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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Winter 2014

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What I've Been Reading

But Do They Care?: Pintrich on Motivation in Learning

Michael Fosmire
Head, Physical Sciences, Engineering, and Technology Division
Purdue University Libraries
West Lafayette, Indiana

Instruction librarians commonly complain that students don't pay attention and think they know everything about information already. This is particularly true when faced with a 'one-shot' opportunity that isn't integrated with course assignments or even tightly linked to the course objectives. The library literature is filled with examples of how to transcend these problems with engaging activities and active learning methodologies.

The library literature explains what works, but there isn't very much discussion of why it works. Models of self-regulated learning, such as Paris and Winograd (2003), see Figure 1, indicate three factors are important for success, Metacognition, Use of Strategies, and Sustained Motivation. In brief, an individual needs to know what it is they are trying to learn, how to learn it, and they actually have to want to learn it (right side of Figure 1). If students are missing any of these three components, learning is severely impeded.

Figure 1: Three facets of self-regulated learning. The left side contains core concepts, the right side indicates corresponding actions.

In this column, I want to focus on the 'attitudes' part of the learning equation, student motivation. Motivation can be defined as "the process whereby goal-directed activity is instigated and sustained" (Schunk, Pintrich, and Meece 2008, p.4). This is a specialized definition, since motivation is not merely about interest, which can just be curiosity about a topic, but, rather, it requires activity leading toward some goal. In the world of education, we want students not just to be interested in something, but to be actually motivated to work toward mastery or achievement. As such, motivation is a complicated construct and one that continues to challenge educators in and out of library science.

Paul Pintrich (2003) provides a summary of current thinking on motivation in learning. His paper provides a good review of motivation that can stimulate the reader's thinking about how to create instruction that students will want to engage in and learn from. In particular, Pintrich describes five factors that can affect motivation in the classroom, which I have slightly modified, as shown in Table 1. These factors are not necessarily orthogonal, that is, themes re-appear in different factors, but can perhaps best be thought of as filters through which to view motivation.

Table 1: Motivational Generalizations and Design Principles for the Classroom, adapted from Pintrich (2003)

Motivational Generalization Classroom Design Principles


Provide feedback, focusing on development of competence, expertise and skill

Tasks provide opportunity for success but also challenge students

Self-determination and personal control

Provide opportunities for student choice and control

Stress that learning is a process, involving effort, application of strategies and personal management

Personal and situational interest

Include variety and novelty in tasks and activities

Construct tasks that have personal meaning for students

Display and model interest

Value calculations

Provide activities that are relevant and useful

Class discussions should focus on importance and utility of activities


Structure course activities to include both social and academic goals

Feedback and class discussions should focus on learning for mastery rather than comparative performance

I'll discuss each of the five factors separately and the implications for information literacy instruction.


Fundamentally, the self-efficacy motivation facet states that, if students expect to do well, they try harder, engage, persist, and perform better. Conversely, if students don't believe they can do something, it is easier to quit or feel that something is an impossible task. This is why campaigns to promote diversity in STEM fields are so important. It takes extra effort to not only master material but also to believe that you belong with a peer group, and if you are the only under-represented minority in a class, for example, it is more difficult to maintain that sense of self-efficacy when you don't see a model of someone 'who looks like me' who has been successful.

The flip side of self-efficacy is the common finding that students who overestimate their skills will be unmotivated to improve, even in the face of feedback on their weaknesses. Pintrich suggests that two levels of feedback on self-efficacy should be employed...realistic feedback on specific tasks coupled with overarching optimism about capabilities in general. For example, students can be instructed that a particular search strategy could be improved, but emphasize that they can become good searchers with a little practice. Providing them examples where they can get immediate feedback...improved results by adding another term, shows not only the gap in outcome but also how easy it is to bridge that gap.

Generally, in the area of information literacy, overconfidence is the primary concern (Ross et al. 2010), since students typically have been successful finding general information from search engines on the open web throughout their K-12 experiences. They frequently are unaware of the breadth and depth of more scholarly and technical information, and generally don't know what they don't know. In this case, creating situations where there are clear advantages to using technical information, and acknowledging situations when more general information sources are sufficient, will help break down misconceptions about information and build up correct mental models of how information is produced and organized.

Self-determination and personal control

"Students who believe they have more personal control of their own learning and behavior are more likely to do well and achieve at a higher level" (Pintrich 2003, p. 673) than those who don't. This feeds into the idea of extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation, i.e., where control is largely shaped by the instructor compared to the individual. Intrinsic, i.e., self-motivation, is the ultimate goal for instructors, but practically, in a classroom setting, there is always a certain amount of extrinsic motivation (i.e., grades and fulfilling required learning outcomes). Not all extrinsic motivation is created equal, however. Pintrich describes four different levels, attributed to Ryan and Deci (2000): a) external regulation, which is completely controlled by the instructor, who offers rewards for completion; b) introjection, where some of the values are internalized, but control and approval still resides in the instructor (i.e., the student takes on the value of the instructor without transforming it. They want to be successful because the instructor thinks it's important, and they want to be respected by the instructor); c) identification, where the student starts to internalize the goals and values of the project; and d) integration, where the student's core goals and values are highly correlated with those of the project. With the identification and integration levels of extrinsic motivation, students are still not intrinsically motivated, i.e., they aren't motivated because they are especially interested in the topic, but they understand, for example, that the topic is important for them to master in order to be able to do something else that they do find interesting. For example, they don't want to learn calculus, but they know that they need to solve equations in order to be successful at something they do want to do, like building bridges.

