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Regulation of Motivation: Contextual and Social Aspects

by Christopher A. Wolters - 2011

Background: Models of self-regulated learning have been used extensively as a way of understanding how students understand, monitor, and manage their own academic functioning. The regulation of motivation is a facet of self-regulated learning that describes students� efforts to control their own motivation or motivational processing. The regulation of motivation includes students� knowledge, monitoring, and active management of their motivation or motivational processing.

Purpose: The purpose of this article is threefold. One, a conceptual understanding of regulation of motivation highlighting three core facets is presented. These aspects are knowledge of motivation, monitoring of motivation, and use of strategies to regulate motivation. Two, prior empirical work documenting the regulation of motivation across contexts is reviewed. This work indicates that students at different developmental levels use motivational regulation strategies and that their use varies as a function of the academic task or context. Three, social influences on the development of regulation of motivation that include modeling, scaffolding, direct instruction, and sociocultural processes are discussed.

Research Design: This article is an analytic essay in which selected prior research is reviewed only briefly.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Overall, it is argued that motivational regulation is a critical aspect of self-regulated learning that must be studied more thoroughly. Specific avenues for future studies are noted and include work that examines students� knowledge and monitoring of motivation, how regulation of motivation varies across contexts, and how instructional and social processes impact its development.

Contemporary models of motivation explain students’ willingness to engage in and work hard at academic tasks using a diverse set of beliefs, attitudes, values, and other related cognitive constructs (Pintrich & Schunk, 2005). These models include varied perspectives such as interests, self-efficacy, achievement goal orientations, attributions, self-concept, and self-determination theory. For at least the past 20 years, motivational beliefs such as these have become increasingly recognized as a critical determinant of students’ engagement, learning, and performance within academic contexts (Anderman & Wolters, 2006; Graham & Wiener, 1996; Pintrich & Schunk). Put most simply, students with greater motivation or more adaptive motivational beliefs are presumed to engage in academic tasks more readily and put greater and more persistent effort into completing those tasks. Motivation also is used to explain why students with similar levels of ability, skill, or intelligence display different levels of performance. This general connection between increased or better motivation and greater engagement, persistence, performance, and achievement has been supported empirically again and again within varied contexts and with diverse types of learners and learning tasks.

Unfortunately, it is often difficult for students to be motivated for learning in school. Academic contexts are littered with obstacles that interfere with students’ motivation. Students may be asked to complete cognitively challenging tasks, learn material that has little personal relevance, or repeatedly practice basic and decontextualized skills. Even students who begin academic tasks eager to work and be successful may suffer declines in motivation as opportunities to pursue more interesting, enjoyable, or important alternatives arise. Ultimately, no student is motivated to work hard and complete academic tasks at all times. As well, there are few times when all the students in a class are motivated and engaged in learning. Outside the classroom context, demands for completing academic work can present even more troubles. In these contexts, students may have to complete activities perceived as difficult, unimportant, or boring, and do so without the guidance or social resources that are available in the classroom.

Models of self-regulated learning provide one explanation for how students overcome these difficulties and maintain their motivation across academic contexts. These models, broadly speaking, have been developed with regard to a variety of domains to understand how individuals take an active, purposeful, and reflective role in their own functioning or behavior (Baumeister & Vohs, 2004; Boekaerts, Pintrich, & Zeidner, 2000). Generally, self-regulated learners have been viewed as autonomous, reflective, and efficient learners who have both the skills or cognitive and metacognitive abilities, and the will or motivation necessary to understand, direct, and control their own learning (Pintrich, 1999; Schunk & Zimmerman, 1994). These students are thought to initiate, monitor, and direct their own learning experiences across various phases of learning (Schunk & Zimmerman, 1994; Zimmerman & Schunk, 1989).

