Motivation in the classroom (Skinner & Belmont, 1993)

Skinner, E. A., & Belmont, M. J. (1993). Motivation in the classroom: Reciprocal effects of teacher behavior and student engagement across the school year. Journal of Educational Psychology, 85(4), 571-581.

In the current study, the authors empirically examined the effects of teacher behavior on student engagement over the course of a school year. Of special interest were reciprocal influences, that is, the effects of student motivation on teacher behavior in the classroom (Newby, 1991). Strong empirical support was found for a reciprocal relationship between teachers’ behavior and students’ engagement in the classroom. Teachers’ interactions with students predicted students’ behavioral and emotional engagement in the classroom, both directly and through their effects on student’s perceptions of their interactions with teachers.

Psychological and educational perspectives on motivation:

In general, psychological research has focused on the profile of student beliefs and attitudes that predict motivation. It has focused on individual intrapsychic influences on motivation, such as:

  • attributions (Weiner, 1986)
  • self-efficacy (Schunk, 1991)
  • perceived ability (Mclver, Stipek, & Daniels, 1991)
  • perceived control and competence (Chapman, Skinner, & Baltes, 1990;Weisz & Cameron, 1985),
  • self-concept (Wigfield & Karpathian, 1991)
  • intrinsic motivation (Corno & Rohrkemper, 1985; Deci & Ryan, 1985)
  • interest (Schiefele, 1991), learning strategies (Pintrich & De Groot, 1990)
  • goal orientations (Ames & Ames, 1984; Dweck & Elliot, 1983; Nicholls, 1984).

See Weiner (1990) for a review of the history of motivational research in education; pointed out that dominant perspectives are “varieties of cognitive approaches to motivation; the main theories today are based on the interrelated cognitions of causal ascriptions, efficacy and control beliefs, helplessness, and thoughts about the goals for which one is striving” (p. 620).

In contrast to psychological research, educational research has focused on the teacher behaviors that should be effective in promoting student motivation. A wide array of teacher behaviors have been suggested, for example:

  • Guidance, modeling, enthusiasm, provision of choice, sincere praise, reinforcement, and curiosity-, dissonance-, and interest-induction (Brophy, 1986)
  • A comprehensive model that includes four basic strategies: attention focusing, relevance, confidence building, and satisfaction (Keller, 1983)

“Taken together, these discussions in psychology and education provide complementary perspectives on the links between teacher behavior and student motivation. The educational literature serves as a guide for discerning the actual classroom practices that influence students’ attitudes and beliefs, and the psychological literature explains how these beliefs influence student engagement in the classroom. Hence, a perspective on motivation is emerging at the intersection of the psychological and educational literatures. In this approach, research about classroom practices proceeds deductively from a strong theoretical and empirical position about the specific intrapsychic influences on student motivation to an analysis of the variety of classroom practices that have been found to influence these student attitudes and beliefs” (p. 571-2)

The present study is nested within a larger motivational model (Connell, 1990; Connell & Wellborn, 1991; Deci & Ryan, 1985) that holds the following perspectives (see below). This model has been used to identify the components of student engagement in the classroom and to derive relevant dimensions of teacher behavior (Connell & Wellborn, 1991).

