Motivation and Online Learning: Part I

Wouter Buelens, Paul A. Kirschner, & Mirjam Neelen

A great deal of attention is rightly being devoted to how online learning can be effectively designed or how technology can contribute to instruction and promote or enhance learning. With this, interest in intrinsic motivation of learners and how to strengthen it during (independent) online and/or blended learning seems to have peaked.

It’s commonplace to state that it’s a challenge to keep learners motivated, especially in an online context. These challenges can range from limited learner involvement during a single lesson – due, for example, to a lack of will power and persistence to make the necessary efforts towards learning goals – all the way to complete drop-out in online learning environments.

It’s already a humongous challenge to keep learners motivated in general, but it seems to be even more difficult during (forced) distance education or online learning. Interestingly, at the same time, the idea that blended learning should have a permanent place in both compulsory elementary and secondary education and elective higher education in the future, is gaining popularity. Both suggest that we need to get a grip on the relationship between motivation and learning and on how to apply what we know in the context of online/blended learning environments.

In today’s blog, we discuss the research on motivation and learning in general. In next week’s blog we investigate whether the principles of motivation that apply in face-to-face learning contexts also apply in the context of online learning.

Motivation: a chicken or egg problem

It’s not an easy job to make firm statements about ‘motivation and learning’. Even the order in which these two concepts are formulated isn’t obvious. David Didau and Nick Rose dedicate a hundred pages in their book Psychology in the classroom (2016) to the topic of ‘Motivation and Behavior’. They state that, “The science of motivation is complex and… full of contradictions. It seems that the scientific insights here are in many ways less established… ”(p. 143).

With some caution, we can say that motivation – having the will and showing a sustained effort towards (learning) goals – is important in learning. In addition, (a focus on) successful learning will strengthen the intrinsic motivation of learners (Kirschner & Hendrick, 2020. Also see our blog on the effects of motivation and engagement on learner achievment).

On the other hand, motivation, as in engagement, enjoying learning activities, and showing commitment, doesn’t necessarily lead to learning. After all, observable activity is not a synonym for or a guarantee for learning (Lessons for Learning, Building Block 5, in production, also see our blog here).

Let’s start with exploring some common principles and theories as discussed in the literature regarding the concept of motivation.

The concept of 'motivation' in literature

Performance versus mastery learners: Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation

For performance-oriented learners, high grades are a goal either in order to outperform peers (approach) or to at least not perform at a lower level than they (avoidance). Are extrinsic motivation and grades necessary for learning? The answer is nuanced: numbers can motivate some learners (e.g., high achievers) in certain circumstances and make them perform better. But! Numbers can also potentially harm the learning process in the longer term. When the focus is more on performance and less on learning and improvement, the consequence may be that learners choose less challenging assignments in order to decrease the risk of failure (no longer being the best or being seen as one of the worst). Of course, the risk to ‘fail’ increases as the assignments are more difficult/challenging (Didau & Rose, 2016; Kirschner & Hendrick, 2020).

Mastery-oriented learners, on the other hand, focus on really understanding the subject matter (approach) or avoiding situations that hinder learning or make them unable to master something (avoidance). Their motivation is rather intrinsic, not driven by external reward or coercion. These learners generally choose more challenging follow-up assignments than their performance-oriented peers. They don’t mind if they fail as their focus is on learning.

Kirschner and Hendrick (2020) sum this up in the following table:

Perhaps learners are first driven by extrinsic motivation to bite the proverbial bullet of seemingly useless effort (e.g., “Why the heck do I need to learn the Pythagorian Theorem”) and that way, experience that they can do it. From there, they might start to experience pleasure because they realise that they’re able to and have learned something; that they can solve problems and do things with that knowledge including useful everyday things? Intrinsic motivation then comes into play.

Determining factors of motivation

The next question is: Which factors determine whether learners set goals that are aimed at performance or mastery? We need to think about this, as this can/will determine whether they respectively avoid challenges or rather continue to pursue the predefined mastery objectives despite challenges (Dweck & Leggett, 1988).

  • Expectation of competence – This is an important determining component in almost all models of motivation. Learners who think or feel that they’re able to do something are more persistent and show a greater cognitive involvement in learning. Effective feedback (see our blog here) will be necessary to maintain the balance between this perceived self-efficacy (the extent to which someone expects to be able to cope with a challenge, Bandura, 1977) and the risk of overestimation (Pintrich, 2003). Learners with low (metacognitive) knowledge often tend to overestimate their knowledge (Dunning-Kruger effect), while people with a lot of knowledge tend to underestimate themselves. Belief in one’s own competence can be strengthened through development-oriented feedback as well as through offering learners assignments that are at the right ‘ability’ level for them. ‘The right level’ means that the learner can successfully complete the assignment with some effort. This way, you can ensure that learners experience success, which in turn strengthens their sense of competence (specifically for the domain in which they experienced the success) and motivates them to proceed / continue and learn more.
  • Ownership/Attribution – This contributes to a sustained focus on control. For example, ownership can refer to learners being able to make certain choices in the learning process. Offering learners options and choices around participation in line with their ability to make these choices can help develop motivation. Note that performance-oriented learners often choose simpler or equally difficult tasks and assignments if they have ownership of follow-up assignments or tasks to avoid the risk of failure. Ownership also includes the belief that one has control over the factors that determine success or failure (Kirschner & Hendrick, 2020). See also our blog on attribution theory.
  • Socio-emotional components – These play a role in shaping motivation in the sense that learners should feel ‘connected’, not only with their teachers and peers, but also with the content offered. In other words, the learning climate should be supportive and ‘warm’, and the learning content should be meaningful for the learners. Involvement in the subject matter leads to stronger cognitive engagement and better learning. This doesn’t mean simply letting learners choose for themselves what they ‘like’ or are ‘interested in’ or ‘passionate about’. The job of education is not simply making someone better at what they already can do, but to help them do and learn things that they can’t! It means that the learning material becomes relevant if learners can link it to existing prior knowledge and gradually manage to explain certain concepts and procedures themselves (Surma et al., Lessons for Learning, in press).

If we, during instruction, succeed in reinforcing our learners’ sense of competence, giving them a degree of autonomy and control, and providing a supportive and engaging learning environment, this can contribute to a more integrated form of autonomous motivation. (Edward Deci on a more autonomous form of motivation).

In sum, expectations of competence, ownership and attribution, and socio-emotional components all play a role with respect to motivation for learning. Next week, we investigate whether these general principles of motivation also apply in the context of online learning. We then describe a number of effective learning and instructional strategies that enhance learning and can increase motivation. We then discuss how to implement these strategies in shaping (partially) online learning.


Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological review, 84(2), 191-215.


Didau, D., & Rose, N. (2016). Psychologie in de klas: Wat iedere leraar moet weten. Culemborg: Phronese.

Dweck, C. S., & Leggett, E. L. (1988). A social-cognitive approach to motivation and personality. Psychological review, 95(2), 256.

Kirschner, P. A., & Hendrick, C. (2020). How learning happens: Seminal works in educational psychology and what they mean in practice. Londen, VK: Routledge.

Pintrich, P. R. (2003). A motivational science perspective on the role of student motivation in learning and teaching contexts. Journal of educational Psychology, 95(4), 667.