Motivation in Learning and Why it Matters

by Kathleen McClaskey

Research shows that both intelligence and motivation are malleable. Helping learners understand that they can gain new skills and learning practices along with improving existing skills through effort, regardless of past achievement, increases their motivation to try. How can learners identify the new skills that they need? The practical 3-Step Empower the Learner process is a way to help the learner identify the skills they need to support learning challenges or to enhance learning strengths they may have. Read more here….

We want all learners to have agency in their learning, to self-advocate for the way they learn and above all, we want them to say: “I Believe in Myself!”

Motivation and How it Impacts Learning

Motivation is one of the 5 elements that we focused on to develop the Empower the Learner Framework. For learners to experience self-efficacy, they need to believe they have the knowledge and skills to learn. Here is a brief overview of the principles of Motivation and how we learn best.


  • find the content, outcomes, processes, and relationships associated with learning important, relevant and meaningful. (Value)
  • believe in our ability to develop skills and achieve mastery of what we are learning.(Self Efficacy)
  • perceive that we have a meaningful and sense of agency over our learning. (Sense of Control)

* The Continuum of Motivation

In 2016, I co-authored the book, How to Personalize Learning, where we devoted Chapter 3 to the 7 Continuums of Learner Agency. Motivation was one of the first elements we described in what a learner experiences as they grow and progress from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation occurs when we are motivated to perform a behavior or engage in an activity to earn a reward or avoid punishment. Intrinsic motivation involves engaging in behavior because it is personally rewarding; essentially, performing an activity for its own sake rather than the desire for some external reward. We decided to universally design this continuum so this graphic here was illustrated so that it could be used in classrooms. The table below provides what the learner is experiencing as they move from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation. An extended narrative of what a learner experiences in the Continuum of Motivation from Instrumental, Social, Achievement and Self-Actualization can be located here.  (Continuum of Motivation TM by Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClaskey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Graphic design by Sylvia Duckworth.)


InstrumentalSocialAchievementSelf Actualization
> Works towards a tangible reward
> Avoids negative consequences
> May have a fixed mindset
> Wants to be in the “in”crowd to gain social acceptance
> Seeks approval and to please teacher and/or parent
> Measures and compares performance with peers
> Desires to succeed and to meet learning goals
> Perseveres and demonstrates mastery with evidence of learning
> Develops growth mindset
> Is involved and invested in learning for the love of learning
> Derives satisfaction directly from understanding, learning a skill, attaining knowledge, creating something, or pursuing their purpose

Motivation, Engagement, and Voice

In my research over 10 years ago about motivation, I came across the research of Eric Toshalis and Michael Nakkula who published Motivation, Engagement, and Student Voice. This research became the primary resource in our work around creating learner-centered environments. Motivation is one of 3 elements that clearly supports these environments.

“Motivation, engagement, and voice are the trifecta of student-centered learning. Without motivation, there is no push to learn; without engagement there is no way to learn; and without voice, there is no authenticity in the learning.”  For learners to create new knowledge, succeed academically, and develop into healthy adults, they require each of these experiences. (Toshalis & Nakkula, 2012)

“Motivation in Learning and Why Does it Matter?” 
Motivation does not stand alone but with engagement and voice, it becomes the driver to learn.


Bray, B., & McClaskey, K. (2017). How to Personalize Learning: A Practical Guide for Getting Started and Going Deeper. Thousand Oaks: Corwin.

Toshalis, E. & Nakkula, M. J. (2012). Motivation, Engagement, and Student Voice

Transcend, Inc. Designing for Learning Primer, 2019.

*This blog includes the Continuum of Motivation chart created by Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClaskey of Personalized Learning, LLC (c) on 3/6/16 and published 3/22/16. The Continuum of Motivation is also copyrighted in our publication, How to Personalize Learning: A Practical Guide for Getting Started and Going Deeper (Corwin, 2016). For permission to adapt, distribute copies, or to use in a publication, contact Kathleen McClaskey at


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