Blog Martijn Meeter & Van Vu: Academic motivation: so many theories, so many words

Psychology has too many words. Usually, wordiness is not that bad of a thing (like Trump claiming to have the best words in the world), but for psychology, it is a curse. This is because psychology’s words do not refer to things, they refer to concepts that, with so many of them, can become nebulous. Do short-term memory and working memory refer to the same thing, or not? Articles tend to refer to the one or the other, but is that just preference or do those papers actually investigate different things? This has become such a fog that investigators themselves have resolved to just ignore the distinction. The same holds for selective attention and spatial attention, grit and conscientiousness, temporal preparation and temporal attention, and surely more examples exist.

It also holds for the field of academic motivation, which has proven very apt at recruiting new words. These may refer to the same thing as other motivation terms, but that may also denote something else. The driving force behind the recruitment of words is theoretical progress – which is of course in and of itself good. To take the first example given above, the term “working memory” was introduced when a new framework for short-term remembering was introduced, Baddeley and Hitch’s (1974) working memory theory. The introduction of a new term was apt because Baddeley and Hitch had a wholly different idea about short-term memory than was common before. However, the old term did not die and after a decade or so one needed history lessons to understand the difference between the two.

The same occurs in the field of motivation. Whereas early versions of self-determination theory (SDT) popularized the earlier distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, newer iterations focus more on that between autonomous and controlled motivation. While for students of SDT the relation between these two dichotomies is clear, others at more distance may observe four terms being used with unclear meanings. The word ‘motivation’ itself is also not as clear as it seems – already in 1981 102 definitions of it had been proposed in scientific papers (Kleinginna & Kleinginna, 1981 ).

What makes the situation for academic motivation worse than that in other fields, is that the delineation of what should count as a theory of motivation is fluid. In a consensus definition, motivation is that which energizes behavior (Kleinginna & Kleinginna, 1981). So academic motivation would be that which energizes academic behavior – i.e., learning and studying. Being interested can drive a student to learn, so theories of interest formation are arguably theories of academic motivation. Similarly, attribution theories of motivation describe factors that can strengthen or impair one’s wish to study (i.e., attributing success to work vs attributing it externally), and therefore would count. The case for metacognition theory as a theory of motivation is somewhat less clear-cut. Metacognition is thought of as a set of skills, not energizers, but these skills do affect whether one studies or not. They have therefore been included in reviews of academic motivation theories (Eccles & Wigfield, 2002 ).

For a recent paper, we made a list of theories that others have treated as prominent ones of academic motivation. It can be found here, with for each theory a short summary. In all likelihood, it is highly incomplete, and we’d welcome any suggestions for additions.
What is already clear, however, is that many theories have used words that denote overlapping concepts (technical term for this problem: Jingle-Jangle fallacies; Marsh, 1994 ). Such as self-efficacy and self-concept, interest, flow and intrinsic motivation, locus of control and attribution of success. Yes, they mean subtly different things, but is scientific progress served by keeping those distinctions alive until one needs a history lesson to grasp them? As researchers, we’d probably do ourselves and educational practice a huge favor by going through our vocabulary with a thick broom.