One of the most powerful individual factors influencing intrinsic motivation is challenge. {This is an individual factor because a person can be challenged without involving other people. Of course a challenge could involve other people, as when a person makes it a challenge to win a competition.} People pursue tasks that are challenging. Learners are challenged when they direct their activities toward personally meaningful goals in such a way that attainment of the goals is uncertain - when neither success nor failure is guaranteed. The belief that they are making acceptable progress toward a goal, along with the expected satisfaction of goal attainment, enhances self-efficacy and sustains motivation. As students work toward these goals, they are motivated to the extent that they receive feedback and feel that their eventual success will enhance their self-esteem.

The following four factors influence the contribution of challenge to motivation.


  •  Goals can be either supplied by the teacher or developed by the learners themselves. Goals can be short-term or long-term. While short-term goals may be more immediately compelling, long-range goals are often more important. An ideal motivational system involves short-term goals that lead to long-term goals.

    The most important characteristic of goals is that they must be personally meaningful. Personal relevance can be increased by (1) making clear the links between an activity and competencies or outcomes valued by the learner, (2) relating material to a fantasy or imaginary context that the learner finds emotionally appealing, or (3) eliciting interpersonal motivations such as cooperation, competition, or recognition that appeal to the learner. Note that what this paragraph really says is that we can make goals more meaningful by relating them to other motivational factors, including fantasy, control, competition, and recognition.

    Even when goals are supplied by the teacher, it is important that the learners "buy into" or internalize these goals. Although it seems obvious that it is best that students develop their own goals (and this would also contribute to control, which is another factor that contributes to intrinsic motivation), a serious problem is that students themselves may set goals that are too easy or too difficult to attain or difficult to define. A major step in promoting self-motivation (discussed later) is to help learners develop strategies for setting goals.

    Examples of ways to make a challenge more effective by focusing on goals:

    • "Here is what we plan to accomplish today (or this semester)…."

    • "This is important to study because it will help you…"


    • "Our ultimate goal is to…. In today's session we are going to…."


    • "It is important to understand this because…."



    • "You know, this isn't really quite as easy as you think it is." {Said to a person who is overconfident of success.}


    • Give the learner tasks that easy at first and gradually build to more difficult tasks. {If the person is certain he/she will fail.}


    • Give the learner a really difficult task at first and then back off and be helpful once he/she has acknowledged that maybe some effort will be required. {If the person is overconfident of success.}

    The level of certainty can also be manipulated by introducing gamelike elements such as randomness or various scorekeeping systems into the learning environment.


    • "Your score of 80% on the practice test was good. The two items you got wrong are both related to Table 5.1. If you understand that table more thoroughly, you'll do even better on the test next week."


    • Give the learner practice tests to verify his/her status after relatively short segments of study.


    • Use texts accompanied by workbooks that have practice questions.


    • Allow students to ask questions in class to verify their level of understanding. If necessary, teach them how to ask constructive questions.


  •  Self-esteem (discussed in chapter 8) is related to motivation because learners consider themselves to be good or competent to the extent that they succeed at challenges that they consider to be important.

    Examples of ways to make a challenge more effective by focusing on self-esteem:

    • "By meeting this goal, you'll be able to…."

    • "By meeting this goal, you'll overcome your problem of…."



    The completely incompetent teacher violates all the guidelines by challenging his/her students in this way: "Ninety percent of you will fail this course, because your too stupid to understand it." This teacher refrains from demonstrating to the students reasons why the information is worth knowing and does not give them opportunities to verify their degree of progress toward mastering the course objectives.

    Note that the various components of the challenge aspect of motivation may sometimes conflict with one another. For example, when performance feedback is extremely clear but negative, it may threaten the learner's self-esteem more than would vague feedback or no feedback. Also note that the way a teacher should manipulate challenge will vary considerably from one situation to another.

    It is not necessary that a learner be motivated by challenge or by any other specific factor of intrinsic motivation or that teachers deliberately apply all of the guidelines accompanying each factor. In some cases a learner is already motivated or a guideline has already been applied. For example, the optimal degree of interest and level of certainty with regard to a topic may already exist (for example, a learner may wish to learn to express her thoughts more clearly and may think she can do this if she works hard). In these instances it is not useful for the instructor to add additional uncertainty (for example, by making a game of writing). The task is already perceived as adequately challenging, and the teacher's task is to help the learner meet this challenge.

    In other instances, the degree of uncertainty that would best pose a challenge may be missing (for example, a learner may think he is already competent enough at using decimals without expending any real effort). In such cases it is important for the teacher to introduce uncertainty (for example, by presenting the lesson as a game) in order to pose a challenge and stimulate activity.

    By focusing on and clarifying these factors as necessary, teachers can make learning activities sufficiently challenging to stimulating learning.


    Review Quiz 2


    1.  True or false: In order to make goals contribute to motivation, uncertainty should be minimized.

    2. True or false: An ideal motivational system involves long-term rather than short-term goals.

    3. True or false: Performance feedback should be given frequently, in order to remind learners of their status with regard to goals.

    4. True or false: Performance feedback contributes to motivation to the extent that it questions the learner's competence with regard to instructional goals.

    5. Professor Dietrich spends ten minutes at the beginning of class convincing students that what he is going to teach them that day will be very useful to them on their jobs. With regard to challenge as a motivational factor, what is he doing?

      a. stating goals

      b. managing the level of certainty

      c. giving performance feedback

      d. appealing to the self esteem of the learner

      e. making the goals personally meaningful to the learners.



    6. Maribeth carefully examines the objectives at the beginning of each chapter of this book, because she finds that by doing so she is better able to direct her energies to master the material. With regard to challenge as a motivational factor, what is she doing?

      a. establishing goals for herself

      b. managing the level of certainty

      c. getting performance feedback

      d. appealing to her self esteem

      e. making the goals personally meaningful to herself

    7. Miss Decker has several students in her class who think the unit on multiplying fractions will be too difficult for them. She points out that they already know a great deal about fractions and convinces them that they have a good chance of doing very well on the unit test. With regard to challenge as a motivational factor, what is she doing?

      a. stating goals

      b. managing the level of certainty

      c. giving performance feedback

      d. appealing to the self esteem of the learner

      e. making the goals personally meaningful to the learners.




    Online Links:
    Motivating Through Challenge




    Black Like Us by Grant Pick.

    This article from the May 2000 issue of Teacher Magazine describes how some top-notch students worked to bridge the gap between whites and minorities in their school.



    Click on a topic from the following list, or use your web browser to go where you want to go:

    Introduction >
    Intrinsic Motivation
    Challenge <<You are here>
    Interpersonal Motivation
    Summary of Intrinsic Motivation
    Motivating Through Curriculum
    Reinforcement and Punishment
    Affective Aspects of Motivation
    Physiological Aspects of Motivation
    Cognitive Aspects of Motivation
    Needs and Motivation
    Attribution Theory
    Development and Motivation
    Motivation as a Personality Characteristic
    Teacher Expectancy
    Social Aspects of Motivation: Classroom Structure
    What Teachers Can Do About Motivation
    What Parents Can Do About Motivation
    What Students Can Do About Motivation
    Chapter Summary
    Annotated Bibliography
    Answers to Quizzes