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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Classic Motivation Theories Compared and Re-Evaluated

Research by cognitive psychologists has suggested that motivation is often based on fundamental human needs, and that all are critical in factors in everyday life, such as job satisfaction, effective reward systems, team performance, and goal persistence.

Audio file:

bullfighter - san miguel el alto, jalisco - photo by susan smith nash
Bullfighter & son. What motivates people? Each person is different. (photo taken in San Miguel El Alto, Jalisco, MX, September 2014)
 However, not every theory covers the same territory, and it's useful to take a look at some of the most influential theories and compare them, as well as relate them. The theories examined are the following:

•    Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
•    Herzberg's Motivation / Hygiene (two-factor) Theory
•    McClelland's Need for Achievement Theory

Because motivation is so highly individualistic, and it can vary so dramatically between people, it is important to consider a wide range of explanations and mechanisms. The results are important not only for optimizing satisfaction (and performance) in the workplace, but also in developing a dynamic organization that emphasizes constant, continual, and outcome-focused learning and skills development. It then follows that there can be a predictive relationship in performance.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs (1954) posits that there are five ascending levels of needs, and if a lower-level need is not met, then the individual will essentially stay "stuck" there and be unable to ascend to the highest levels (Ego and Self-Actualization).

1.    Physiological needs. Food, water, shelter, and sex are survival needs and all humans must possess them. If they do not, all their waking moments will be obsessed with obtaining them, which will preclude the ability to achieve higher order levels of existence.

2.    Safety needs:  Humans need to feel protected against danger, threats and deprivation. This applies not only to physical needs, but also job security.

3.    Social needs:  Humans need to give and receive love, friendship, and affection. They need to feel they are a part of an accepting group.  If the first two levels of needs are being satisfied, then an individual will start to be aware of a lack of friends or associates.

4.    Ego needs:  If the other needs are being met, humans will turn to their ego needs and will seek achievement, status, recognition from society and associates / peers.

5.    Self-actualization needs:  These are the highest levels of needs and they occur if the previous four levels are satisfied. Self-actualization relates to the individual's own quest to realize what he or she perceives as his or her potential.

Although it's true that one cannot really focus on self-actualization without meeting the lower-order needs, not everyone will ever be interested in the higher level needs. It really depends on their level of aspiration and attitudes / beliefs.

Herzberg's Motivation Hygiene Theory. 

According to Herzberg's findings, motivation to accomplish work is a factor of satisfiers and dissatisfiers.

•    Satisfiers include achievement, recognition, the work itself, advancement, growth, responsibility.

•    Dissatisfiers include company policy, supervision, working conditions, interpersonal relations, salary, status, job security, and personal life.

For Herzberg, an organization can do a great deal to improve the "hygiene" which is to say that "hygiene" refers to removing as many negative elements as possible. So, Herzberg devised a process:

1.    Identify the type of hygiene to use and eliminate toxic elements (often are extrinsic factors)
2.    Enhance the meaningfulness of the job itself, make people feel responsible for the outcomes, and give feedback (often are intrinsic factors)

McClelland's Need for Achievement Theory

According to McClelland's research, people are motivated in the workplace by a need to achieve and also to receive recognition for their work.

Important factors in the need to achieve include the ability to define what it means to achieve, and that achievement is meaningful, perceived, and recognized by people whose opinions are meaningful to the individual.

1.    Achievement involves personal responsibility (and thus, clear credit for work done)

2.    Successful and continuous achievers know how to set goals that are not too high, but which are achievable (and tend to be moderate). They also take "calculated risks" and thus their risk-taking behavior is carefully modulated

3.    It is important to give concrete feedback in order to reinforce the fact that the achievement has been realized, and also to improve processes in the future (to assure continuing achievement).

Relating the Theories

When one takes a look at the three main theories, it's clear that they involve many of the same concerns; namely, achievement and also the perception of how and when achievement is accomplished.

Maslow and Herzberg's theories work well together to discuss and explain the conditions that must be present in order to motivate individuals and also to set the stage for learning and performance.

Both Herzberg and McClelland include the need for achievement and they look at them as basically intrinsic motivators, which means that in order to motivate, efforts have to be expended that will create feedback loops as well as reinforcement and self-perpetuating dynamics that tie to achievement, recognition of achievement, and eagerness to achieve again (and thus repeat the positive experience).


Herzberg, F. (1966).  Work and the Nature of Man. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co.

Maslow, A. H. (1954). Motivation and Personality. New York: Harper and Brothers,.

McClelland, D. C. and Johnson, E. W. (1984). Learning to Achieve. Glenview, IL: Scott, Forsman, & Co.

