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Is the motivational pillar of OPTIMAL theory indeed motivating?

A quantitative appraisal of the existing evidence


  • Juliana Parma San Francisco State University
  • Matthew W. Miller Auburn University
  • Mariane F. B. Bacelar Boise State University



skill acquisition, self-controlled learning, enhanced expectancies, intrinsic motivation, self-efficacy


Motivation is commonly recognized by researchers and practitioners as a key factor for motor learning. The OPTIMAL theory of motor learning (Wulf & Lewthwaite, 2016) claims that practice conditions that enhance learners’ expectancies for future successful outcomes or that are autonomy supportive are motivating, thus leading to better learning. To examine the current evidence of the association between motivation and motor learning, we searched the literature for studies that manipulated expectancies and/or autonomy support. Specifically, our goals were to assess whether these manipulations resulted in group differences in motivation and, if so, whether increased motivation was associated with learning advantages. Results showed that out of 166 experiments, only 21% (n = 35) included at least one measure of motivation, even though this is the main factor proposed by OPTIMAL theory to explain the learning benefits of these manipulations. Among those, only 23% (n = 8) found group-level effects on motivation, suggesting that these manipulations might not be as motivating as expected. Of the eight experiments that found a group-level effect on motivation, five also observed learning benefits, offering limited evidence that when practice conditions increase motivation, learning is more likely to occur. Overall, the small number of studies assessing motivation precludes any reliable conclusions on the association between motivation and motor learning from being drawn. Together, our results question whether manipulations implemented in the research lines supporting OPTIMAL theory are indeed motivating and highlight the lack of sufficient evidence in these literatures to support that increased motivation benefits motor learning.


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