Q: We have heard the term ‘motivation’ a lot in laymen settings, how do educational psychologists understand this term in the context of learning?

The studying of motivation has a long history in psychology, and it is generally agreed that motivation is a theoretical construct that can be used to explain such things as the initiation, direction, intensity, persistence, and quality of goal-directed behavior (Brophy, 2004; Maehr & Meyer, 1997).

This contemporary definition stems from a core classic view of what constitute motivation (Eccles, 1983), which is called the ‘expectancy and value’ model. It suggests that people will only be motivated when both of the following conditions are fulfilled:

  1. One expects to be able to perform the task successfully (expectancy component)
  2. One sees importance and relevance in engaging in the task (value component)

Q: What’s the implication of classroom teaching after knowing this model?

From our laymen understanding, it seems that we have placed much emphasis on the value component in explaining students’ motivation (e.g. they are not interested, they can’t see the relevance…), but we may have overlooked the importance of the expectancy component. It is key that students have to feel BOTH capable and interested in order to be motivated.

Much effort has been made to enhance student’s felt relevance and interest in learning (such as the use of cases, video-clips, and discussions), however, if we know it is both expectancy and value that matter to foster motivation, what should be done in relation to the expectancy component? The following are some general strategies we can start with:

  • Design learning and assessment tasks within students’ capacity range, so that students are likely to think that they are capable of overcoming the challenge and at the same time not be bored
  • Encourage students to set specific, reasonable, and attainable goals
  • Provide models of success (your think-aloud while solving problem, or peer who has successfully complete the task to share experience) to heighten a sense of expectancy
  • Provide scaffolds (questions, cues, feedback) for students to complete a task effectively
  • Making healthy attribution statements to foster sense of expectancy

Q: Do our students really consider the importance of expectancy in learning? Any real examples?

The following are two excerpts drawn from focus group interviews with associate degree students, examining their motivation level during study in relation to articulation opportunities. These two excerpts elucidate the importance of expectancy very vividly, which we tend to overlook.

  • “I get a little bit discouraged and not as motivated as before because I can see that the chance <to get into university> is rare…for those who compete with me are really good…the competition is too fierce.” (Arts Students Yr.1 , Associate Degree Students, 2003)
  • “There seems to be a vicious cycle. Some of my classmates tried to work hard at the very beginning. But when they know that the chance to get an articulation opportunity is slim, they think it’s a waste of time, or they are discontented and discouraged, so they slack off, and play during class time, chat…and they skipped lectures…because of these [behavior] the chance [of articulating to a degree programme is even slimmer…then they become more de-motivated…” (Science Students, Yr.1, Associate Degree Students, 2003)


Further Reading

  • Brophy, J. (2004) Motivating Students to Learn, 2nd Edition. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. London
  • Eccles, J. (1983). Expectancies, values and academic behaviors. In J.T. Spence (Ed.), Achievement and achievement motives (pp. 75-146). San Francisco: Freeman.
  • Maehr. M., & Meyer, H. (1997). Understanding motivation and schooling: Where we’ve been, where we are, and where we need to go. Educational Psychology Review, 9, 371-409.