Using Popular Motivational Theories to Evaluate Digital Tools

By Dr. Rachel L. Schechter

According to the nonprofit organization Digital Promise, many school administrators base their selection of educational technologies on word-of-mouth rather than scientific studies. But that prevents them from knowing whether the chosen products embed educational best practices, especially practices for keeping students motivated and on task. We’ve found that student engagement is sometimes overlooked as an educational technology feature, meaning there’s a possibility that some students will give up and tune out on their coursework despite the “cool factor” of digital tools.

So, let’s take a quick look at three prominent motivational theories derived from educational research and explain how understanding those theories can help educators evaluate whether a digital tool will support best practices for student engagement. We’ll also take a close look at three elements that are common to all three theories. The theories are self-determination theory, attribution theory, and goal orientation theory/mindsets.

Self-Determination Theory

According to self-determination theory, motivation exists along a continuum. At one end, a person is completely driven by rewards and the avoidance of unpleasant consequences (extrinsic motivation). At the other, one is self-regulated by internalized standards or personal investment (intrinsic motivation).

Research has found that intrinsic motivation is associated with greater levels of effort, satisfaction, and learning, so educators are better off selecting technologies that maximize students’ intrinsic motivation rather than those that use extrinsic incentives such as badges. The most effective self-determining approach involves addressing three student needs:

  • Autonomy, the perception of self-directed behavior or the independent pursuit of goals, interests, and desires. An example of addressing this need would be offering choices in the ways students can demonstrate their knowledge or practice their skills.
  • Competence, students’ belief that they are effective or capable of tackling learning challenges. This need can be addressed through a combination of direct skill instruction, useful scaffolds, and appropriately challenging tasks.
  • Relatedness/meaning, the creation of meaningful connections between schoolwork, student goals, and the real world. An example of addressing this need would be teachers understanding students’ goals and interests and emphasizing meaningful connections to schoolwork.

Attribution Theory

In attribution theory, the most successful students are the ones who attribute success and failure to changeable but controllable factors such their level of effort or use of a particular strategy. Students who focus on factors outside of their control (e.g., task difficulty, kindness of the teacher, or luck) or internal factors they consider stable (e.g., intelligence) tend to be much less motivated.

Technological tools can help students focus on changeable internal factors through strategies that build elements of autonomy, competence, and relatedness/meaning-making. For example, providing explicit scaffolded feedback about the importance of effort and strategy use, especially when paired with direct instruction, has been found to support the development of metacognition (i.e., thinking about one’s own cognitive processes), internal/ fluid attributions, and overall academic skills.

Goal Orientation Theory/Mindsets

Goal orientation theory is similar to attribution theory in that it states that students who believe their cognitive abilities are incapable of changing (a fixed mindset) avoid tasks where their weaknesses might be revealed. In contrast, students who believe their cognitive abilities are capable of change and can recognize their own growth (a growth mindset) will seek opportunities to acquire new knowledge and develop their skills.

Environments that successfully develop growth mindsets highlight the fact that the brain is capable of significant change and that change is achieved by challenging oneself intellectually. And, once again, they emphasize autonomy, competence, and relatedness/meaning. In these settings, students participate in decision-making, carry out tasks in ways that are personally meaningful and differentiated for their ability level, and work at their own pace while being evaluated in terms of progress, effort, strategy use, and creativity.

A Closer Look: Autonomy, Competence and Relatedness/Meaning

Let’s take a look at more ways digital tools can support the characteristics emphasized in all three theories: autonomy, competence, and relatedness/meaning.


As we mentioned earlier, some learning technologies support student autonomy by offering choices in learning paths. Another useful feature for producing a sense of autonomy is a student dashboard that allows for the monitoring of usage and progress and shows what skills the student has mastered as well as what activities can be chosen next. Also, programs that differentiate instruction through scaffolding support autonomy by allowing students to progress at their own pace and providing direct instruction only when they need it.


Digital tools can support student competence through pre-assessments that automatically place students in a level consistent with their ability. If students have difficulty in a unit, the program should automatically move them to a scaffolded task with fewer stimuli and more structure. And if students continue to struggle, the tool should provide them with instruction that directly addresses the type of errors being made. After they successfully complete all standard, non-scaffolded activities, students should be automatically moved to the next level of the program. Enabling students to monitor their within-activity progress, for example, via a progress bar that expands with each correct answer can also increase time on task.


Creating meaningful connections between tasks on digital tools and the real world can be a challenging feature to include within digital tools, but one approach that many use is helping educators to celebrate student success. Teachers may use the tool to monitor student progress and pause to celebrate a student’s completion of a level with the whole class. Alternatively, the tool may make it possible for educators to print certificates (which highlight and explain the skills each student has learned) to announce students’ achievements.

Nowadays, educational technology providers are rapidly developing and launching programs. That is potentially great news for students and educators, but not when that rapid development reflects quantity over quality. Keeping best practices in mind when deciding on digital tools puts both educators and students on surer footing.

For more, see:

Dr. Rachel Schechter is the Director of Research at Lexia Learning, and co-author of “Fostering Engagement in Educational Technologies Through Developmental Theory and Program Data,the fifth chapter of the End-User Considerations in Educational Technology Design anthology. Follow her on Twitter: @rayschechter

Stay in-the-know with all things EdTech and innovations in learning by signing up to receive our weekly newsletter, Smart Update.

Guest Author

Getting Smart loves its varied and ranging staff of guest contributors. From edleaders, educators and students to business leaders, tech experts and researchers we are committed to finding diverse voices that highlight the cutting edge of learning.

Discover the latest in learning innovations

Sign up for our weekly newsletter.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. All fields are required.