Contemporary Theories of Motivation

A cursory review of the literature on achievement motivation will quickly reveal a number of theoretical frameworks of achievement motivation, including expectancy-value theory (Wigfield & Eccles, 2000), achievement goal theory (Maehr & Zusho, 2009), self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000), self-efficacy theory (Bandura, 1997), attribution theory (Weiner, 1985), and interest theory (Renninger & Hidi, 2002). Although there are theoretical nuances that distinguish these theories from each other, collectively they can be framed according to three primary questions (see also Eccles, Wigfield, & Schiefele, 1998):

  • • Can I do this task?
  • • Do I want to do this task and why?
  • • How do instructional or contextual factors shape motivation?

We direct the interested reader to more comprehensive reviews of these theories (Eccles, Wigfield, & Schiefele, 1998; Eccles & Wigfield, 2002).


Motivational constructs that relate to the question, “Can I do this task?” are considered to be types of expectancies, that is, constructs related to one’s perceptions about future events. Schunk and Zimmerman (2006) classify expectancies into two categories. Specifically, they distinguish competence perceptions from control beliefs. The former relates to an individual’s perceptions about the means, processes, and capabilities to successfully execute specific tasks, whereas the latter relates to the probability of accomplishing a desired outcome under certain conditions (Schunk & Zimmerman, 2006). Schunk and Zimmerman note that enhanced perceptions of one’s competence and control are generally adaptive; however, simply feeling that one can accomplish a task does not necessarily indicate that an individual will feel that he or she is in control, particularly when the conditions of achieving success are challenging or uncertain.

A prime example of competence perceptions is that of self-efficacy beliefs, or beliefs related to one’s capabilities to manage and deliver a specific course of action to accomplish a task (Bandura, 1997). Bandura describes self-efficacy as a multidimensional construct that varies across individuals. For example, some individuals may generally sense a strong feeling of efficacy, whereas others may not. Similarly, some individuals may perceive a strong sense of efficacy across a number of situations, whereas others may feel efficacious in certain contexts or domains. Bandura also suggests that efficacy levels may vary by challenge: some individuals may feel efficacious across both easy and difficult tasks, whereas others may feel efficacious only for easier tasks (Eccles & Wigfield, 2002). Apart from self-efficacy beliefs, agent-means beliefs, competence judgments, action-outcome expectancies, agency beliefs, and capacity/ability beliefs would also be considered examples of competence perceptions (Skinner, 1996).

Examples of control beliefs would include outcome expectations, as well as specific control beliefs such as mean-ends beliefs and causal attributions related to internal locus of control (e.g., one’s belief in one’s ability to write a quality paper) or external locus of control (e.g., one’s belief that the professor will not reward a quality paper). Outcome expectations refer to beliefs that certain actions will result in certain outcomes, for example, the belief that studying will improve one’s academic performance (Bandura, 1997). Means-end beliefs, like outcome expectations, refer to expectations that certain causes (e.g., effort, ability, luck, teachers, unknown causes) produce particular outcomes (Eccles & Wigfield, 2002). Attribution theory (Weiner, 1985) suggests that individuals’ interpretation of their own success or failure rests on controllability, that is, whether or not the outcome was caused by things within their control (e.g., effort) or outside their control (e.g., aptitude, others’ action, luck, mood).

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