More specifically, self-regulated learners are often described as having at least four interdependent characteristics. First, they are said to have a large supply of cognitive learning strategies. Second, they are metacognitively sophisticated in that they have a great deal of knowledge about their own cognitive processing, about the learning process in general, and about when particular learning strategies will be effective (Borkowski, Carr, Rellinger, & Pressley, 1990; Butler & Winne, 1995; Schunk & Zimmerman, 1994; Zimmerman, 1986). Third, they are proficient at monitoring and, if necessary, modifying their use of the various cognitive strategies needed to complete different learning tasks (Butler & Winne, 1995; Zimmerman, 1989). Finally, self-regulated learners are characterized as highly motivated students who are eager to provide effort and to persist at academic tasks even when they are not externally compelled to do so (Pintrich, 1999, 2000).

Although emphasized less frequently, students’ active regulation of their motivation has also been identified and described as a facet of self-regulated learning (Boekaerts, 1997; Pintrich, 1999; Wolters, 1998, 2003; Zimmerman & Martinez-Pons, 1986, 1990). At the broadest level, regulation of motivation can be viewed as efforts to influence, control, or manage an individual’s motivation. In academic contexts, regulation of motivation is most concerned with managing students’ engagement and willingness to work at the tasks necessary for learning and achievement. Many individuals associated with a learning environment may attempt to influence students’ motivation. One component of effective instruction, for instance, is the ability to accomplish key aspects of teaching (e.g., evaluation, classroom management, task design) in ways that also foster adaptive motivation among learners. Administrators, parents, and even peers may also take actions purposefully designed to improve a particular student’s motivation. Most critical for the present discussion, individual students also can act deliberately to intervene in, manage, or control the processes that determine their own willingness to start, to provide effort toward, or to complete academic activities (Wolters, 2003). In other words, students are able to self-regulate their achievement motivation.

The purpose of this article is to review and extend the understanding of regulation of motivation within academic contexts. To achieve this goal, the article is divided into three major sections. One, I review the significance of regulation of motivation by describing its place within three current models of self-regulated learning. Within this section, I identify and explain three key dimensions to the regulation of motivation. Two, I review empirical research supporting the existence and importance of motivational regulation across different academic or developmental contexts, with a focus on my own work. Finally, in the third section, I discuss several ways in which social or environmental influences may affect the development of students’ ability to self-regulate their motivation.


Since its emergence at least 25 years ago, much of the social cognitive theory and research examining self-regulated learning has emphasized students’ efforts to understand and manage cognitive and metacognitive activities central to learning (Wolters, 2003). Nonetheless, the regulation of motivation is now recognized as a key aspect of what it means to be an effective self-regulated learner across many different models (Boekaerts, 1996; Corno, 2001; Pintrich, 2000; Sansone & Thoman, 2005; Winne & Hadwin, 2008; Zimmerman, 2000). This inclusion is evident when considering popular models used to understand academic self-regulation that have been developed by Zimmerman, by Pintrich, and by Boekaerts. Even in its earliest forms, the research on self-regulated learning directed by Zimmerman (1989, 1990) included a place for the regulation of motivation. For instance, Zimmerman and Martinez-Pons (1986, 1988) described a self-consequating strategy in which students attempted to sustain their efforts at task completion by providing themselves some sort of reward. More recently, Zimmerman (2000) continued to emphasize the significance of self-regulation of motivation by stating that “skills are of little value if a person cannot motivate themselves to use them.” Important to note about this work, however, is that self-motivation has not always been equated with students’ purposeful control over their own motivation. Instead, self-motivation is viewed as more equivalent to being intrinsically motivated, or motivated through self-referent processes (e.g., self-efficacy; Zimmerman, Bandura, & Martinez-Pons, 1992). That is, self-motivation has been characterized as motivated by the self, or self-related processes.

The framework advanced by Pintrich and his colleagues (Pintrich, 2000, 2004; Pintrich & DeGroot, 1990; Pintrich & Zusho, 2002; Wolters, Pintrich, & Karabenick, 2005) more explicitly identifies motivation as one of four areas of academic functioning that can be regulated, the others being cognition, behavior, and context. In this model, motivational beliefs, attitudes, and values are critical in a forethought or planning stage because they influence students’ goal-setting and choices regarding task engagement, strategy selection, and planning. More significantly, motivational processes can be monitored and can be the subject of reflection and reaction or control (Wolters, 2003; Wolters et al.). According to this model, therefore, students can have an awareness of their motivation, can be unsatisfied with it, and can take steps to intervene and improve this aspect of their academic functioning.

