something else. Also importantly, the person has no negative feelings toward the utility skill or instrumental skill. For example, a learner may not really like English, but does not mind using and learning it, because she really likes business, and learning about business. For this, English is extremely useful, and the person gladly indulges in reading, listening to, and using English, in order to develop her business knowledge and skills.

There are those who have lost their motivation, who have been discouraged or have given up hope of success; this state is called amotivated or demotivated.

Demotivated / amotivated * Discouraged, depressed, and/or burned out
  • Learned helplessness
  • May blame others or distrust teachers
  • Sense a lack of control

Yet another category , especially for college students, might be a “stop gap” or temporary motivation. This describes students who have not yet found their motivation or goals; they may have entered college not knowing what they want to study or why they want to study, and/or have not yet found any career or life goals. They operate under a sort of temporary, short-term motivation, which may look like the extrinsic and/or demotivated types, until they decide on their goals and gravitate toward a more coherent type of motivation.

1.4 When motivation goes awry

Negative types of motivation can lead to the following learning, social, and individual problems.

  1. Regret
  2. Loss of control
  3. Learned helplessness
  4. Rationalizing as a self-defensive strategy: In psychology, this particular kind of rationalization is known as cognitive dissonance.
  5. Writer’s block: A condition where a writer finds it impossible to start writing (an assignment, etc.) or to finish one’s writing – generally due to a psychological inhibition.
  6. Perfectionism: A very extrinsic type of motivation that is focused on rewards, avoiding punishment, and success, i.e., the appearance of achievement. Perfectionism is a personal standard or attitude that expects perfection or the best possible achievement, leading to dissatisfaction with any lesser achievement; setting unrealistic goals and regarding anything less as a failure or weakness, or feeling a sense of personal worthlessness, or feeling a lack of acceptance.
  • Motivated by a desire to prove oneself to others
  • Motivated by a desire to prove one’s self-worth to himself/herself
  • Also, social perfectionism – wanting to impose one’s standards on others, leading to impatience with others

2 Basic psychological needs

Motivation is based on certain core psychological needs that all people have. Intrinsic motivation is based on and leads to fulfillment of these needs, while extrinsic motivation entails a lack of fulfillment of such needs.

These innate psychological needs form the basis for self-motivation and personal development, which must be satisfied to develop well-being and health. These are universal to all humans, though some may be more salient than others at certain times and will be expressed differently based on time, culture or experience. These needs are universal necessities that are innate, not learned, and seen in humanity across time, gender and culture. These needs are competence, relatedness or social connectedness, and autonomy.

  1. Competence (or growth, self-development). People seek to grow, develop themselves, and experience mastery of what they are learning.
  2. Relatedness (social connectedness). People want to interact, be connected to, and form relationships with others, and they want to care for others and experience caring from others. In learning or other endeavors, people are more satisfied if the process or the end result involves or leads to deeper social connectedness.
  3. Autonomy (free will, personal desire). People want to have a sense of control over their lives, their happiness, their learning, and their activities. They want to the the agents of their own lives. Thus, they want to do things that they really desire to do, not what they have to do. Learning because they have to goes against their free will and sense of control. However, this does not mean being independent of others, since social relatedness is another component of motivation.


A number of studies have found that offering people extrinsic rewards for something that they enjoy (intrinsically motivated behavior) undermines the intrinsic motivation as they grow less interested in it. Initially intrinsically motivated behavior becomes controlled by external rewards, which undermines their autonomy. Other external factors like deadlines, which restrict and control, also decrease intrinsic motivation. Situations that give autonomy as opposed to taking it away also have a similar link to motivation. Studies have found that increasing a participant’s options and choices increases their intrinsic motivation for such activities.


Giving people unexpected positive feedback on a task increases people’s intrinsic motivation to do so, since the positive feedback fulfills people’s needs for competence. In fact, giving positive feedback on a task served only to increase people’s intrinsic motivation and decreased extrinsic motivation for the task. Negative feedback has the opposite effect (i.e., decreasing intrinsic motivation by taking away from people’s need for competence).


The need for relatedness supports intrinsic motivation as well, though for some people or some situations the social component may not be as strong.

2.1 Related personality and psychological traits

Motivation is related and correlated with the following traits.

