Vygotsky - social interaction in learning and motivation.

What he or she “can do with the assistance of others is in some sense even more indicative of their mental development than what they can do alone” (Vygotsky, 1978).

This page will look at the topic of social interaction on learning and motivation taking influence from Vygotsky and his theories. 

A little bit about Vygotsky

This quotation carries the essence of Vygotsky’s theories, he believed that social and cultural factors were very important if not essential in childhood development. He lived in the time of Piaget however was lesser known due to his short life, most of his ideas and theories were developed during the revolutionary period in Russia and it is therefore not surprising that they emphasised the role of cultural and social influences in development. Most of his ideas were later developed by his students including the notion of Zone Proximal Development. If you are interested a short summary of Vygotsky’s life and ideas this can be found in one of our previous textbooks, Developmental Psychology - A student’s handbook by M Harris and G Butterworth.

Zone Proximal Development

This notion is basically the distance between what a child can achieve on their own e.g. in problem solving activities etc and what they could potentially achieve with the help of adults, more experienced peers or even children of the same age.

“play creates a zone of proximal development of the child. In play a child always behaves beyond his average age, above his daily behaviour; in play it is as though he were a head taller than himself. As in the focus of a magnifying glass, play contains all developmental tendencies in a condensed form and is itself a major source of development” (Vygotsky, 1978).

Peer mediated learning is much like play in this example, there is no structured guidance from a more experienced teacher everyone is equal and rules are constantly renegotiated throughout the activity and this form of learning will achieve more than just the predefined university objectives.

Why is this topic important?

Research has found that Peer interaction can greatly benefit learning and motivate students to understand and learn more than just the structured curriculum. Boud, Cohen and Sampson stress that there are 5 important outcomes that arise from peer learning:

If we can understand why or how peer learning positively promotes students learning and motivation then perhaps we can adjust how institutions structure their courses and introduce ways to facilitate peer mediated learning more effectively.

If you are going to read one thing :

Read - Jarvela, S., Volet, S., & Jarvenoja, H. (2010). Research on Motivation in Collaborative learning: Moving beyond the cognitive-situative divide and combining individual and social processes. Educational Psychologist , 45 (1), 15-27.

This article looks at motivation in social learning settings, it gives points on problems with group learning and goes on to investigate why in light of these issues does motivation and successful learning still occur. It presents two main theories of motivation in social interactions and goes onto discuss the strengths and limitations of these, it then presents research examples and finally evaluates methodologies for investigating the topic. So a bit of everything really. This article was also only released earlier this year and therefore gives a more up to date view of the topic.

Theories of the role of social in motivation

As explained in more detail in the reference above Nolen and Ward in 2008 presented two theories the roles of social in motivation; Motivation as socially Influenced and Motivation as socially constructed. A short description of each theory can be seen below.



Havnes A (2008). Peer-mediated learning beyond the curriculum. Studies in higher education, 33 (2), 193-204.

 Brophy J (2009). Connecting with the big picture. Educational Psychologist 44 (2), 147-157.

McCaslin M (2009) Co-regulation of student motivation and emergent identity.  Educational Psychologist 44 (2), 137-146.

Harris M & Butterworth G (2002) Developmental Psychology - a student's handbook. Sussex: Psychology Press.

Vygotsky L S, (1978). Mind in Society. The development of higher psychological processes. Ed. Michael Cole, Vera John-Steiner, Sylvia Schibner and Ellen Soubernan, MA: Cambridge University Press.