The model described by Boekaerts (1995, 1996, 1997) also identifies motivational self-regulation as an explicit process within a larger model of self-regulation. Boekaerts stressed that self-regulation includes students’ ability to monitor or be aware of their motivation or affect. As well, her model proposes that students can have specific strategies for regulating or managing their motivation. More directly than other models, Boekaerts also has described how students’ knowledge or domain-specific beliefs provide a foundation necessary for the regulation of motivation. In particular, she emphasized the term metamotivational to describe individuals’ knowledge, awareness, or understanding of their own motivation, and motivational processing more generally.

Together, these three popular models indicate that the regulation or management of motivation is a core process within a larger system of self-regulated learning. Drawing from across these models as well as others (e.g., Corno, 2001; Winne & Hadwin, 2008), there appear to be at least three distinguishable dimensions to the regulation of motivation. One facet reflects the meta-level knowledge or understanding needed to regulate motivation (Boekaerts, 1996; Wolters, 2003). In research examining metacognition, this type of knowledge has been differentiated based on whether it relates to the person, the task, or strategies (Pintrich, Wolters, & Baxter, 2000). A similar division is possible with regard to metamotivational knowledge. Students’ knowledge of the topics, domains, or tasks they find interesting, enjoyable, or intrinsically motivating would reflect person-related metamotivational knowledge. Beliefs regarding particular activities and whether they are more or less motivating (e.g., they are boring, frustrating) would represent task-related metamotivational knowledge. Similar to views of metacognition, meta-level understanding about motivational regulation strategies would include the declarative, procedural, and conditional forms of knowledge needed to enact these strategies effectively. For example, consider self-talk, a strategy that Wolters (1998) found was used by college students to improve their motivation. Before engaging in this strategy, students must know about it as a tactic that can be used (declarative), must know how to enact the steps needed to accomplish it properly (procedural), and must believe that using the strategy will lead to some desired effect on motivation within a particular context (conditional). Absent any of these forms of knowledge, students are unlikely to engage this particular motivational regulation strategy.

A second facet necessary to the regulation of motivation is the monitoring of one’s level or state of motivation. That is, students’ management of their motivation also depends on their awareness or ability to observe and gather feedback on their ongoing motivation for an academic task or activity. Consistent with views of metacognitive monitoring, students can be aware of or self-assess their motivation before a task begins (prediction of motivation), during a task (experience of motivation), or after a task has been completed (reflection on motivation). This self-awareness is necessary to identify when motivation is waning or is likely to be a problem and is thus a prerequisite to any active intervention designed to bolster motivation. As an example, people are unlikely to take steps that will make a task more enjoyable if they do not first become aware that they are bored, losing interest, or generally not optimally motivated for the task. Both the level of students’ motivation and the nature of their motivation might be the object of this type of monitoring. The former concerns whether the willingness, desire, or quantity of effort needed to complete a task is available. This type of monitoring addresses the question, “Am I motivated enough?” The latter concerns the type or form of motivation underlying one’s engagement. Monitoring here is about “Am I motivated in the right way?” Much like the monitoring of one’s comprehension often described in the work on metacognition (Butler & Winne, 1995; Pintrich et al., 2000), this process may be initiated and continue without much conscious effort until a problem is encountered. Nonetheless, without effective monitoring, students may not successfully regulate their motivation for academic tasks.