  1. Self-concept, including self-esteem
  2. Ideal & future self (the kind of person you want to be in the future, or think you should be)
  3. Self-efficacy: One's sense of effectiveness as a learner (from experience & mastery of content; modeling – vicarious experience; social persuasion – encouragement from teachers)
  4. Emotional intelligence: Self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy, social skills; includes the ability to delay self-gratification to pursue goals, and awareness of ones’ motivation
  5. Language & cultural identity; this is particularly relevant to dealing with English as a second language (ESL or L2).

3 Study habits and learning styles

Intrinsic or learning oriented motivations are associated with better study and learning habits. Extrinsic or performance based motivations correlate with weaker study habits. Consider which categories you tend toward in your different courses or endeavors. Your motivation may be different in different subjects or courses, as well as in regard to using English.

3.1 Intrinsic or learning motivation

Self-awareness as a learner (meta-cognition) * What do I know about this subject?
  • How much time do I need to spend on this?
  • What would be good strategies or ways of learning this?
  • How can I estimate or predict the outcome of this task (how well can I expect to do)?
  • How should I revise or adapt my study procedures, strategies, or methods?
  • How can I spot an error if I make one?
  • Did I understand what I just read?

Planning & study strategies (self-regulation)

* Maintain attention during instruction and problem solving
  • Know how to adapt their approaches when not succeeding
  • Use visualization when reading and problem solving
  • Set priorities and goals
  • Take opportunities for practice, rehearsal; Mentally reviewing and rehearsing one’s comprehension, during the process of reading / studying, and afterwards
Conceptual learning * Make connections between new knowledge and previous knowledge
  • Ask themselves questions
  • Focus on the more important aspects or information of a task or text
  • Tune out or focus less on less important information
  • Recognize when a relationship or connection occurs or is implied
  • Mental rehearsal and review
  • More use of mnemonic1 techniques – less effort spent on memorization, more on conceptual learning
  • Realizes when one doesn’t see connections or understand concepts, but tries to do so
  • Deeper conceptual learning; longer retention of learning
  • Better able to manage and organize information; not overwhelmed by it
Reading, writing, presenta­tion skills * Selectively focusing more on important sections of reading materials
  • Skimming & scanning
  • Guessing meaning of new words from context (not over-reliant on dictionary lookup
  • Making intelligent guesses (inferences), using context cues for comprehension
  • Learning different styles of English usage
  • Using paraphrases in English (as a second language) when one can’t find the right expression
  • Planning out one’s reading; e.g., time required; looking in advance for connections and key points; making and refining predictions about what they are reading
  • Checking oneself for comprehension
  • Looking for concepts, connections in the process of reading
  • For major assignments, finding an appropriate, specific topic and focus (e.g., for an essay or presentation) and collecting sufficient information
  • Successful, organized approach to major assignments, e.g., by brainstorming, using graphical organizers (concept maps, diagrams, etc.), and/or outlines to generate and organize ideas


* Longer term learning goals (e.g., related to intellectual fulfillment, mastery of concepts), rather than just good grades
  • More realistic goals
  • Seek challenges and learning opportunities; more likely to take reasonable, calculated risks – taking on moderately difficult challenges
  • More persistence – less likely discouraged by setbacks, which don’t affect long-term goals or expectations for the future
Feedback, errors * Know when and where to ask for help (from teacher, tutor, counselor., etc.)
  • Seeking feedback and making good use of feedback for self-improvement
  • Using errors positively
  • Joining a study group for help
Affective aspects * Less fear of failure
  • Stronger believe in one’s abilities; more self-efficacy; greater hope of success
  • Less anxiety and dislike toward school or courses
  • Acting independently, taking charge of their own learning
  • Ambiguity tolerance – able to tolerate ambiguity or uncertainty (e.g., open-ended matters that lack clear-cut solutions, gray areas, unresolved problems), including uncertainty in learning (being patient when unable to understand something, not being frustrated by a lack of understanding, not giving up easily)
  • Sense of control over studies & outcomes – believes his/her investment of effort will pay off, leading to positive outcomes
  • Pursuit of goals is guided by a sense of self-efficacy

3.1.1 Conceptual learning

Successful learners look for the following in the information from their readings and lectures.

