Behaviorism and Motivation

Sometimes it is useful to think of motivation not as something “inside” a student driving the student’s behavior, but as equivalent to the student’s outward behaviors. This is the perspective of behaviorism, which is a way to think about the learning process. In its most thorough-going form, behaviorism focuses almost completely on what can be directly seen or heard about a person’s behavior, and has relatively few comments about what may lie behind (or “underneath” or “inside”) the behavior. When it comes to motivation, this perspective means minimizing or even ignoring the distinction between the inner drive or energy of students, and the outward behaviors that express the drive or energy. The two are considered the same, or nearly so.

Equating the inner and the outward might seem to violate common sense. How can a student do something without some sort of feeling or thought to make the action happen? As we will explain, this very question has led to alternative models of motivation that are based on cognitive rather than behaviorist theories of learning. We will explain some of these later in this chapter. Before getting to them, however, we encourage you to consider the advantages of a behaviorist perspective on motivation.

Sometimes the circumstances of teaching limit teachers’ opportunities to distinguish between inner motivation and outward behavior. Certainly teachers see plenty of student behaviors—signs of motivation of some sort. But the multiple demands of teaching can limit the time needed to determine what the behaviors mean. If a student asks a lot of questions during discussions, for example, is he or she curious about the material itself, or just wanting to look intelligent in front of classmates and the teacher? In a class with many students and a busy agenda, there may not be a lot of time for a teacher to decide between these possibilities. In other cases, the problem may not be limited time as much as communication difficulties with a student. Consider a student who is still learning English, or who belongs to a cultural community that uses patterns of conversation that are unfamiliar to the teacher, or who has a disability that limits the student’s general language skill. In these cases discerning the student’s inner motivations may take more time and effort. It is important to invest the extra time and effort for such students, but while a teacher is doing so, it is also important for her to guide and influence the students’ behavior in constructive directions. That is where behaviorist approaches to motivation can help.

Operant Conditioning as a Way of Motivating

The most common version of the behavioral perspective on motivation is the theory of operant conditioning associated with B. F. Skinner (1938, 1957). The description in that chapter focused on behavioral learning, but the same operant model can be transformed into an account of motivation. In the operant model, you may recall, a behavior being learned (the “operant”) increases in frequency or likelihood because performing it makes a reinforcement available. To understand this model in terms of motivation, think of the likelihood of response as the motivation and the reinforcement as the motivator. Imagine, for example, that a student learns by operant conditioning to answer questions during class discussions: each time the student answers a question (the operant), the teacher praises (reinforces) this behavior. In addition to thinking of this situation as behavioral learning, however, you can also think of it in terms of motivation: the likelihood of the student answering questions (the motivation) is increasing because of the teacher’s praise (the motivator).

Video 6.3.1. Incentive Theory discusses how incentives can motivate behaviors through reinforcement.

Many concepts from operant conditioning, in fact, can be understood in motivational terms. Another one, for example, is the concept of extinction, which is the tendency for learned behaviors to become less likely when reinforcement no longer occurs—a sort of “unlearning,” or at least a decrease in performance of previously learned. The decrease in performance frequency can be thought of as a loss of motivation, and the removal of the reinforcement can be thought of as the removal of the motivator. Table 6.3.1 summarizes this way of reframing operant conditioning in terms of motivation.

Table 6.3.1. Operant conditioning as learning and as motivation
Concept Definition phrased in terms of learning Definition phrased in terms of motivation Classroom example
Operant Behavior that becomes more likely because of reinforcement Behavior that suggests an increase in motivation Student listens to teacher’s comments during lecture or discussion
Reinforcement Stimulus that increases likelihood of a behavior Stimulus that motivates Teacher praises student for listening
Positive reinforcement Stimulus that increases likelihood of a behavior by being introduced or added to a situation Stimulus that motivates by its presence; an “incentive” Teacher makes encouraging remarks about student’s homework
Negative reinforcement Stimulus that increases the likelihood of a behavior by being removed or taken away from a situation Stimulus that motivates by its absence or avoidance Teacher stops nagging student about late homework
Punishment Stimulus that decreases the likelihood of a behavior by being introduced or added to a situation Stimulus that decreases motivation by its presence Teacher deducts points for late homework
Extinction Removal of reinforcement for a behavior Removal of motivating stimulus that leads to decrease in motivation Teacher stops commenting altogether about student’s homework
Shaping successive approximations Reinforcements for behaviors that gradually resemble (approximate) a final goal behavior Stimuli that gradually shift motivation toward a final goal motivation Teacher praises student for returning homework a bit closer to the deadline; gradually she praises for actually being on time
Continuous reinforcement Reinforcement that occurs each time that an operant behavior occurs Motivator that occurs each time that a behavioral sign of motivation occurs Teacher praises highly active student for every time he works for five minutes without interruption
Intermittent reinforcement Reinforcement that sometimes occurs following an operant behavior, but not on every occasion Motivator that occurs sometimes when a behavioral sign of motivation occurs, but not on every occasion Teacher praises highly active student sometimes when he works without interruption, but not every time

