ARCS Theory of Motivation (Keller – 1979)

Keller (1979; 1983) elaborated a macro theory of motivation and instructional design that included “a model of motivation, performance, and instructional influence” (Keller, 1979, p. 29) and “a systematic approach to designing motivating instruction” (p. 32). His model presented a synthesis of motivational influences from behavioral contingency design and management (p. 27); cognitive accounting of individual abilities, skills and knowledge (p. 27); and the expectancy-value theory of motivation typically applied in the context of social learning theory (p. 28). Kelley viewed this contribution as adding the heart to general understanding of the nature of the learner.[1]

Keller’s model of motivation, as conceived in 1979, was organized in terms of person inputs, outputs, and environmental inputs. A graphical representation of this model can be found in Keller (1979, p. 29). According to the model, motives and expectancy, as well as “any systematic effort to influence motivation” (p. 28) determine level of effort expended. Effort, together with the application of individual abilities, skills, and knowledge, plus any effort to design or manage the learning experience, determine performance. Performance, along with any design of contingencies, determines consequences. Dotted lines in the model represent feedback that is available to the learner at each step in the process. The diagram also represents feedback from consequences as being subject to cognitive evaluation.

“Building on this conceptual foundation, the ARCS Model was created by generating a large list of motivational strategy statements, and sorting them to see whether the four categories of the model provided a conceptually valid typology” (Keller, 1987, p. 3). In the process, some of the components of the model were renamed “to strengthen the central feature of each and to generate a useful acronym” (p. 3). The acronym of the revised model stands for (a) attention, (b) relevance, (c) confidence, and (d) satisfaction.

Attention is assumed to be both an element of motivation and a pre-requisite for learning. For learning to occur attention must be obtained, sustained, and directed to relevant stimuli. Attention is further defined by three subcategories:

  1. Perceptual arousal – “Almost any sudden or unexpected change in the environment will activate a person’s perceptual level of curiosity….a change in voice level, light intensity, temperature, or a surprising piece of information” (Keller, 2010, p. 47). This is the first step in the attention process but it does not last long because people adapt fairly quickly.
  2. Inquiry arousal – “A deeper level of curiosity may be activated by creating a problem situation which can be resolved only be knowledge-seeking behavior” (p. 47)
  3. Variability – “To sustain attention it is beneficial incorporate variability” (p. 48). This helps to prevent learners from adapting and tuning out.

Relevance emphasizes the importance of learners understanding why they should expend effort on a given task. The three subcategories of relevance are

  1. Goal orientation – “Generally speaking, people will be more motivated to learn if they perceive that the new knowledge or skill will help them achieve a goal in the present or future”(Keller, 2010, p. 49).
  2. Motive matching – “Understanding the students’ personal motive structures can lead to the development of compatible learning environments” (p. 49). People with a high need for achievement typically enjoy setting goals for themselves. They also liked to control the means by which goals are obtained, and are often uncomfortable in group work, because of a dependence on others in planning and achieving results. People with a high need for affiliation, on the other hand, enjoy being with others in noncompetitive situations. Some people are motivated by a combination of the two factors.
  3. Familiarity – People “tend to be most interested in content that has some connections to their prior experiences and interests” (p. 50). “Instructional material that confirms the learner’s preexisting beliefs and interests will be seen as relevant” (p. 50).

Confidence highlights the importance of students feeling confident in their ability to succeed. Keller’s three subcomponents of confidence are

  1. Learning requirements – “Letting the learners know what is expected of them is one of the simplest ways to help instill confidence” (Keller, 2010, p. 51). Note that this assumes students already possess prerequisite abilities for the task.
  2. Success opportunities – “After creating an expectation for success, it is important for the learners to actually succeed at challenging tasks that are meaningful” (p. 51). For learners at a new task, the level of challenge should be fairly low and frequent feedback should be given “that helps them succeed or confirms their success” (p. 51).
  3. Personal control – “Confidence is often associated with perceptions of personal control over being able to succeed at a task” (p. 51). Corrective feedback that helps students see the causes of their mistakes and take action to correct them improves confidence.

Satisfaction  emphasizes the contribution of feeling satisfied after a learning experience in order for motivation to continue. This is the final step in the motivational process. The three subcomponents of satisfaction are

  1. Natural consequences – It can be very satisfying for a student to be able to successfully perform a challenging task that he or she could not do before (Keller, 2010, p. 53) and the use of newly acquired skills is, in and of itself, rewarding. Another type of natural consequence is genuine praise that “focuses on specific aspects of performance that are praiseworthy” (p. 53).
  2. Positive consequences – “Incentives in the form of awards, monetary bonuses, trophies, and special privileges are satisfying outcomes…provided they are used appropriately according to the established principles of using reinforcements” (p. 53). Extrinsic rewards are useful when students are not intrinsically motivated, when the task is inherently monotonous, or in highly competitive situations. Intrinsic and extrinsic methods should be used in combination, maintaining the learner’s a sense of control, but also recognizing their efforts and accomplishments.

Equity– “Sometimes a person will feel very good about the outcomes of an achievement until he or she finds out what someone else received” (p. 54). Equity is perceived when outcomes are consistently commensurate with accomplishments.


[1] Kelley (1979, p. 27) here refers to Plato’s three-part nature of the soul and equates the understanding of the learner that comes through behavioral theory to the stomach, the understanding that comes through cognitive theory to the head, and his own contribution as providing the heart.

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