Physiological Aspects of Motivation


Motivation is not entirely a psychological concept. In addition to an intellectual and emotional interest, a person's tendency to engage in a behavior is at least partially determined by the person's physiological state. A major physiological factor is level of arousal, which refers to the overall readiness of the human organism to engage in activity. The relationship between level of arousal and learning is summarized in Figure 5.3, which shows that people at either a very low level (nearly asleep) or at a very high level (nearly panicking) learn very little. People tend to learn best at a medium level of arousal. This means that if learners are at a very low level of arousal, the teacher should do things that are likely to increase arousal. On the other hand, if learning is impeded by a excessively high level of arousal, then the teacher should do things that are likely to reduce level of arousal.





Figure 5.3. Relationship between level of arousal and learning efficiency.


Level of arousal is influenced by what teachers do, by what learners do, and by other factors. The following are some factors that increase level of arousal:

The teacher can

  • introduce topics in an interesting manner;

  • use humor during lectures;

  • avoid talking in a monotone;

  • encourage numerous different students to participate in class discussions;

  • call on students in an unpredictable rather than predetermined order;

  • raise questions to which students are eager to learn or discover answers;

  • vary the style or order of presentation - avoid doing everything in the same order every day;

  • give tests or quizzes at appropriate intervals, so that students feel constantly accountable for what they learn;

  • move around the room rather than standing stiffly behind a podium;

  • give breaks during long class sessions.

Teachers often accidentally or inappropriately lower the level of arousal of their students when they do such things as the following:

  • talk in a monotone;

  • lecture from a text of which the students already have an exact copy;

  • give the entire presentation themselves, without letting anyone ask questions or contribute insights;

  • do the same thing in the same order every day;

  • skip breaks when students need them;

  • give students the impression that they will not be held accountable for their learning until some time in the vaguely distant future.

The preceding list focused on inappropriately lowering level of arousal. Note, however, that if students are at an excessively high level of arousal, it is desirable to do things such as the following to reduce arousal:

  • give students sample test items so that they'll be less anxious about their performance on the final exam;

  • do nothing unusual or outside the routine between recess and lunch hour on the day before spring vacation, when students are likely to be at a high state of arousal;

  • follow a very ordinary routine in a school which has just been touched by a tragic event, such as a civil disturbance or the death of a community leader.

Students themselves have a large degree of control over their physiological readiness to learn. For example, students may eat an inappropriate diet. By eating too much sugar, students may be at a level of arousal too high to learn effectively. Other students have sleeping habits that interfere with level of arousal. They may get too little sleep because they stayed up late watching TV, because they have to work to help support their family, because the neighborhood is too noisy, or because they have to ride a bus a long time to get to and from school. These factors may bring students to a level of arousal that is too low.

As a teacher of inservice teachers, I myself have noticed that teachers often have a very low level of arousal for evening classes during the school year - they get up early, work a full day, rush home, eat a full meal, and then rush off to class, where they sit down and relax for the first time all day. I have to teach these students entirely differently than a similar group during the summer session, when most of them come to class after a full night's sleep. Teachers should at least be aware of the fact that factors like these may influence motivation, and in many cases they can offer students assistance or advice on how to ready themselves more appropriately for study.


In addition to factors directly controlled by students and teachers, there are other ingredients that influence level of arousal. For example, level of arousal is likely to drop precipitously on an extremely hot day - or even on a cold day when the heating system renders the classroom too warm. Likewise, classroom furniture may be oppressively uncomfortable (and provoke fatigue after a half hour) or too comfortable (and induce sleep at the end of a tough day). While teachers can exercise some control over these factors, in other cases they must merely be aware of them and make adjustments appropriately.

Actually, level of arousal theory can lead to over-simplifications. For example, sometimes extremely high levels of arousal are actually more productive than medium levels of arousal (Weiner, 1992). This is especially likely to be true when the high level of arousal occurs because of interest directed toward the topic under consideration. (An equally high level of arousal may be maladaptive in the same situation if it is directed toward a peripheral element.) The important principle from level of arousal theory is for teachers to identify situations in which an inappropriate level of arousal is interfering with learning and to help students adjust their arousal to a more appropriate level.




White Line Fever


Have you ever driven down a highway at night, needing to drive a long distance but feeling tired and exhausted? You need to find a way to stay alert. The best idea, of course, is to get off the highway; but what sorts of things can you do to stay alert? Drivers often try the following strategies:

  1. Open the windows and let cold air blow in your face.

  2. Engage in fascinating conversation with the person next to you.

  3. Sing along with the songs on the radio.

  4. Talk back to the talk show on the radio.

  5. Stop at every rest stop, get out, and stretch your legs.

  6. Drink coffee or your favorite cola that contains caffeine while you drive.

  7. Avoid any of the following:

    • letting the other people in the car sleep - or, even worse, snore!
    • listening to radio or recorded music that has a calming effect on you.
    • talking to a really boring person while you drive.
    • ingesting food or drinks that induce relaxation.
    • letting the temperature in the car get too warm.

  8. Find a way to make the task of driving the car as challenging or interesting as possible.




White Line Fever in the Classroom


There are some teachers in the world who seem to have a demonic urge to put their students to sleep. They talk in monotones, state verbatim the exact words that are in front of the students in their textbooks, and yawn during their own presentations. If you ever have one of these teachers, the burden may fall on you to get yourself to a medium level of arousal. You might try some of the following:

  1.  Sit in the front of the classroom. This has a couple of benefits:

    • Being right under the eyes of the teacher is likely to stimulate your urge to stay alert.
    • You won't be able to see the other students behind you, whose drowsiness could become contagious.

  2. Ask questions during class (or answer them).
  3. If the teacher reads directly from the book, don't read it yourself prior to the class.
  4. Take notes.
  5. Find something interesting to do. Play a game, if necessary, by focusing partly on the teacher's mannerisms.
  6. Sit near an open window. Brush the snow off your desk, if necessary.
  7. Stretch your legs once in a while to get the blood circulating.
  8. Avoid any of the following:

    • sitting near other students who are likely to give external signs of their own low level of arousal.
    • focusing on the teacher's most hypnotic mannerisms.
    • cngesting food or drinks that induce relaxation.
    • sitting in a seat that is too comfortable (if there are any such seats in your classroom).
    • sitting in a seat that is very uncomfortable (an uncomfortable seat can raise level of arousal for a short class, but fatigue will lower your level of arousal during a long session).

  9. Most importantly, try to find something interesting about the subject matter. Then you can rely on yourself and the subject matter (instead of the teacher) to stimulate your level of arousal.





    In both of the examples in the preceding boxes, the best procedure is to avoid situations that induce low levels of arousal.



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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 <<You are here>>
    Cognitive Aspects of Motivation
    Needs and Motivation
    Attribution Theory
    Development and Motivation
    Motivation as a Personality Characteristic
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    Social Aspects of Motivation: Classroom Structure
    What Teachers Can Do About Motivation
    What Parents Can Do About Motivation
    What Students Can Do About Motivation
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