  • Relationships, e.g., connections between new material and previous knowledge
  • Patterns
  • Contrasts and comparisons
  • Similarities / differences – and how things are similar or different
  • Causal relationships – cause and effect, reasons
  • Hierarchies, taxonomies – organization of ideas (e.g., how data or ideas fit into larger concepts; smaller ideas organized under larger, more important ideas; remembering facts by learning them with their overarching concepts)
  • Applicability – how X might apply to Y
  • Non-applicability (and why X would not apply to Y)
  • Analyzing – breaking things into smaller, related aspects or units
  • Synthesizing – putting ideas (concepts, ideas, data, skills) together in new ways
  • Thinking out the logical implications of ideas
  • Evaluating / critiquing (e.g., critiquing the validity of an idea, the effectiveness of a program)
  • Analogies – how X is simlar to Y (as a learning aid)
  • Simplifications – e.g., simplified explanations (at least initially, when trying to understand a difficult, complex or abstract concept)

3.2 Extrinsic / performance motivation

In contrast to this is the extrinsic or performance oriented learner.

Awareness * Superficial or inconsistent self-awareness as a learner

Planning, strategies

  • Cramming1
  • Procrastination (e.g., when hindered by perfectionism)
  • For major assignments, attempting an overly general topic or focus that is not manageable
  • Collecting not enough information for an assignment
  • Collecting too much unorganized or non-relevant information
Conceptual learning * Rote2 (mechanical) memorization and rote learning
  • Focusing on memorizing facts rather than learning concepts
  • More superficial learning, and shorter retention
  • Can feel overwhelmed by amount of information; difficulty in dealing with all the information to be learned or studied
Reading, writing, presen­ta­tion skills * Overuse of dictionaries and dictionary look-up; getting stuck on every unfamiliar word and trying to look it up, rather than focusing on contents first or relying on context
  • Over-reliance on translating (between English & Korean) in reading or writing
  • Overwhelmed by volume of reading; not using reading strategies
  • More susceptible to writer’s block
Goals * Unrealistic goals (e.g., out of perfectionistic expectations, which set a person up for likely failure)
  • Or lower goals that are easier to achieve
  • Avoiding challenges or risks; prefers to take easier tasks, or easier courses
  • More easily affected by setbacks
Feedback, errors * Avoiding feedback or not acting on it; not making good use of feedback for the sake of improvement
  • Not asking for help when needed; trying to solve problems alone
Affective aspects * More fear of failure, or anxiety; Less confidence or less developed sense of self-efficacy
  • Ambiguity intolerance – impatience with ambiguous, unclear, or uncertain matters; impatient when unable to understand; more likely to become frustrated or give up
  • After failures or setbacks, tend to invest less effort
  • Lacking sense of control over studies & outcomes – pessimistic about his/her efforts, that his/her efforts may not be fruitful
  • Less stable motivation and confidence – dependent on circumstances, environment, success, or rewards
  • Rather than goals being driven by self-efficacy, one may rely on superficial motivational messages or an inaccurate estimation of one’s abilities (false confidence or false hope)
  • More likely to fall into learned helplessness; More susceptible to burnout

3.3 Demotivated / amotivated

Taking these qualities to an extreme is the student who has given up.

* Anxiety, lack of confidence; May be discouraged, depressed, and/or burned out
  • Learned helplessness; Sense a lack of control
  • May blame others or distrust teachers
  • Use avoidance and defensive strategies to avoid challenges, difficult tasks, potential risks, and failures
  • May set himself / herself up for failure – taking on an unrealistically hard tasks where no one would blame them for failing
  • Avoiding and misinterpreting feedback, especially negative feedback; e.g., blames the teacher; blames himself/herself (in an unhealthy way)
  • Don’t know how to interpret or use negative feedback – believe their grades are arbitrary
  • Believe the teacher dislikes him/her; complains of arbitrary grading or unfair “unwritten” grading policies
  • Not seeking help (due to distrust, defensiveness, or hopelessness)
  • Don’t understand their problems or what they need to overcome
  • Don’t see relationship between amount of work and their (lack of) results or achievement

3.4 Suggestions for cultivating motivation

Sense of competence or growth
  • provide encouragement, praise
  • provide specific, helpful feedback
Sense of autonomy
  • build / spark curiosity
  • nurture any existing motivation
  • use informational language, not controlling language
  • communicate rationale for learning, activities, rules, etc.
  • if possible, provide options, choices
Sense of connectedness
  • acknowledge and accept their negative emotions
  • positive interaction
  • positive feedback
  • be warm, friendly, affirming, positive (parents: unconditional love)
  • make learning enjoyable
  • teach your kids at home instead of sending them to hagwons

4 See also