History and General Theoretical Assumptions

Research on achievement motivation has a relatively brief history (Weiner, 1990). The roots of motivational psychology can be traced back to the era of behaviorism (1930s to 1950s) when primacy was placed on understanding what instigated an organism to move from a state of rest to a state of activity. Much of this research, then, operationalized motivation in terms of needs, drives, instincts, and energization (Weiner, 1990). Research by McClelland (1953) and Atkinson (1957) for example, popularized the motives to approach success and avoid failure.

With the cognitive revolution, there was a shift away from such mechanistic views to emphasize the role of individual perceptions. Researchers began to recognize that the effects of rewards were often contingent on how one perceived the reward; for example, rewards that were perceived as controlling were found to be less effective than rewards that were intended as positive feedback (Deci, 1975). Current theories of motivation can be considered to be largely social-cognitive in nature, given their focus on both individual perceptions of a specific learning situation and larger contextual influences, such as classroom environments and interactions with peers and teachers.

Contemporary theories of achievement motivation are guided by several assumptions (Maehr & Zusho, 2009). First, given its social-cognitive bases, they all typically assume that motivation is discernible through students’ reports of their beliefs and perceptions, as well as through their behaviors, including choice of activities, level and quality of task engagement, persistence, and performance. Second, these theories assume that both personal (i.e., gender, ethnicity, age, personality) and contextual (e.g., classroom environment) factors influence how an individual approaches, engages in, and responds to achievement-related situations. Correspondingly, in contrast to earlier research (e.g., McClelland, 1953), which assumed motivation to be primarily a dispositional trait with some students being “more” or “less” motivated, motivation is increasingly recognized as situated and changeable across contexts, tasks, and instructional activities (Ames, 1992; Hickey & McCaslin, 2001; Maehr, 1974; Maehr & Nicholls, 1980). In short, a primary assumption of the research on motivation is that it is more a process than a product, and emphasis is accordingly placed more on exploring the conditions that aid in facilitating or undermining motivation.

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