A third facet of effective motivational regulation is the actual purposeful or active efforts to intervene and control one’s own motivation. This process encompasses the actual strategies one engages in order to manage either the level or nature of motivation. For instance, once a student recognizes that she has little interest in tackling a required task, she must do something to increase her interest or to foster some other form of motivation. Given the diverse nature of motivation, the particular methods that might be used to affect motivation for a task are likely quite varied. Wolters (1998, 2003) identified a number of different types of strategies that students may use to control their motivation. These strategies include attempts to regulate various motivational beliefs that have been discussed in the achievement motivation literature, such as goal orientation, self-efficacy, task value, and interest in the task. When initiated to control such factors as effort and persistence, students’ management of their affect, environment, and behavior might also be considered forms of motivational regulation (Boekaerts, 1996; Wolters, 2003). For instance, when faced with others who are being noisy and distracting, a student who is trying to study at the library may respond by asking them to be quiet or by moving to another location. These actions could be described as regulating the environment or behavior, but can also be understood as regulation of motivation if the student’s primary intent was to sustain her efforts or increase her persistence.

In sum, regulation of motivation can be viewed as an important aspect of what it means to be a self-regulated learner. Students who more effectively manage their motivation for academic tasks are likely to engage and work harder and more effectively than those who fail to do so. Further, the capacity to manage motivation depends on the individual’s knowledge, monitoring, and engagement of regulatory strategies. In the next section, I review empirical evidence concerning students’ regulation of motivation across different contexts and developmental levels.


The number of empirical studies specifically targeting the regulation of motivation from a self-regulated learning perspective is somewhat limited. One reason for this is that until recently, regulation of motivation was not often disaggregated from other aspects of self-regulation. For instance, volitional accounts of self-regulation have consistently included motivational regulation as a separate type of volitional strategy (Corno, 1994; Kuhl, 1984). Yet, studies of volition have rarely examined motivational regulation apart from other volitional strategies. Similarly, self-consequating was identified as one type of regulatory strategy by Zimmerman and Martinez-Pons (1986, 1988) but has not been studied independently from other types of regulatory strategies. Nonetheless, there is mounting empirical evidence supporting the regulation of motivation as a distinct and important aspect of what it means to be a self-regulated learner (McCann & Garcia, 1999; Sansone & Thoman, 2005; Smith, Wagaman, & Handley, 2009; Theodorakis, Hatzigeorgiadis, & Chroni, 2008). In this section, I use a review of some of my own work to show that regulation of motivation is important across academic contexts and within developmental levels.

University students, perhaps more so than younger adolescents, are required to assume responsibility for their own learning activities. The college context provides less structure overall, and students have more freedom to make such key decisions as when to study, how to study, with whom to study, and how long to study. My own research suggests that this increased autonomy and the college context more generally foster a great many obstacles that can disrupt students’ motivation. In one study (Wolters, 2001), I presented college students with three different common academic tasks—attending a lecture, reading a textbook, and studying for an exam—and asked them to describe the problems or aspects of the activity that might negatively impact their motivation for learning. As a group, students provided a large and varied list of specific problems. Qualitative analyses of students’ responses suggested eight types of problems that included distractions in the immediate environment, lack of personal interest or value for the material, task difficulty, and boredom. More notably, findings from this study also indicated that the motivational problems reported by students varied as a function of the context or academic task. Students were more likely to cite a lack of situational interest and value for the material in regard to listening to a lecture, whereas task difficulty was more often identified as a problem when studying for a test. These findings show that college students face difficulties in being motivated for their learning and that the underlying reasons for these difficulties vary across academic tasks.

Because the obstacles they encounter will change, students also must adjust the strategies they use to regulate their motivation across different academic contexts. Support for this latter point comes from an earlier study I conducted with another group of college students. In this research (Wolters, 1998), students were presented with a short scenario describing both a common academic task (e.g., reading a textbook chapter, studying for an exam) and a particular motivational problem (e.g., the material was boring or uninteresting) they might experience with regard to that task. Students were asked to report what they would do if they wanted to get themselves to overcome the problem and continue working on the task. The written responses were categorized as different types of motivational regulation strategies. Findings indicated that many students were able to describe a number of distinct strategies for controlling their motivation and thereby overcoming the problems they were presented with (Wolters, 1998). In addition, the particular strategies that students articulated varied by the type of academic task and motivational problem they faced. As might be expected, students faced with boredom were more likely to engage strategies meant to make learning enjoyable or to increase their arousal level. In contrast, when asked about facing a difficult task, students were more likely to refer to strategies that were likely to raise their self-efficacy or to obtain peer assistance with learning.

