The first thing you will need to discover is whether you are dealing with a three-phase motor. You may already know this from the application, but another giveaway is that the lead wires of most three-phase motors are single colors, not multiple colors, and usually identified with numbers. If, on the other hand, the motor diameter is less than seven inches and has a terminal board, it is most likely a single-phase motor.
Suppose you take a length of ordinary wire, make it into a big loop, and lay it between the poles of a powerful, permanent horseshoe magnet. Now if you connect the two ends of the wire to a battery, the wire will jump up briefly. It is amazing when you see this for the first time. It is just like magic! But there is a perfectly scientific explanation. When an electric current starts to creep along a wire, it creates a magnetic field all around it.
In simple DC and universal motors, the rotor spins inside the stator. The rotor is a coil connected to the electric power supply and the stator is a permanent magnet or electromagnet. Large AC motors (used in things like factory machines) work in a slightly different way: they pass alternating current through opposing pairs of magnets to create a rotating magnetic field, which "induces" (creates) a magnetic field in the motor rotor, causing it to spin around. You can read more about this in our article on AC induction motors. If you take one of these induction motors and "unwrap" it, so the stator is effectively laid out into a long continuous track, the rotor can roll along it in a straight line. This ingenious design is known as a linear motor, and you will find it in such things as factory machines and floating "maglev" (magnetic levitation) railroads.
Now we have better ideas about how electricity works, we tend to talk about current as a flow of electrons, from negative to positive, in the opposite direction to the conventional current. When you are trying to figure out the rotation of a motor or a generator, be sure to remember that current means conventional current and not electron flow.