This post presents a brief elaboration on the sixth of seven principles of learning:

Principle #6 – Engagement. Learners will often engage in certain activities as a matter of habit, though they are also influenced by their current capacity to engage, as well as factors of motivation and inhibition related to the activity as a whole, part of the activity, its circumstances, or its expected results.

Figure 8. The relationship between the four components of motivation
Figure 8. The relationship between the four components of motivation

As shown in Figure 8, engagement is divided into four components: (a) capacity, (b) habit, (c) motivation, and (d) inhibition. The necessary condition for engagement in any learning activity is that the learner must possess sufficient physical, mental or emotional capacity to do so. Where capacity is insufficient it may, in most cases, be acquired through (a) antecedent learning (e.g., the acquisition of pre-requisite knowledge and skills), (b) biological maturation (e.g., growing taller and stronger, or developing coordination), (c) recovery (e.g., from fatigue or injury), or (d) supplementation (e.g., prosthetics, ergonomic affordances, reference material, guides, drugs, or assistance from others). In other cases, the learning activity itself may need to be adapted in order to accommodate learners with limitations that may not be overcome through one of the four ways listed above.

There are many and various reasons for which a person might engage in, or avoid, a given learning activity. It is usually the case that a person will engage in certain activities, do things in a certain way, or avoid certain activities, based on previously established habits. Habits of activity, however, are subject to current levels of capacity, factors of motivation, and factors of inhibition. Given sufficient capacity, habits of engagement are swayed by factors of motivation or inhibition. An enumeration of these factors is given below.

Any factor which draws learner engagement is a factor of motivation. Motivational factors are represented in the principles-of-learning framework by the following five categories of motivation, not in any particular order:

1. Pleasant Sensation – intellectual, emotional, or physical pleasure
2. Pleasant Affiliation – interaction and relationships with others
3. Positive Validation – establishment and validation of one’s identity, self-worth, self-efficacy, self-esteem, or reputation
4. Extension – increase in one’s capacity (learning itself can be motivating (1))
5. Opportunity – the future possibility of engagement in some activity which brings pleasant sensation, pleasant affiliation, positive validation, extension, or additional opportunity

Any factor which deters engagement is a factor of inhibition. Inhibitory factors are represented in the model by five categories of inhibition:

1. Unpleasant Sensation – unpleasant intellectual, emotional, or physical sensation
2. Unpleasant Affiliation – unpleasant interaction and relationships with others
3. Negative Validation – diminution of one’s identity, self-worth, self-efficacy, self-esteem, or reputation
4. Interference – conflict with a more preferred activity
5. Responsibility – any future social or moral obligation incurred through increase in capacity, including the need to consistently meet or exceed one’s own self-established standard

Each factor of motivation and inhibition may be associated with (a) the learning activity as a whole, (b) one or more parts of the learning activity, (c) the circumstances in which the learning activity takes place, or (d) the expected results of the learning activity. While pleasant sensation and pleasant affiliation are motivational factors of the activity itself, positive validation, extension, and opportunity, are associated primarily with the results of the learning engagement. If pleasant sensation and affiliation are not authentic or inherent to the learning activity, they may compete with or detract from it. Hence, motivation in these two categories that is artificial to the learning activity should probably be avoided. At a minimum, it must be conducive to true engagement, or actual learning may be derailed.

Like their motivational counterparts, unpleasant sensation and unpleasant affiliation are associated with the activity itself, as is interference. Negative validation and responsibility are associated with its results. Unlike their counterparts in motivation, however, unpleasant sensation and unpleasant affiliation discourage engagement regardless of whether they are inherent to the activity or artificially added in the practice model.

Presumably, motivation stemming from the complete learning activity itself will produce the most significant (Principle #3f) engagement, followed by motivation stemming from only a portion or part of the activity, followed by motivation stemming from the expected results of the activity, and then by motivation from circumstances in which the activity takes place. In the third case, circumstantial motivation, the actual source of motivation is incidental to, but not part of, the activity—occuring immediately before or after the activity, occurring in parallel with but separate from the activity, or appearing briefly on the scene in tangential fashion. Proximal effects of inhibition are presumed to mirror those of motivation. That is, inhibition stemming from the activity as a whole will produce the greatest aversion to participation, followed by inhibition stemming from only part of the activity, followed by inhibition stemming from the expected results of the activity, and finally, followed by circumstantial inhibition. This presumed ordering of effect for both motivation and inhibition is assumed to be generally true, but by no means absolute.

In many cases, some parts of an activity may be the cause of inhibition while other parts simultaneously give cause for motivation to engage. Although the ultimate determination for engagement is learner choice, as will be discussed next (Principle #7), it is assumed in the model that choice is strongly influenced by the net strength of combined factors of capacity, habit, motivation and inhibition. When capacity is truly lacking, engagement cannot occur. When habit of engagement or aversion has been previously established, that same pattern will generally persist unless influenced by factors of motivation or inhibition. When total motivation outweighs total inhibition, learners will engage. When total inhibition outweighs total motivation, the learner will either abstain from engaging entirely, or will engage and participate in an amotivational state, simply going through the motions(2) but without significance.


1. As Merrill (2009) said, “Perhaps the greatest motivator of all is learning itself. Human beings are wired to learn.” (p. 21)

2. See Deci and Ryan (2000, p. 72).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s