Pardee, R. L. (1990). Motivation Theories of Maslow, Herzberg, McGregor, and McClelland. ERIC

Blog post authored by: Susan Smith Nash, Ph.D.

susan smith nash, ph.d.
Motivation requires a multi-pronged approach.

Learner Identity and Motivation: Connections to Aspiration

Learning can be a risky business, especially when it has to do with a learner’s sense of self and their identity.  For example, how might a person who is learning a language for the purpose of becoming part of a group comes to realize that the act of learning is modifying who and how she is?  Is the change in one’s identity a good thing? If so, how and why? What impact does it have on learner motivation?

A good example is the case of learning a language. While learning a language may be for the purposes of assimilating in a society (or, in a broader sense, fitting into a group or workplace) it is important to keep in mind that assimilation should not go too far, and seek to efface or obliterate the identities of the learners. 

susan smith nash - learning spanish in jalisco
Learning a language requires changes in one's sense of self. Motivation to continue often involves the learner's aspirations, dreams, and ultimate life goals. Learning language in Jalisco.
Learning involves socialization processes, and the degree to which one can both maintain autonomy and feel a part of a group is an important influencer in student satisfaction and motivation. In other words, a balance must be maintained.

An over-emphasis on testing, assessment, and individual achievement (rather than group dynamics) can destroy motivation.

Individual autonomy can be effectively instilled by giving learners the ability to critique texts and instructional materials, have choices with respect to their topics of study, and choose ways in which they are assessed.

It is useful to incorporate aspirational elements in motivation, especially in learning a language, or a skill set / knowledge base that gains entrance to a group (especially a highly desirable group).

Reflective learner journals can be helpful, not only in developing meta-cognitive skills but also in the ways in which instructors can learn to tailor their instructional strategies in order to be more effective.

Perhaps the most surprising insight is that in order to encourage the mediation of identity that occurs when learning a language (whether a formal language or the informal “language” of a workplace or community of interest), it is useful to look at aspirational elements of the learner’s identity framework.

In other works, what’s the learner’s dream?  What is the learner striving to be or become?

By appealing to the learner’s dream identity, or aspirations, you as an educator or instructional designer, will make it easier for the learner to tolerate the ambiguity and/or frustration that he/ she may feel when learning a language (and hence tending to give up her own identity).

In order to increase a sense of autonomy (and comfort with the process), it is helpful to give the learner the ability to influence his / her own methods of interacting and being assessed.


Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior.  New York: NY: Plenum Press.

Lamb, M. (2011).  Future selves, motivation and autonomy in long-term EFL learning trajectories . in G. Murray, X. Gao, & T. Lamb (eds). Identity, Motivation, and Autonomy in Language Learning. (pp. 177-194). Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Lamb, T. E. (2011). Fragile identities: Exploring learner identity, learner autonomy and motivation through young learners' voices.  The Canadian Journal of Applied Linguistics, Special Issue. 14:2, 68-85.

The Dynamics of Self-Concept and Learning Performance

It is tempting to look at self-efficacy (Bandura, 1997) as the only reflector of an individual's belief about himself or herself in terms of whether or not he or she is likely to stay motivated and to achieve high learning performance.


However, there is another way to map the process of how one's beliefs about themselves frame and facilitate learning performance. That concept can be described by Core Self-Evaluation (CSE).

Definition of Core Self-Evaluation (CSE): "fundamental evaluations of one's self-worth, competence, and capabilities"  (Kim, etal, 2012)

Question: What is the relationship between one's CSE and one's ability to learn? How does CSE relate to one's ability to succeed?  Does a positive CSE translate to enhanced motivation and higher learning capacity?

Individuals with a high CSE can tend to consider themselves "confident, emotionally stable across different contexts, in control of their lives, and positive about their worth" (Judge, etal, 2003).

oklahoma oil capital
Oklahoma depends on oil and gas production and the entrepreneurial spirit that accompanies it. In order to be successful, entrepreneurs have historically had to possess confidence and a positive core self-evaluation.
Having a positive CSE is not enough, however, when predicting performance,

It requires an additional step or factor, namely the motivation to learn. Here are the four main factors that are in play as a person employs their core self evaluation(s) in order to perform.  The way in which each is most likely to contribute to success is briefly detailed:

o    Goal choice: should be self-set, and appropriate, achievable, and meaningful
o    Goal striving: persistent effort toward the goal reflects the belief that one is making progress toward a goal that makes sense
o    Self-efficacy:  the belief that one is able to achieve the goal is vital in maintaining focus and the willingness to work through uncertainty
o    Goal commitment: an ongoing and self-reinforcing set of conditions and self-reassurances that keep the learner engaged and working toward the goal

All dimensions should be taken into consideration in evaluating learning performance, and the process is dynamic.