The interesting finding from Ryan and Deci's work on self-determination theory (see also is that they found external regulation and introjection, which can be termed 'controlled' environments, had very similar negative consequences for downstream motivation, even as far as affecting persistence in career choices, as well as adverse psychological and physical health effects (i.e., high-stress and cognitively dissonant environments). Conversely, they found identification and integration-based extrinsic motivation, which can be termed 'autonomous' environments had positive motivating, psychological, and physiological effects. This is controlling for students' actual performance, so even high-achieving students will be demotivated by working in a controlled environment instead of an autonomous environment. To appropriate the Hippocratic Oath, first an instructor should do no harm, so structuring the learning environment so that students are not less motivated to become information literate should be the first goal.

In the information literacy classroom, one way to foster a more autonomous environment arises in the topic selection phase of a research project. You want students to be interested in the topic they pursue, but setting them off on their own without any direction can lead to floundering and lack of focus. As Project Information Literacy reports (Head and Eisenberg 2010) one of the biggest challenges students face is 'getting started' on a project. Thus, providing a selection of potential topics is one way to have students start looking. Students can also be given a brief reading (or do a quick internet search) to provide context for the larger topic, so at least they have the vocabulary to start an informed search and develop robust research questions. Staging the research process (and presenting it as such to students) into exploratory and confirmatory steps that include iterative steps will help students think about the research process in a more sophisticated way. In this way, students get the benefit of retaining a significant level of autonomy in the ultimate topic selection, while avoiding the pitfalls of researching undifferentiated or ill-conceived research questions. Although classroom assignments still provide basically extrinsic motivation, they can move along the continuum toward identification and integration with appropriate student-centered structures.

Personal and Situational Interest

Personal interest focuses on an individual's "disposition to be attracted to, to enjoy, or to like to be engaged in a particular activity or topic." Of course, tapping into student personal interest is an excellent way to motivate students, and wherever possible, allowing students to follow their interests will be highly motivating.

Situational interest, on the other hand, is "the state of being interested in a task or activity that is generated by the interestingness of the task or context." That is to say, you don't need to be completely student-centered or even student-driven in your choice of assignments, as long as you make the assignment interesting. Introducing novelty in the tasks you assign, engaging with students' personal interests, and just being enthusiastic yourself can convince students that the project is interesting. Short video introductions, news stories and scenarios can provide the context to show why a topic is 'interesting,' even if the students had never heard of it before.

Value calculations

Students want their assignments to be important and not 'busy work.' Four factors of importance include intrinsic interest, utility, importance, and cost. We've already looked at intrinsic interest -- as I've said, the factors are not orthogonal. With regard to the other components, utility refers to how useful students think the assignment will be to them. Importance refers to how achieving (or not) will affect students' self-image and personal identity. Costs refer to the time, attention, effort, and monetary inputs students need to devote to achieve their goal. Students frequently make a calculation of the value they see compared to the costs of trying to achieve a goal as they determine how motivated they are to work on it. One version of this factor is encapsulated in 'expectancy-value' theory (Wigfield and Eccles 2000), which posits that the value of a task multiplied by the expectancy of succeeding is a measure of motivation. In this case, if a task has no value, there will be no motivation, and likewise if a task is of high value, but the student doesn't believe they can actually do it (self-efficacy), there will be very little motivation to try.

According to Pintrich, value propositions affect choices of whether to engage in an activity, for example, in the future, whereas efficacy just predicts success once someone is engaging in an activity. Thus, the 'expectancy' and the 'value' components of expectancy-value theory play different roles in motivational behavior.

For the instructor, increasing the 'value proposition' of your interactions means emphasizing why you want students to learn something, how they might use those skills in the future, and how it will save them time and/or improve their performance in the future. I have found it is almost impossible to emphasize too frequently the reason why we are doing something in the classroom and how those skills translate into activities they may engage in in their careers after graduation.

Goal Orientation

This factor acknowledges that students pursue many different goals in the classroom, many of which are only tangentially related to the intent of the instructor. In particular, Ford and Nichols developed a taxonomy of the different kinds of goals that individuals seek to achieve (see Table 2). The first three categories are individual goals, related to emotions, mental relationships, or mental states that a person might want to experience or avoid. The last three categories refer to desired relationships between the individual and the group they are part of, either maintaining the self, supporting the group, or in their relationship with the task itself (Ford 1992).

