Toward a theory of intrinsically motivating instruction (Malone, 1981)

Malone, T.W. Toward a theory of intrinsically motivating instruction, Cognitive Science, 1981, 4, 333-370 (Reprinted in D.F.Walker and R.D. Hess (eds.) Instructional Software,Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1984).

For a more succinct version of this paper, see:

Malone, T.W. What Makes Things Fun to Learn?: Heuristics for Designing Instructional Computer Games. In Proc. SIGSMALL ’80, ACM Press, NY, USA, 162-169.

In this article, Malone examines the motivational features of computer games in order to ultimately suggest a framework for designing intrinsically motivating computer learning games. To derive/test his framework, Malone created a set of isomorphic games in which one feature was different from each, and conducted play sessions to further understand how certain features contribute to game appeal.

Malone’s framework can be summarized thusly:

Intrinsic/extrinsic motivation:

(P.335) An activity is said to be intrinsically motivated if people engage in it “for its own sake,” if they do not engage in the activity in order to receive some external reward such as money or status.

(P.334-5) Extrinsic reinforcement may destroy the intrinsic motivation a person has to engage in an activity, and degrade the quality of certain kinds of task performance (Condry, 1977; Lepper & Greene, 1979). Lepper, Greene, and Nisbett (1973): when nursery school children who liked to play with marking pens received a promised reward for doing so, they later played with the marking pens less than children in a control group who received no reward.

(P.335) Piaget (1951) and Bruner (1962) both vouched for the importance of intrinsically motivated play-like activities for many kinds of deep learning. If students are intrinsically motivated to learn something, they may spend more time and effort learning, feel better about what they learn, and use it more in the future. Some theorists would also argue that they may learn “better” in the sense that more fundamental cognitive structures are modified, including the development of such skills as “learning how to learn” (Shulman & Keislar, 1966).

(P.357) Papert (1980) discusses the “power principle”, which is the notion that the knowledge being learned should ” … empower the learner to perform personally meaningful projects that could not be done without it” (p. 54).


(P.363) “Cognitive curiosity can be thought of as a desire to bring better “form” to one’s knowledge structures. In particular, I claim that people are motivated to bring to all their cognitive structures three of the characteristics of well-formed scientific theories: completeness, consistency, and parsimony. According to this theory, the way to engage learners’ curiosity is to present just enough information to make their existing knowledge seem incomplete, inconsistent, or unparsimonious. The learners are then motivated to learn more, in order to make their cognitive structures better-formed.”

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