Theories of academic motivation, the Ultimate But Far-From-Complete List


For a paper on motivation-achievement interactions, Tuong-van Vu, our co-authors and I created a list of theories of academic motivation. For reasons explained here it is far from easy to delineate what should count as a motivation theory and what not. However, using the criteria set out there, we came up with the list below. If you know more theories, or if you disagree with one of our entries or summaries, please send us a mail.



Theories of academic motivation . For each theory one or more seminal references and a short summary of a distinctive focus are provided. 


Seminal reference

Focus: what determines motivation?

Self-efficacy theory

Bandura (1977)

Beliefs of efficacy and human agency (i.e. self-efficacy). There are two types of beliefs: 1/ that certain learning behaviors will lead to certain learning outcomes and 2/ that one has the ability to perform the learning behaviors that lead to such outcomes. Perceived past performance contributes to a feeling of self-efficacy. 

Control theories

Crandall, Katkovsky, & Preston (1962), Skinner (1995)

Internal locus of control (i.e. the extent that one feels in control of one’s successes and failures). 

Self-determination theory

Ryan & Deci (2000); Ryan & Deci (2020)

Basic needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness (and how why external goals turn into internal goals through internalization). 

Flow theory

Csikszentmihalyi (1997)

Immediate subjective experience of flow that occurs when engaged in an activity.

Individual difference theories of intrinsic motivation

Amabile (1983), Gottfried (1990), Nicholls (1984)

Intrinsic motivation as a trait-like characteristic (as opposed to intrinsic motivation as a state), most importantly defined by curiosity and interest.  

Interest theories

Alexander et al. (1995), Hidi & Renninger (2006), Schiefele (1999)

Individual interest, which is an evaluative orientation related to feelings associated with learning and to personal significance of learning, and situational interest which is an affective state aroused by the specific characteristics of academic tasks. 

Achievement goal and mindset theories

Ames (1992), Dweck (2000), Pintrich (2000),

Elliot & McGregor (2001), Urdan & Kaplan (2020)

Achievement goal orientation (e.g., ego-involved goals vs. task-involved goals, performance goals vs. mastery or learning goals, and the approach vs. avoidance dimension). The impact of implicit beliefs of the malleability of human attributes (e.g. intelligence) on strategies after failure and achievement. 

Attribution theories

Weiner (2010); Graham (2020)

An individual’s causal attributions or interpretation of their achievements. Attributions are classified along three causal dimensions: locus of control, stability, and controllability.

Modern (situated) expectancy-value theory

Eccles & Wigfield (2020)

The value attached to the behavior and its outcomes, and an assessment of the likelihood of certain outcomes of the behavior (expectancy). Expectancies and values are influenced by affective memories, interpretations of previous achievements, socialized behaviors, beliefs, cultural and historical factors, and perceptions of other people’s attitudes. 

Self-worth theory

Covington (1984)

The value of maintaining a sense of self-worth and a positive self-image.

Social cognitive theories of self-regulation

Zimmerman (2002), Schunk & DiBenedetto (2020)

Self-efficacy, causal attributions, and goal setting that are conducive to accomplishing learning tasks and their mutual relationships over time. 

Process-oriented metacognition model

Borkowski et al. (1990)

Pintrich (2000) 

Interaction between motivational constructs (i.e. expectancies, values, affect and self-processes such as goals, possible selves, self-worth), cognitive constructs (e.g., prior domain-specific knowledge, strategy knowledge, self-regulatory processes) and learning contexts. 

Theories of volition

Kuhl (1984), Duckworth et al. (2019). 

The strength of the will (or grit) needed to complete a task which affects the diligence and duration of the pursuit. 

Control-value Theory

Pekrun (2006)

Academic emotions (e.g., enjoyment, pride, anxiety, boredom, etc.) which have an influence on achievement over and above the effects of general cognitive ability and prior accomplishments.  



Alexander, P. A., Kulikowich, J. M., & Jetton, T. L. (1994). The role of subject-matter knowledge and interest in the processing of linear and nonlinear texts. Review of Educational Research, 64(2), 201–252.

Amabile, T. M., Hill, K. G., Hennessey, B. A., & Tighe, E. M. (1994). The work preference inventory: Assessing intrinsic and extrinsic motivational orientations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66(5), 950–967.

Ames, C. (1992). Classrooms: Goals, structures, and student motivation. Journal of Educational Psychology, 84(3), 261–271.

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. W H Freeman/Times Books/ Henry Holt & Co.

Borkowski, J. G., Carr, M., Rellinger, E., & Pressley, M. (1990). Self-regulated cognition: Interdependence of metacognition, attributions, and self-esteem. In Dimensions of thinking and cognitive instruction (pp. 53–92). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Covington, M. V. (1984). The Self-Worth Theory of Achievement Motivation: Findings and Implications. Elementary School Journal, 85, 4-20.

Crandall, V. C., Katkovsky, W., & Crandall, V. J. (1965). Children’s beliefs in their own control of reinforcements in intellectual-academic achievement situations. Child Development, 36(1), 91.

Csikzentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row.

Duckworth, A. L., Taxer, J. L., Eskreis-Winkler, L., Galla, B. M., & Gross, J. J. (2019). Self-control and academic achievement. Annual Review of Psychology, 70(1), 373–399.

Dweck, C. S. (2000). Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality and development. Psychology Press.

Eccles, J. S., & Wigfield, A. (2020). From expectancy-value theory to situated expectancy-value theory: A developmental, social cognitive, and sociocultural perspective on motivation. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 61, 101859.

Elliot, A., & McGregor, H. (2001). A 2x2 achievement goal framework. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80(3), 501–519.

Gottfried, A. E. (1990). Academic intrinsic motivation in young elementary school children. Journal of Educational Psychology, 82(3), 525–538.

Graham, S. (2020). An attributional theory of motivation. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 101861.

Hidi, S., & Renninger, K. A. (2006). The Four-Phase Model of Interest Development. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 111–127.

Kuhl, J. (1984). Volitional aspects of achievement motivation and learned helplessness: Toward a comprehensive theory of action control. In B. A. Maher & W. B. Maher (Eds.), Progress in Experimental Personality Research (Vol. 13, pp. 99–171). Elsevier.

Marsh, H. W. (1994). Sport Motivation Orientations: Beware of Jingle-Jangle Fallacies. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 16, 365–380.

Nicholls, J. G. (1984). Achievement motivation: Conceptions of ability, subjective experience, task choice, and performance. Psychological Review, 91(3), 328–346.

Pekrun, R. (2006). The control-value theory of achievement emotions: Assumptions, corollaries, and implications for educational research and practice. Educational Psychology Review, 18(4), 315–341.

Pintrich, P. R. (2000). An achievement goal theory perspective on issues in motivation terminology, theory, and research. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25(1), 92–104.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25(1), 54–67.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2020). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation from a self-determination theory perspective: Definitions, theory, practices, and future directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 101860.

Schiefele, U. (1999). Interest and Learning From Text. Scientific Studies of Reading, 3(3), 257–279.

Schunk, D. H., & DiBenedetto, M. K. (2020). Motivation and social cognitive theory. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 60, 101832.

Skinner, E. (1995). Perceived control, motivation, & coping (Vol. 8). Sage.

Urdan, T., & Kaplan, A. (2020). The origins, evolution, and future directions of achievement goal theory. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 101862.

Weiner, B. (2010). The development of an attribution-based theory of motivation: A history of ideas. Educational Psychologist, 45(1), 28–36.

Zimmerman, B. J. (2002). Becoming a self-regulated learner: An overview. Theory into practice, 41, 64-70.