Additional evidence regarding the existence and importance of motivational regulation comes from a follow-up study with a subset of the students from Wolters (1998). Forty-eight of these students returned approximately one month later for a second experimental session (Wolters, 1999a). Students spent the first 20 minutes of this second session studying for their introductory psychology course, and then completed a survey regarding aspects of their motivation and cognition during the short study session they had just completed. Students reported using a number of regulation of motivation strategies during the study session immediately prior. Further, using these strategies was associated with greater engagement during the study time (Wolters, 1999a).

Findings from my research also provide evidence for the importance of students’ motivational regulation in younger students. In one study, Wolters (1999b) administered a self-report survey to a group of high school students that included 28 motivational regulation items. Findings from a principal components exploratory factor analysis indicated that these items could best be represented by five factors corresponding to five regulation of motivation strategies. In addition, results showed that students’ use of some forms of motivational regulation was associated with other indicators of self-regulation, including greater use of cognitive and metacognitive strategies and higher teacher-assigned grades.

In a similar study, Wolters and Rosenthal (2000) administered a self-report survey to a group of eighth-grade students that included items tapping into the regulation of motivation. Again, results provided internally consistent and meaningful scales reflecting students’ use of a number of different motivational regulation strategies. Wolters and Rosenthal also found that students’ motivational regulation was related positively to motivational beliefs typically associated with increased self-regulated learning. That is, students who had more adaptive motivational beliefs also tended to report greater use of motivational regulation strategies.

Although purposefully not exhaustive, this review does evidence that students at different developmental levels report using strategies to regulate their own motivation. In addition, findings indicate that the motivational problems, and thus the nature of students’ regulation of motivation, may vary across types of academic tasks. Much of this research, however, has focused on students’ self-reported use of strategies for regulating motivation. In my own work, I have not specifically investigated the extent to which students actively monitor or are aware of their own motivation, or at what age this sort of awareness first emerges. Greater focus on these aspects of the regulation of motivation is one important direction for future research.


By their nature, models of self-regulated learning stress individuals and their active and purposeful efforts in determining their own academic outcomes. Research born of these models also tends to focus on the individual’s contribution to the process of self-regulated learning. Despite this focus on studying intraindividual factors, the importance of social processes has not been, and is not, dismissed or deemed unimportant to those studying self-regulated learning. With deep roots in social cognitive views of thought and action, many of the most common models of self-regulated learning inherently recognize the importance of social processes in the development and ongoing performance of students’ self-regulatory practices (Schunk & Zimmerman, 1997). Even models arising from more volitional, information processing, and developmental perspectives acknowledge social and environmental influences on self-regulation (Zimmerman & Schunk, 2001). Models arising from a sociocultural perspective (John-Steiner & Mahn, 1996; McCaslin & Hickey, 2001), perhaps more than others, have highlighted the influences of historical, cultural, and social processes in determining students’ academic functioning and their self-regulation more specifically. In this final section, I review four ways in which students’ regulation of motivation, as one specific dimension of self-regulation, derives from social and cultural influences. More specifically, I consider how social processes help to determine the growth and performance of the three facets of regulation of motivation described earlier, including students’ meta-level knowledge regarding motivation, their awareness or monitoring of motivation, and their use strategies for regulating motivation. For this discussion, I focus on just four interdependent forms of social influence: modeling, scaffolding, direct instruction, and sociocultural processes.

