Motivation Theories for Teaching and Learning

In this article, Tolman’s motivation theories are reviewed and applications of the theories in learning and teaching are discussed. Edward Chance Tolman (1886–1959) was a cognitive behaviorist who contributed to significant researches in learning and motivation. Using laboratory rats in empirical research, Tolman created his own branch of behaviorism called the purposive behaviorism. Tolman strongly believed that the behavioral study of rats could be generalized across species to explain human behavior (Kimble, Wertheimer, & White, 1991). Based on observations of latent learning and formation of cognitive map, Tolman developed cognition oriented theories of behavior and motivation, and these theories have been adapted in education to help educators build effective learning environments. Inspired by Tolman’s ideas, new theories have been developed to understand how people are motivated to learn.

Tolman’s Research on Motivation and Learning Behavior

Tolman, like Watson and other behaviorists, “rejected introspection and had no interest in presumed internal experiences that were not accessible to objective observation” (Schultz & Schultz, 2011, p. 237). However, there are significant differences between Watson and Tolman. A radical behaviorist like Watson would count on environmental effects on behavior without consideration of mental actions; on the other hand, Tolman as a purposive behaviorist was willing to theorize about internal causes of behavior such as cognitive maps and physiological drives (Hergenhahn, 2009).

In his research, Tolman studied purposive or goal-directed behavior in animals and humans. He defined the purposiveness of behavior in objective behavioral terms without accessing to introspection or reporting one’s feeling of an experience. Obviously, Tolman argued that animal and human behavior is intrinsically purposive and “all actions were goal-directed” (Schultz & Schultz, 2011, p. 237). The idea of objective purposiveness or goal-directedness became the core concept of purposive behaviorism.

One of Tolman’s significant contributions to the field of psychology is the cognitive theory of learning. While Tolman disagreed with the idea of inferences about mentality based upon introspective psychology, he acknowledged the independence of conscious mentality and behavior. In his opinion, it was perfectly legitimate to postulate mental determinants of the purposive behavior of animals and humans. By studying a variety of cognitive determinants of behavior, Tolman developed increasingly complex cognitive theories of animal learning in contrast to traditional stimulus-response accounts. Tolman’s purposive behaviorism rejected the common conception of learning as the automatic connection of stimulus and response, based upon principles of contiguity, frequency, and reinforcement. Tolman’s commitment to the cognitive determination of both animal and human behavior was a distinctive feature of his purposive behaviorism. It distinguished it from the forms of behaviorism advocated by most other behaviorists, including Watson, Hull, and Skinner, who all rejected the idea that cognition and consciousness might determine human or animals’ behavior. (Greenwood, 2009).

Tolman introduced the concept of latent learning which refers to the initial learning which occurs when no obvious reward is offered. Tolman believed that “learning occurs constantly, with or without reinforcement and with or without motivation” (Hergenhahn, 2009, p. 431). To demonstrate latent learning, Tolman and his graduate student Charles Honzik conducted a study on white rats. The study had three conditions: (1) a control group of rats allowed simply to wander through the maze with no reward; (2) a learning group, where rats were rewarded from the beginning for finding their way through the maze; and (3) the latent learning condition, where the rats were not rewarded until the 11th day of the experiment. As expected by neobehaviorists who saw learning as a matter of reward or reinforcement, the rats in the learning condition quickly reduced the number of errors (false directions in the maze) and the number of errors dropped daily. However, latent learning, that is, Tolman’s theory that learning occurs constantly and only needs the right conditions for it to be demonstrated, was supported by the behavior of the rats in the latent learning condition. For these rats, the number of errors matched that of the control group for the first 10 days. However, on the 11th day, when reward was introduced, the number of errors of these rats was dramatically reduced and quickly became fewer in number than those of the learning group. Tolman interpreted this as supportive of his theory that learning is purposive, or goal directed (Pickren & Rutherford, 2010). Tolman’s theory indicates that, when an organism observes the environment it learns constantly, but the organism’s motivational state determines how the learned knowledge is utilized, therefore, as observed in Tolman’s study, motivation influences performance but not learning (Hergenhahn, 2009).

Motivation Theory Applied in Teaching and Learning

As a pioneer in cognitive psychology, Tolman was credited for originating cognitive theories, which are commonly applied in learning and education. His idea of cognitive map still influences how teachers teach and how people learn formally and informally today. As Newman and Newman (2012) explained, cognitive map is “an internal mental representation of the learning environment” (p. 42) and it includes “expectations about the reward system in operation, the existing spatial relationships, and the behaviors accorded the highest priority” (p. 42). According to Tolman, when people attend to tasks they specifically perform in an environment, they build a representation of the sequential settings. An individual’s performance in a situation represents only part of the learning that has occurred. The fact that people respond to changes in the environment indicates that a complex mental map actually develops in this situation (Newman & Newman, 2012).

