Motivation and behavioral learning theory

The concept of motivation is closely tied to the principle that behaviors that have been reinforced in the past are more likely to be repeated than are behaviors that have not been reinforced or that have been punished. In fact, rather than using the concept of motivation, a behavioral theorist might focus on the degree to which students learn to do schoolwork to obtain desired outcomes. Why do some students persist in the face of failure while others give up? Why do some students work to please the teacher, others to make good grades, and still others out of interest in the material they are learning? Why do some students achieve far more than would be predicted on the basis of their ability and some achieve far less?


One reason that reinforcement history is an inadequate explanation for motivation is that human motivation is highly complex and context-bound. With very hungry animals we can predict that food will be an effective reinforcer. With humans, even hungry ones, we can’t be sure what will be a reinforcer and what will not, because the reinforcing value of most potential reinforcers is largely determined by personal or situational factors.


These situations illustrate an important point: The motivational value of an incentive cannot be assumed, because it might depend on many factors. When teachers say, “I want you all to be sure to hand in your book reports on time, because they will count toward your grade,” the teachers might be assuming that grades are effective incentives for most students. However, some students might not care about grades, perhaps because their parents don’t or because they have a history of failure in school and have decided that grades are unimportant. If a teacher says to a student, “Good work! I knew you could do it if you tried!” this might be motivating to a student who had just completed a task he thought was difficult, but punishing to one who thought the task was easy (because the teacher’s praise implies that he had to work especially hard to complete the task).

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