Modeling. As a central tenet of social cognitive views of learning and behavior (Bandura, 1986), modeling is perhaps the most prototypical example of how the social environment affects students’ regulation of motivation. Modeling stresses that people learn by observing others either directly or through more indirect means such as video recordings and written or verbal accounts. Prior research shows that modeling can account for improvements in an array of knowledge, skills, or behaviors (Bandura; Schunk, 1987). In particular, research indicates that modeling can be an effective means for helping students to develop the knowledge, beliefs, and skills necessary to be self-regulated learners (Schunk, 2001; Schunk & Zimmerman, 1996, 1997). For instance, students can improve their declarative, procedural, and conditional knowledge necessary for strategy use through modeling (Schunk, 1998). Peer models also are crucial for goal-setting and fostering students’ confidence that they can perform the regulatory skills necessary to reach their goals (Schunk, 1987; Schunk & Zimmerman, 1997). The social environment of most students provides a diverse array of potential models for regulating motivation, including teachers, parents, and peers. For instance, a parent might easily demonstrate such motivational regulation strategies as self-talk, self-consequating, or making a boring task into a game so that it is more fun. Research specifically documenting that the knowledge, awareness, and management skills needed for students to self-regulate their motivation can be and are being developed through modeling has yet to be completed. Still, the research on other forms of self-regulation makes it clear that modeling is likely to be a key social process through which individuals’ regulation of motivation emerges.

Scaffolding. A second process that exemplifies how the social environment can influence students’ regulation of their motivation is scaffolding. In instructional contexts, scaffolding describes the process through which a more experienced person facilitates a less experienced person in the engagement and completion of an academic task (Meyer & Turner, 2002; Puntambekar & Hubscher, 2005). It is typically described as a goal-directed system within which the teacher (or other more advanced partner) provides and then removes supports needed by a student to complete a learning task. Although modeling is often viewed as a core element within this process, scaffolding is typically described as more complex and involving more intricate interpersonal processes between a novice and an expert. In particular, calibration and the fading of support are viewed as core features of scaffolding that differentiate it from mere modeling (Puntambekar & Hubscher). Calibration describes the way in which the expert provides support for learning that is adjusted sensitively to the skill level of the novice. Fading reflects the notion that the support that is provided is removed over time as the learner advances in his or her understanding or abilities. Both of these processes are, at their root, social in nature. The expert and novice interact and adopt a shared understanding of the goals or purposes of an activity. This intersubjectivity serves as the foundation for joint problem-solving and accomplishment of the learning tasks. Ultimately, this process facilitates the learner’s internalization of the knowledge, skills, or abilities that reflect greater sophistication.

Research has shown that scaffolding by teachers, parents, and peers can help students to develop the knowledge and strategies needed for self-regulation. For example, Meyer and Turner (2002) described how the teacher’s discourse during whole-class mathematics lessons can support students’ acquisition of the knowledge and skills associated with self-regulated learning. As well, Azevedo, Cromley, Winters, Moos, and Greene (2005) found that adolescent students in an adaptive scaffolding group showed increased conceptual understanding and exhibited greater engagement in self-regulation compared with two other groups. More generally, research indicates that scaffolding is a powerful process that can be used to explain cognitive development and learning from infancy through adulthood.

Direct instruction. Another process through which social influences can affect students’ development of their regulation of motivation is direct instruction. Generally, direct or explicit instruction refers to various techniques used to teach, present material, or advance students through a curriculum. Lecturing, explanation, whole-group activities, and other common instructional techniques typically include periods of direct instruction. These forms of instruction can often dominate the instructional time in traditional classrooms. Although perhaps not typically emphasized as such, direct instruction is a social process that entails interaction between a teacher and a group of students. That is, one key figure in the social environment is structuring the interactions and thus guiding the thinking and behavior of others in that environment. Direct instruction is also clearly a pathway through which students’ knowledge and ability to monitor and use self-regulation strategies can be fostered. For instance, systems designed to increase strategy use and self-regulation among elementary, high school, and college students all rely to some extent on explicit forms of instruction (Butler, 1998; Pressley & Harris, 2006). Note that this form of direct influence of the environment on students’ behavior might also exist between peers. One student can directly teach another how to engage in a particular strategy or an important part of some strategy.