  • The source of motivation is internal to the child, so that when the social surround provides for children’s basic psychological needs, motivation will flourish.
  • The power of specific teacher behaviors are derived from their effectiveness in providing for students’ basic needs.
  • The extent to which children’s basic psychological needs are met or ignored in the school context is reflected in their self-system processes (attitudes and beliefs about the self).
  • These self-appraisals are the proximal predictors of student motivation.
  • These needs include the needs to be competent, autonomous, and related to other people. There are 3 major categories of teacher behavior directed at meeting children’s needs:
    • Competence is fostered when they experience their classrooms as optimal in structure. Structure refers to the amount of information in the context about how to effectively achieve desired outcomes; its opposite is chaos.
    • Autonomy in learning is promoted when they experience autonomy support. Autonomy support refers to the amount of freedom a child is given to determine his or her own behavior; the opposite of being supported is being coerced. Especially important in fostering autonomy is the absence of external rewards, controls, and pressures. Most of the components of autonomy support have been thoroughly studied by researchers interested in intrinsic motivation and the reward structures that undermine it (for reviews, see Deci & Ryan, 1985; Grolnick, Ryan, & Deci, 1989; Lepper & Green, 1975; Ryan, 1982; Ryan, Connell, & Deci, 1985).
    • Involvement refers to the quality of the interpersonal relationship with teachers and peers; its opposite is rejection or neglect. Teachers are involved with their students to the extent that they take time for, express affection toward, enjoy interactions with, are attuned to, and dedicate resources to their students. Involvement has been the focus of research conducted within many socialization traditions, but especially within attachment theories (for a review, see Ainsworth, 1989; see Connell & Wellborn, 1991). Although involvement has been little studied in the achievement domain, researchers have suggested that children’s needs for belongingness (Weiner, 1990), or their connectedness to a community of learners, may represent a fundamental motivator for children (Connell & Wellborn, 1991; Deci, et al., 1985).

“Not coincidentally, the major classes of teacher behavior identified by this model appear in educational descriptions of motivation-enhancing classrooms. For example, in an attempt to summarize the educational literature on motivation, Brophy (1983a) described as influential “sincerity of praise,” which we include in the concept of involvement; “provision of guidance,” which maps onto our structure construct; and “choice,” which we include under autonomy support” (p. 573).

“Children whose teachers were highly involved with them, experienced their teachers not only as merely involved, but also as more structured and autonomy supportive. Conversely, students with whom teachers were less involved, perceived their teachers not only as less involved but also as relatively more chaotic and coercive. This finding highlights the centrality of teacher warmth and affection to children’s classroom experiences” (p. 576).

“Children who were more behaviorally engaged subsequently received more contextual supports, whereas children who were less motivated were (a) relatively more neglected and coerced and (b) treated with less consistency
and contingency” (p. 577).

Summary of findings (p. 577-80):

Teachers’ involvement with individual students had the most powerful impact on children’s perceptions of the teacher. These findings indicate that teachers’ liking for students is communicated to children and has pervasive effects on the way in which students experience their interactions with teachers. The affection, attunement, dedication of resources, and dependability expressed by the teacher shape the extent to which children feel that their needs are met, not only for relatedness but also for competence and self-determination. When children experience teachers as warm and affectionate, children feel happier and more enthusiastic in class. Children who experience their teachers as providing clear expectations, contingent responses, and strategic help are more likely to be more effortful and persistent. When teachers are less involved with students, students not only miss the involvement but also experience teachers as less consistent and more coercive.

Teachers respond to children who have initially high behavioral engagement with more involvement, more autonomy support, and even to a degree, more contingency and consistency, and they respond to children who are more passive with correspondingly more neglect, coercion, and even inconsistency. Because these supports have an impact on children’s subsequent engagement, this means that children who have high behavioral engagement are treated in a way that is likely to increase their active participation in class, whereas teachers deal with children who have lower behavioral engagement in a way that will exacerbate their initial passivity and withdrawal from learning activities. These cycles underline the urgency of intervening into existing patterns of interactions between students and teachers.

Why do teachers respond more negatively to lack of behavioral engagement? Recent laboratory studies have provided insights into these dynamics (see Deci & Ryan, 1985, for a review). First, student passivity is aversive. It may make a teacher feel incompetent or unliked by the student. As a result, teachers might like students less and so prefer to spend less time with the student (increased neglect). In addition, passivity can be interpreted as lack of internal motivation, which leads teachers to apply external pressure to participate in classroom activities (increased coercion). It should be noted that these reactions to student passivity are natural and are elicited across a variety of settings and roles (Deci & Ryan, 1985).

One Response to “Motivation in the classroom (Skinner & Belmont, 1993)”
  1. daisy otuma says:


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