Meta-analysis: relationship between motivation types and student functioning

Students' functioning is influenced by their motivation. A new meta-analysis (k = 344, N = 223209) by Howard et al. (2020) maps the relationship between different types of motivation as distinguished within self-determination theory, and different aspects of student functioning. Below I discuss some of the highlights of this research.

6 Types of motivation

Self-determination theory distinguishes the following types of motivation:
  1. Intrinsic motivation: a psychological desire to engage in behavior for the enjoyment, satisfaction, or excitement associated with performing the behavior itself
  2. Integrated regulation: type of motivation where you fully support the activity because it matches your personal core values
  3. Identified regulation: a form of extrinsic motivation that induces individuals to engage in behaviors based on perceived personal worth and meaning, regardless of whether this behavior is inherently enjoyable or not
  4. Introjected regulation: a form of extrinsic motivation driven by internal self-esteem-related dynamics, such as avoiding guilt and shame, as well as the search for pride
  5. External regulation: a form of extrinsic motivation that occurs when individuals seek externally controlled rewards and / or avoid externally imposed punishment
  6. Amotivation: A lack of motivation where neither intrinsic nor extrinsic factors stimulate action
Because students, given their age, often do not yet have fully integrated regulation, this form is often not measured in studies conducted in schools.

How are motivation types related to functioning?

These types of motivation can be arranged on a continuum. The first 3 of the 6 forms of motivation are forms of autonomous motivation, 4 and 5 are forms of controlled motivation.

Summarized very roughly, research shows that
autonomous motivation is associated with feeling good and functioning well, while controlled motivation is associated with feeling pressure, and functioning and feeling less well, and amotivation with the worst level of functioning and feeling (see for example here).
Research in recent years has shown that it is useful to look in more detail at the relationships between the specific (sub) forms of motivation and aspects of functioning and well-being. This is what Howard et al. did.

Correlations between motivation types and outcome variables

In their paper you can of course read the detailed findings. In the table below, I have summarized and simplified what I think are the most interesting findings. The columns show the different forms of motivation, the rows show the different outcome variables that were included in the study.

For clarity, I marked favorable correlation blue and unfavorable red (to avoid confusion: a negative correlation with something negative is favorable). I left very low correlations (<.05) white and gave relatively high correlations (>, 40) a darker color.
Firstly, it is striking that the two examined aspects of autonomous motivation are positively associated with all outcome variables included in the study, i.e. positive with positive outcomes (eg persistence) and negative with negative outcomes (eg fear). These motivational aspects are even more closely related to positive behavioral and emotional aspects than to performance.

Furthermore, it is striking that amotivation is unfavorably associated with almost all outcome variables and external regulation also with many outcome variables. 

In general, introjected regulation appears to be less negative. It is positively related to some positive outcome variables (such as participation in class and - surprisingly - enjoyment). However, it is also negatively associated with some aspects, especially with regard to well-being. And it is much less positively associated with positive outcome variables than identified regulation and intrinsic motivation.

Relative weight analysis

The researchers also performed a so-called relative weight analysis (RWA) to assess the unique contribution of types of motivation to outcomes. The table below shows the results, with the strongest predictor per outcome variable highlighted.

What is most striking in this table (in addition to the points mentioned in relation to the correlation matrix) is that not only intrinsic motivation often correlates most favorably with outcome variables, but also identified motivation. Especially in relation to aspects of persistence, identified motivation seems powerful.


I gathered the following things from this research:
  1. Roughly speaking, autonomous motivation works best, controlled motivation less well and amotivation the worst
  2. In addition to intrinsic motivation, identified motivation also plays a very important role in the adaptive functioning of students (especially in relation to persistence)
  3. Of the two forms of controlled motivation, external regulation is clearly worse than introjected motivation. Introjected regulation is hardly related to academic achievement, and positive with some aspects of persistence and well-being, but also negative with some aspects of well-being. Do not read this as a recommendation for introjected regulation though, because introjected regulation is clearly less favorable than autonomous motivation across the board!
  4. The good thing about this research is that it does not exclusively look at hard outcome variables such as school grades. The quality of the experience at school certainly has to do with performance, but also with learning and with all kinds of aspects of well-being and social emotional development. And it is precisely with these types of latter outcome variables that autonomous motivation is sometimes most closely related.
  5. Continuing to promote autonomous motivation in the classroom is important. This can be achieved by supporting students' basic needs, actively promoting internalization and avoiding controlling teaching methods.