One important aspect in child development is behavior learning. In either formal education at school or informal environment such as at home, teachers and parents tend to help children build good behavior. On the basis of Tolman’s theory, behavior change can happen with no connection to specific patterns of reinforcement and no opportunity for trial-and-error practice. In practice of Tolman’s theory, the social learning model emerged from evidences that people learn by observing and imitating other’s behavior. Applying the social learning theory to teaching, teachers and parents would emphasize the function of observation and imitation for learning new behaviors. For example, children should be facilitated with a learning environment where “they can watch someone perform a task or say a new expression and imitate that behavior accurately on the first try” (Newman & Newman, 2012, p. 42). The observational learning approach can help children comprehend the situation and corresponding behaviors.

As Tolman asserted, learning occurs constantly. For instance, learning happens when one watches others, assess consequential actions, recall a conversation, and read about a situation. Over time, an individual forms a symbolic representation for the situation, the required behaviors, and the expected outcomes. Therefore, informal learning is all about creating one’s cognitive map in daily life.

New Development of Motivation Theory

Motivation involves the processes that energize, direct, and sustain behavior. These processes can be viewed from several perspectives. In recent years there has been a tremendous surge of interest in the cognitive perspective which indicates that motivation is guided by an individual’s internal mentality including a person’s thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, and expectations (Santrock, 2011, p. 438). Recent trends in social learning theory also “have taken an increasingly cognitive orientation, sometimes referred to as social cognitive” (Newman & Newman, 2012, p. 41). The cognitive perspective and the derived cognitive theory of motivation emphasize the importance of promoting intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation (Moreno, 2010). Intrinsic motivation refers to one’s internal motive to act for self-interest. Findings in current educational research strongly support the approach to “establishing a classroom climate in which students are intrinsically motivated to learn” (Santrock, 2011, p. 441).

Among cognitive perspectives of motivation, the self-determination theory (SDT) was emerged to address such basic issues as personality development, self-regulation, life goals, and social environmental impacts on motivation and behavior. According to Deci and Ryan (2008), research on SDT has truly mushroomed, and there have been prevailed applications in SDT to many aspects of life since the last decade.

The self-determination theory distinguishes autonomous motivation from controlled types of motivation. Autonomous motivation consists of intrinsic and well-internalized regulation. Intrinsic motivation is the prototype of fully autonomous or self-determined behavior and therefore represents the most optimal type of motivation. Especially in educational settings, connections have been seen among students’ autonomy, intrinsic motivation, and enhanced academic performance. Research showed that “intrinsic motivation corresponds to a great number of positive outcomes” (Brooks & Young, 2011, p. 49). In a study of elementary students’ recreational and academic reading motivation from a self-determination theory perspective, De Naeghel, Van Keer, Vansteenkiste, and Rosseel (2012) confirmed that “recreational autonomous reading motivation is associated with more positive reading behavior and better performance” (p. 1006).

To explore the interconnections between student motivation and learner empowerment, Brooks and Young (2011) used the self-determination model to examine the multidimensional nature of motivation and four primary empowerment factors. Findings of this research revealed that four dimensions of empowerment (meaningfulness, competence, impact, and choice) were significantly correlated to intrinsic motivation. This study made important contributions to the understanding of the self-determination theory and “how student motivation and empowerment in the college classroom can be best understood by first reviewing the theoretical underpinnings of these constructs” (p. 57).

In studies of motivation, the self-determination theory may be used with the self-efficacy theory for better results. Sweet, Fortier, Strachan, and Chris (2012) tested the integration of self-determination theory and self-efficacy theory in a physical activity context. The research concluded that both individual models and the integrated model were supported, and “the integrated model was found to have the best model fit and favored over the individual theoretical model” (p. 319).


Tolman argued that all we need to know about human behavior could be from experiments with rats (Pickren, 2010), thus he dedicated his most influential book, Purposive Behavior in Animals and Men (1932), to white rats. The book title indicates that behavior is goal directed. Tolman did not accept that learning consisted of chains of conditioned reflexes. Rather, the rat, and by extension, the human, was constantly learning about the environment, but much of this learning was latent; that is, it would not be demonstrated until the occasion called for it.

In Tolman’s cognitive theories, he introduced latent learning and cognitive map to help understand motivation and learning behavior. Cognitive map is considered the precursor to concepts of spatial memory and spatial thinking. In education and training fields, Tolman’s theories have been adapted in various forms such as the cognitive learning model. Today’s cognitive psychology supports Tolman’s original ideals, and continuous research has developed many new theories to extend Tolman’s cognitive theories. Among these new developments, the self-determination theory emerged as a leading trend for studies of motivation in many aspects of people’s life.


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