Table 2: Ford and Nichols' taxonomy of human goals (Ford 1992, pg. 87).

Goal Type

Specific Goals


Entertainment, tranquility, happiness, bodily sensations, physical well-being


Exploration, understanding, intellectual creativity, positive self-evaluation

Subjective Organization

Unity (connectedness), Transcendence ("flow")

Self-Asserting Social Relationship

Individuality, self-determination, superiority, resource acquisition (material and emotional)

Integrative Social Relationship

Belongingness, social responsibility, equity, resource provision (giving support)


Mastery, Task creativity, management (maintaining order, organization and productivity), material gain

Ford and Nichols, for example, acknowledge that sometimes the dominant motivating goal for students it to avoid a too hot classroom, or overly loud HVAC system, which makes any attempt at engaging academic goals very difficult. By analyzing all the potential motivating goals students may have, you can then design activities that tap into multiple goals. For example, Pintrich reported that social goals are frequently strongly present in academic settings, despite the expectation that task or cognitive goals should be foremost. Social goals are strongly related to effort and achievement, indicating the importance of peer groups and interactions with students with maintaining motivation. The effectiveness of small group activities to promote motivation, then, stems from students' desire to belong, demonstrate their responsibility within the group, and to provide and acquire emotional and cognitive support as needed during a particular activity.

Within the discussion of goal-theory, there is also a dichotomy of mastery versus performance goals. Mastery goals focus on learning and understanding, while performance goals are those where the individual can demonstrate their ability, receive recognition, and compare themselves to others. In general, the learning community aspires to motivate students toward mastery-based goals, but our assessments frequently focus on performance, and students being strategic learners, will tailor their efforts to how they will be assessed. Within the structure of performance goals, Pintrich describes performance-approach and performance-avoidance orientations students might have. In the former, students are focused on performing at a higher level than their peers, while in the latter, students are mainly focused on avoiding demonstrating low ability, i.e., not looking stupid. Certainly, for the student, performance-approach is preferable to performance-avoid, which tends to encourage non-performance rather than attempting to perform.

Some Final Words

The treatment of this column may be a bit theoretical, but I wanted to introduce some of that conceptual background to the instructional conversation in the library sphere. Hopefully, this provides some lenses through which to view student behavior and attempt to understand their cognitive states and why students may or may not be motivated by particular instructional techniques.

For the reader looking for more concrete, applicable tools, Trudi Jacobson and Lijuan Xu (2004) have written an excellent book filled with motivating techniques. For their conceptual framework, they use Keller's (1987) ARCS (attention, relevance, confidence, and satisfaction) model of motivating factors and instructional strategies for improving motivation in students. In the ARCS model, you need to first get the student's attention, demonstrate relevance to student goals, instill confidence that students can accomplish their task, and reinforce accomplishments with rewards. This is a more instructor-centric, operational model, focusing on what the instructor can do, and providing a progressive, sequential approach to generating and sustaining motivation in students. So, if you are asking 'so motivation is nice, but what can I do to actually get better at engaging my students,' Jacobson and Xu's book is an excellent source of ideas. In particular, you can analyze your own work and see if any of the four categories are not accommodated appropriately.


Ford, M.E. 1992. Motivating Humans: Goals, Emotions, and Personal Agency Beliefs. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Head, A. and Eisenberg, N.T. 2010. Truth Be Told: How College Students Evaluate and Use Information in the Digital Age. Project Information Literacy Progress Report, University of Washington's Information School. [Internet]. [Cited March 31, 2014]. Available from: {}

Jacobson, T. and Xu, L. 2004. Motivating Students in Information Literacy Classes. New York: Neal-Schuman.

Keller, J.M. 1987. Strategies for stimulating the motivation to learn. Performance & Instruction 26(8): 1-7.

Paris, S.G., & Winograd, P. 2003. The role of self-regulated learning in contextual teaching: Principles for teacher preparation. A Commissioned Paper for the U.S. Department of Education project, "Preparing Teachers to Use Contextual Teaching and Learning Strategies to Improve Student Success in and beyond School.",Washington, DC. CIERA Archive #01-03. [Internet]. [Cited March 31, 2014]. Available from:

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): 667-686.

Ross, M., Fosmire, M., Purzer, S., and Cardella, M. 2011. Lifelong learning and information literacy skills and the first year engineering undergraduate: Report of a self-assessment. In Proceedings of the ASEE National Conference, Vancouver, BC. AC 2011-1275.

Ryan, R.M., & Deci, E.L. 2000. Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist 55:68-78.

Schunk, D.H., Pintrich, P.R., and Meece, J.L. 2008. Motivation in Education: Theory, Research and Applications. 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Wigfield, A. and Eccles, J.S. 2000. Expectancy-value theory of achievement motivation. Contemporary Educational Psychology 25: 68-81. doi:10.1006/ceps.1999.1015

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