Sociocultural. A fourth, and more global, process through which social forces shape students’ development of the regulation of motivation has been emphasized by those interested in sociocultural models of learning and cognitive development. In addition to scaffolding, sociocultural perspectives highlight how historical, cultural, or social forces determine the affordances, tools, artifacts, or strategies that are available for students to learn (John-Steiner & Mahn, 1996; McCaslin & Hickey, 2001). According to sociocultural theories, over extended periods, cultures develop the artifacts, tools, and signs needed to overcome challenges or obstacles within the environment they inhabit. This process accounts for the creation and evolution of concrete artifacts like the abacus, calculator, and computer, as well as more cognitive tools or skills such as an alphabet, mathematical systems, and problem-solving strategies. The beliefs, knowledge, and skills that underpin the regulation of motivation, one would therefore assume, also have evolved through this process.

The larger cultural and historical processes that drive the creation of cognitive tools such as those linked to self-regulation are not easily documented in the short term. Nevertheless, evidence supporting this view can be gleaned in two ways. One form of support comes from evidence that motivating students is an important problem within schools and within the broader community. In fact, engaging students in classroom tasks, managing behavior, and sustaining motivation are consistently identified by preservice and beginning teachers as among their biggest concerns and the areas in which teacher self-efficacy is critical (Newby, 1991; Tschannen-Moran, Woolfolk Hoy, & Hoy, 1998). Motivation as a core topic within educational psychology textbooks and the numerous book-length publications for educators that discuss motivation and how to improve it also serve as evidence that the educational community, as well as the larger cultural context, recognizes that poor student motivation is a key instructional hurdle that must be overcome.

A second form of support for sociocultural influences on the regulation of motivation is evidence that educators, parents, and the broader community have developed and promulgated strategies designed to improve students’ achievement motivation. Although more anecdotal than empirical, it is not difficult to uncover evidence of the store of cultural or social knowledge regarding motivation and how to motivate students. A brief scan of practice-oriented publications quickly provides examples of articles meant to provide teachers with new instructional strategies for keeping students interested, engaged, and on task. As well, in the United States, it is not uncommon for parents or local businesses to provide children money, food, or other sorts of rewards for high marks. As standardized tests of achievement have risen in importance, schools have developed more specific strategies for increasing and sustaining motivation for these tasks. For instance, school systems in the area in which I live routinely try to raise students’ value for these tests by having pep rallies, posting banners with motivational messages, and promising celebrations and other rewards for those who do well. Schools also enact strategies designed to improve motivation by reducing distractions and ensuring students’ physical readiness for the test. They close the school campus to parents or other visitors and send notes home highlighting how important it is to do well on the test and urging parents to ensure their children get enough sleep, eat well, and are stress- and anxiety-free during the week. Strategies for improving students’ performance on these tests also reaches into the broader community with efforts to restrict extracurricular activities that have the potential to affect students’ preparedness for school the following day. Overall, these examples illustrate how broader sociocultural processes might eventuate in students’ understanding of and knowledge about motivation, its relation to academic performance, and the types of strategies that might be used to improve it. Empirical research documenting these school and community strategies and the way in which they get transmitted and internalized by students represents a fruitful line of future research.

In sum, it is clear that the self-regulation of motivation does not develop in a social vacuum. Social processes such modeling, direct instruction, and scaffolding, as well as broader sociocultural influences, appear critical for bringing about students’ knowledge, awareness, and ability to regulate their motivation for academic tasks. However, it is also true that research documenting the effects of the social environment on self-regulation has not centered on the regulation of motivation. Instead, and as with most work in this area, prior research has stressed students’ metacognitive knowledge and their monitoring and use of cognitive or metacognitive learning strategies. Hence, there is a continued need for work that tests the effects of these different processes with regard to the knowledge and strategies that are expressly pertinent to the regulation of motivation.


A further point worth noting is that the relation between the social environment and students’ self-regulation is not unidirectional. Up to now, the discussion has emphasized the effects of social factors on students’ understanding and ability to regulate their motivation. It is also presumed that students’ self-regulation, and specifically their efforts to manage their motivation, can involve both direct and indirect effects on the social environment.

