Motivation as a Personality Characteristic


Because of their personal learning and reinforcement histories, people develop unique predispositions to set goals and to persist at tasks related to those goals. In terms of the previous discussion, some people are more likely to focus on effective intrinsic reinforcers and to make internal and controllable attributions for their successes and failures than persons with lower achievement-orientations. These predispositions (like other features of personality) are learned, and therefore classroom activity definitely can have an impact on motivation as a personality characteristic. Although these predispositions cannot easily be changed during a single unit of instruction or even during an entire academic career, teachers should be aware that the way they interact with students can influence not only their motivation for particular tasks but also motivation as a personality characteristic (Ames, 1990).

A large number of personality characteristics are related to motivation (Deci & Ryan, 1985), but only a few can be covered even briefly in this book. For example, Atkinson (1964) has classified people as motivated either by seeking success or avoiding failure. Research has shown that for success seekers motivation increases following failure; but failure avoiders decrease their efforts after failing at a task. In addition, success seekers seem to be most strongly motivated by tasks that have a medium level of difficulty; whereas failure avoiders seem to prefer either very easy or very difficult tasks. Finally, success seekers are more likely to set realistic goals, whereas failure avoiders tend to set goals for themselves that are unrealistically easy or difficult.

Teachers often use the term self-motivated to refer to students who become easily motivated to learn, without much external persuasion. These students are learners who have learned to identify and implement the principles described in this chapter. Self-motivation of this kind is often the strongest form of motivation. Self motivated learners are likely to be the best learners, if their motivation is directed toward productive goals. Self-motivation is not an innate characteristic, but rather is learned in much the same fashion as the metacognitive skills described in chapter 7. Teachers should be aware that by enabling learners to employ motivational strategies effectively and by focusing attention on the principles discussed in this chapter, they can help students develop a personality trait of self motivation that can be helpful for both academic and non-academic tasks.

Table 5.2 summarizes some of the major characteristics of learners with intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivational orientations. Table 5.3 summarizes strategies for promoting intrinsic motivation. By incorporating these strategies, teachers can help students not only master specific tasks, but also develop a motivational orientation that will assist them in many other learning situations.



Table 5.2. Characteristics of Intrinsically versus Extrinsically Motivated Learners (based on Lepper, 1988).

  1. If perceived ability is low, extrinsically motivated students are more likely to quit after failure.

  2. If the task is mundane or algorithmic, the extrinsically motivated student may be superior to the intrinsically motivated student.

  3. If the task is conceptual or requires higher level thinking skills, the intrinsically motivated student is likely to be superior to the extrinsically motivated student.

  4. The intrinsically motivated student is more likely to apply effective metacognitive strategies and "deeper" study strategies.

  5. The intrinsically motivated student is more likely to select problems and subgoals of moderate difficulty, whereas the extrinsically motivated student is more likely to select the easiest problems and subgoals.

  6. The intrinsically motivated student is more likely to take risks and to explore freely.

  7. If the task is complex, the intrinsically motivated student is more likely to employ logical and efficient performance strategies.

  8. Students who have previously been extrinsically motivated to engage in a particular activity are less likely to engage in that activity when external incentives are no longer available.

  9. Intrinsically motivated students are more likely than extrinsically motivated students to be able to handle artificial rewards without experiencing negative consequences.




Table 5.3. Strategies for Promoting Intrinsic Motivation (based on Lepper, 1988).

How to do it


Promote the learners' sense of control over activities

  1. Minimize extrinsic constraints on the activity. (If an activity is of initial intrinsic interest, avoid adding superfluous extrinsic control. If an activity is of low intrinsic interest, use minimal sufficient external control.)
  2. Reduce extrinsic constraints over time. (If it is necessary to use external pressures or incentives, fade these over time.)
  3. Minimize the salience of extrinsic constraints. (Make the constraints seem logical; and embed them in the activity itself, if it is possible to do so.)


Provide students with a continuously challenging activity.

  1. Help students set goals of uncertain attainment, and give feedback regarding current status of accomplishments. (Help students short-term and long-term goals at intermediate levels of difficulty. Also help students set multiple levels of goals, so that students at different levels will feel motivated and so that students can move on to new goals as they attain earlier goals. )


Provoke the learners' curiosity.

  1. Highlight areas of inconsistency and incompleteness and focus on paradoxes or possible simplifications that will provoke the interest of the learners.
  2. Focus on activities, domains of knowledge, persons, and problems that are already of interest to the learners.


Highlight the functionality of the activity.

  1. Present the activity in a natural, interesting context.
  2. Present the activity in a simulation or fantasy context of interest to the student.


As you may have noticed, the strategies in Table 5.3 closely resemble those employed by authoritative (as opposed to permissive or authoritarian) parents in Baumrind's (1973, 1978, 1980) research, which was summarized in chapter 4.

Students who internalize their motivation to learn tend to display numerous characteristics related to successful learning, including generally higher self-esteem (Ryan & Connell, 1989), more self-confidence (Lorion, Cowen, & Caldwell, 1975), and a better ability to cope with failure (Ryan, Connell, & Grolnick, 1992). In addition, students with more internalized or intrinsic motivation are much less likely to succumb to the negative side effects of artificial reinforcement (Flink et al., 1992). This is an important consideration: it means that children with an intrinsic motivational orientation are less likely than their extrinsically motivated peers to have their subsequent effort undermined by artificial reinforcers that may occasionally be necessary to motivate other members of a class (Boggiano & Barrett, 1985).

Even students who appear to be self-motivated can often benefit from experiencing and adopting new motivational strategies. For example, a child who is self-motivated by a powerful urge to succeed at competitions would become a potentially better learner by discovering that curiosity and cooperation are also powerful motivating factors. Expanding the child's self-motivational repertoire in this way would be especially useful if the child moved into a new setting where the factors that previously stimulated self-motivation were no longer present. For example, a student who is very strongly self-motivated by a competitive drive might be at a loss if he graduated from high school and went to a college where he was no longer able to win at competitions; but if this child had also learned to be self-motivated by curiosity, then he would continue to be a self-motivated student in the new school.



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Intrinsic Motivation
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 <<You are here>>
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