Cautions about Behavioral Perspectives on Motivation

As we mentioned, behaviorist perspectives about motivation do reflect a classroom reality: that teachers sometimes lack time and therefore must focus simply on students’ appropriate outward behavior. But there are nonetheless cautions about adopting this view. An obvious one is the ambiguity of students’ specific behaviors; what looks like a sign of one motive to the teacher may in fact be a sign of some other motive to the student (DeGrandpre, 2000). If a student looks at the teacher intently while she is speaking, does it mean the student is motivated to learn, or only that the student is daydreaming? If a student invariably looks away while the teacher is speaking, does it mean that the student is disrespectful of the teacher, or that the student comes from a family or cultural group where avoiding eye contact actually shows more respect for a speaker than direct eye contact?

Another concern about behaviorist perspectives, including operant conditioning, is that it leads teachers to ignore students’ choices and preferences, and to “play God” by making choices on their behalf (Kohn, 1996). According to this criticism, the distinction between “inner” motives and expressions of motives in outward behavior does not disappear just because a teacher (or a psychological theory) chooses to treat a motive and the behavioral expression of a motive as equivalent. Students usually do know what they want or desire, and their wants or desires may not always correspond to what a teacher chooses to reinforce or ignore. This, in a new guise, is once again the issue of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. Approaches that are exclusively behavioral, it is argued, are not sensitive enough to students’ intrinsic, self-sustaining motivations.

There is truth to this allegation if a teacher actually does rely on rewarding behaviors that she alone has chosen, or even if she persists in reinforcing behaviors that students already find motivating without external reinforcement. In those cases reinforcements can backfire: instead of serving as an incentive to desired behavior, reinforcement can become a reminder of the teacher’s power and of students’ lack of control over their own actions. A classic research study of intrinsic motivation illustrated the problem nicely. In the study, researchers rewarded university students for two activities—solving puzzles and writing newspaper headlines —that they already found interesting. Some of the students, however, were paid to do these activities, whereas others were not. Under these conditions, the students who were paid were less likely to engage in the activities following the experiment than were the students who were not paid, even though both groups had been equally interested in the activities to begin with (Deci, 1971). The extrinsic reward of payment, it seemed, interfered with the intrinsic reward of working the puzzles.

Video 6.3.2. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us reveals unexpected findings regarding the use of rewards for motivating complex behavior.

Later studies confirmed this effect in numerous situations, though they have also found certain conditions where extrinsic rewards do not reduce intrinsic rewards. Extrinsic rewards are not as harmful, for example, if a person is paid “by the hour” (i.e. by a flat rate) rather than piecemeal (by the number of items completed) (Cameron & Pierce, 1994; Eisenberger & Cameron, 1996). They also are less harmful if the task itself is relatively well-defined (like working math problems or playing solitaire) and high-quality performance is expected at all times. So there are still times and ways when externally determined reinforcements are useful and effective. In general, however, extrinsic rewards do seem to undermine intrinsic motivation often enough that they need to be used selectively and thoughtfully (Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 2001). As it happens, help with being selective and thoughtful can be found in the other, more cognitively oriented theories of motivation. These use the goals, interests, and beliefs of students as ways of explaining differences in students’ motives and in how the motives affect engagement with school. We turn to these cognitively oriented theories next, beginning with those focused on students’ goals.


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