More directly, the strategies that students engage to regulate their motivation may rely on modifying the context or influencing the behavior of others in their environment (Pintrich, 2000; Volet & Mansfield, 2006). As one example, self-consequating is a common strategy for trying to sustain or increase motivation for a task. Arranging the most effective consequences, however, may require students to negotiate with those in their environment who are in a position to provide the most appealing rewards. Students may bargain with parents, teachers, or even peers to arrange consequences that will motivate their academic efforts. Deals for release from homework, money for good marks, ice cream treats, and free time after school do not always originate with a teacher or parent. As another example, students’ efforts to manage their motivation may involve reducing distractions in the environment, seeking help from peers, or seeking information on their relative ability. Students’ engagement in each of these strategies may directly affect others in the environment. For instance, students’ efforts to regulate their motivation may set in motion social interactions that affect the behavior of others (Volet & Mansfield).

Students’ efforts to regulate their motivation can also affect the social environment more indirectly. Students who successfully sustain or improve their motivation, for example, can serve as models for their classmates. One student’s efforts to monitor and regulate her motivation using a particular strategy can demonstrate the process for others. In addition, one student can serve to model adaptive motivation for a task that may infect other students and produce an entire class that is more engaged and on task. Students who are able to sustain their own motivation and advance their learning also may contribute to the teacher feeling more efficacious. Hence, the regulation of motivation by one student can translate into changes in the social environment even when there is not direct engagement or control of others.

Overall, the reciprocal relations between the thoughts and behavior of individuals and the broader social environment are consistent with the reciprocal determinism that forms the basis for social cognitive views of learning and academic functioning (Bandura, 1986). An active and purposeful learner is also a basic assumption of sociocultural views of learning and development. In these models, the novice or learner can actively recruit assistance and shape the support given from those more expert in the community. As well, the learner is active in constructing meaning and interpreting the environment. The underlying bidirectional nature of these relations indicates that when drawing conclusions drawn from empirical research, one must be cautious in making any sort of causal claims or in arguing that either causal influence is paramount.


If the tasks in school were always enjoyable, the material constantly interesting and highly valued and students always confident in their abilities, regulating motivation might be unnecessary. Until this ideal can be reached, regulation of students’ motivation will be an important concern. In this discussion, I have argued that regulation of motivation is a core dimension of what it means to be a self-regulated learner. It is closely related to, but conceptually distinct from, other aspects of self-regulation such as motivation, and regulation of cognition (or metacognition). As with metacognitive regulation, the regulation of motivation is a function of students’ knowledge, beliefs, or understanding about motivation and motivational processing (Wolters, 2003). As well, it depends on students’ ability to monitor and enact strategies intended to sustain, increase, or modify one’s own motivation. My own prior research shows that students from across academic levels report using motivational regulation strategies. Students’ use of these strategies, moreover, appears tied to the academic context or type of motivational obstacle they encounter. In the final section of the article, I evaluated social processes that might serve to influence the development of students’ regulation of motivation.

In closing, it is important to note that the understanding of motivational regulation is incomplete, and further empirical study is needed. Three particular areas for future research stand out. One, prior research (including my own) has done more to document students’ reported use of motivational regulation strategies than to investigate students’ understanding and monitoring of motivation. The relative scarcity of research from this latter area needs to be addressed. Two, research is needed to further investigate how students’ motivational regulation is a function of academic contexts. Inasmuch as motivation itself is assumed to be heavily influenced by context, so too is the regulation of motivation likely to be determined by contextual and social influences. Finally, research that specifically focuses on examining the instructional and social processes through which students develop motivational regulation is needed. Earlier and ongoing work that examines self-regulated learning more broadly is valuable, but is limited in the insight it can provide about the regulation of motivation more exclusively.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 113 Number 2, 2011, p. 265-283
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15977, Date Accessed: 12/4/2021 6:38:59 PM

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About the Author
  • Christopher Wolters
    University of Houston
    CHRISTOPHER A. WOLTERS earned a Ph.D. in education and psychology from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He is now an associate professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Houston, where he has served as director for the Ph.D. and M.Ed. programs in educational psychology since 2002. In his research, Dr. Wolters studies motivation and self-regulation, including their development and how they interact to influence students academic engagement, learning, and achievement.
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