How researchers and practitioners talk about motivation shapes everything from teaching to ongoing research, says Martijn Meeter, an expert in learning. In the second of a two-part interview on motivation theory, Juanita Bawagan finds out how it has evolved over the years and during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Juanita Bawagan: How did the motivation of students change during the school closures of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Martijn Meeter: Several studies, including our own study of college students, have shown that motivation declined quite dramatically during that period. One factor that clearly influences motivation is outside social pressure, but another is the sense of connection that makes learning seem worthwhile. Because children were unable to see their peers in person, they saw less value in learning and that made it harder for them to concentrate.

“Because children were unable to see their peers in person, they saw less value in learning.”

Unfortunately, motivation went down, while at the same time it became more important because children were on their own to a greater extent. They had to motivate themselves to work, but without the habits and social pressure that come from being in school and having a certain routine. Instead, they continually had to make the decision to work, study and exercise.

JB: How can students be motivated under these conditions?

MM: Building relationships is essential. My own university has kept the campus closed except for first-year students — who have a particular need to get to know one another and build a network. Building relationships is essential not only at the college level, but also in primary and secondary schools. Giving children opportunities to meet and establish relationships is an important way to motivate them.

JB: Why does how we talk about motivation matter?

MM: Sometimes motivation is viewed as absolute, as something that is either there or not there. We know from our research, however, that it can change from day to day. So, does motivation refer to the state we find ourselves in at any given moment, or is it more like a trait that some students have and others don’t? Studies of motivation often reveal individual differences, rather than describing something that comes and goes.

“Giving children opportunities to meet and establish relationships is an important way to motivate them.”

In learning, motivation sometimes becomes a blame game, with the unfair assumption that ‘the kids aren’t doing well because they’re not motivated’. Learning can be difficult for many reasons that aren’t related to motivation. Schools have many levers to pull to make learning more straightforward for kids; for example, formative testing helps children become more aware of what they need to do to improve.

JB: And what does this mean from a research perspective?

MM: Researchers in many fields are talking about motivation, but they often have different things in mind.

Motivation theory is like a forest that changes over time: Just as some trees grow bigger, theories may become more complex. Some trees, and some theories, die, while new ones spring up. As a result, the forest, and the state of research, become denser. We need to develop a new understanding of the language we use and create a synergy of older models so that people can see how they fit together — to see the forest despite the trees.

“Motivation sometimes becomes a blame game, with the unfair assumption that ‘the kids aren’t doing well because they’re not motivated’.”

JB: You recently co-authored a review of motivation theory aimed at synthesizing these ideas. Have they changed much over time? Are there broad similarities between them?

MM: Expectations are at the heart of a very well-known theory of motivation called expectancy-value theory, which posits that people are motivated when they expect success. This expectation of success stems from a belief that you have done well in the past. Other theories, for example, self-efficacy theory, are similar in suggesting that if you were successful in the past, you will believe that you will be successful in the future. In self-determination theory, one basic need is the need for competence, with the idea that if you were competent in the past, you can expect to be competent in the future. These theories all share the same basic idea that people are motivated by their performance in the past, but this idea may be expressed in different words or be emphasized to a greater or lesser extent. Similarly, many theories share the idea that experiencing fun or flow during an activity is motivating, and that you are more motivated when you feel a connection to others during the activity.

Because there are so many theories of motivation, this overview cannot be exhaustive. Instead, it should be seen as a living document, and we invite researchers to share new theories in this field.

JB: What motivates you?

MM: Three things are important to me. The first is interest; I find lots of things interesting, and that motivates me. Next is recognizing value. I think that most of the work I do is valuable — that might be an illusion, but it’s a very helpful one. And the last thing is a sense of flow. I’m especially motivated when I feel immersed in something and it seems as if I could keep going forever. This happens for me when I’m writing a paper or programming, when I can go on for hours if undisturbed, or when I’m engaged in something immersive like teaching or telling a story.

Read part 1 of our interview series on motivation theory: “Which comes first: motivation or achievement?


Martijn Meeter is a professor of education sciences at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Netherlands. From 2015 to 2019 he served as director of the LEARN research institute, the teacher training program at Vrije Universiteit. His research focuses on learning, using traditional methods of education research as well as techniques drawn from cognitive neuroscience, such as computational modelling and EEG. In the last year, he was co-leader of a research program into learning decrements due to Covid-19, and efforts to mitigate these.

Keep up to date with the BOLD newsletter