Key findings:

•    Individuals with high levels of CSE tend to set more challenging goals, and tend to shuttle between the different factors (goal choice, goal striving, self-efficacy, and goal commitment) to use them as a dynamic process to reinforce progress toward the goal, with the result of higher learning efficacy.

•    Individuals with lower levels of positive CSE may experience more anxiety, and it makes the dynamic process less fluid; in these cases shuttling between the factors may require coaching and/or team work. In this case, leadership is helpful in matching the individual with lower levels of CSE with appropriate team members and/or mentors

•    Good leadership is important in the process. First, leaders can help identify people with highly positive Core Self Evaluations and they can encourage and reinforce the high CSE.  Second, leaders can facilitate the process of helping find team members and mentors to reinforce the dynamic process of shuttling between goal choice, goal striving, self-efficacy, and goal commitment.


Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: Freeman.

Judge, T. A., Erez, A., Bono, J.E., & Thoereson, C. J. (2003). The core self-evaluation scale: Dvelopment of a measure. Personnel Psychology. 56, 303-331.

Kim, K., In-Sue, O., Chiaburu, D., & Brown, K. (2012). Does positive perception of oneself boost learning motivation and performance? International Journal of Selection and Assessment. 20:3. 257-71.

Why Sociocognitive Conflict Is Good: The Best Ways to Use Discussions and Social Media for Motivation and Engagement

Collaborative learning can be very motivating because it helps reinforce social needs (Maslow) and needs for affiliation (McClelland). However, there are challenges in developing collaborative discussions using online courses and/or social media, for several reasons.


Engagement is a complex concept, and for learners to participate in a sustained sense, it is necessary to satisfy several conditions:

•    Have a positive feeling about participating or performing

•    Be willing to take risks and invest one's cognitive efforts in thinking and learning

•    Respect other learners while actively participating

Some ways in which collaborative discussions in online courses and in social media could actually be counter-productive for motivation and engagement include the following:

1.    Bad discussion board prompts may not encourage working together

2.    Prompts are too narrow, and do not include the incorporation of personal experience, prior learning, and/or opinion

3.    Social media can be too ephemeral (Twitter), and tends toward synchronous communication, which may exclude learners who do not have connectivity at the same time

4.    Social media can be distracting if the media / prompts do not tie closely to the course outcomes and learning objectives

5.    Learners may have differing levels of competency in developing media (photos, videos, audio), which can be discouraging to those who are at either end of the spectrum (highly advanced, or newbie).
motivation and trying a new identity - susan smith nash - austin, texas
Try a new identity: conflict gives you a chance to think from multiple perspectives.
Effective strategies:

•    Implement distributed leadership: include learner-guided activities such as discussion forum activities or social media postings that encourage individuals to take a position and then listen to their other classmates in order to engage in a debate (positive sociocognitive conflict)

•    Encourage energizing, productive sociocognitive conflict by posting prompts that encourage diverse opinions and sharing of insights (Johnson & Johnson, 2009)
•    Tie the prompts and the activities to a specific activity, challenge, current event, or ongoing project (Paris & Turner, 1994)
•    Minimize frustration by building in positive feedback for risk-taking, and for modifying / mediating output to align with abilities and a negotiated final product / outcome


Perhaps one of the most interesting findings is that conflict should be sought, rather than avoided in order to heighten engagement and motivation.  Of course, this is not referring to destructive or self-concept-damaging conflict.

Instead, it refers to socio-cognitive conflict that encourages the sharing of ideas, and lively, engaged, and emotionally compelling posts.  Thus, the individuals find themselves caring about what they’re doing – emotions / affects are triggered – and they then take ownership in the position they’ve taken, and go to some length to find ways to post supporting information.


Graesser, A. C., & D'Mello, S. (2012). Emotions during the learning of difficult material. in B. Ross (Ed.), The Psychology of Learning and Motivation: Vol. 57 (pp. 183-225). New York: NY: Academic Press.

Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (2009). Energizing learning: The instructional power of conflict. Educational Researcher, 38 (37-51).

Paris, S., & Turner, J. (1994) Situated motivation. in P. Pintrich, D. Brown, & C. Weinstein, Eds. Student Motivation, Cognition, and Learning: Essays in Honor of Wilbert J. McKeachie. (pp. 213-237). Hillsdale, NJ: Earlbaum.

Wu, X., Anderson, R. C., Kim, N.J., Miller, B. (2013) Enhancing motivation and engagement through collaborative discussions. Journal of Educational Psychology: 105: 3, 623-632.

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