7 Student motivation

Not so long ago, a teacher named Barbara Fuller taught general science to elementary years students, and one of her units was about insects and spiders. As part of the unit she had students search for insects and spiders around their own homes or apartments. They brought the creatures to school (safely in jars), answered a number of questions about them in their journals, and eventually gave brief oral reports about their findings to the class. The assignment seemed straightforward, but Barbara found that students responded to it in very different ways. Looking back, here is how Barbara described their responses:

“I remember Jose couldn’t wait to get started, and couldn’t bear to end the assignment either! Every day he brought more bugs or spiders—eventually 25 different kinds. Every day he drew pictures of them in his journal and wrote copious notes about them. At the end he gave the best oral presentation I’ve ever seen from a third-grader; he called it ‘They Have Us Outnumbered!’ I wish I had filmed it, he was so poised and so enthusiastic.

“Then there was Lindsey—the one who was always wanted to be the best in everything, regardless of whether it interested her. She started off the work rather slowly—just brought in a few bugs and only one spider. But she kept an eye on what everyone else was bringing, and how much. When she saw how much Jose was doing, though, she picked up her pace, like she was trying to match his level. Except that instead of bringing a diversity of creatures as Jose was doing, she just brought more and more of the same ones—almost twenty dead house flies, as I recall! Her presentation was OK—I really could not give her a bad mark for it—but it wasn’t as creative or insightful as Jose’s. I think she was more concerned about her mark than about the material.

“And there was Tobias—discouraging old Tobias. He did the work, but just barely. I noticed him looking a lot at other students’ insect collections and at their journal entries. He wasn’t cheating, I believe, just figuring out what the basic level of work was for the assignment—what he needed to do simply to avoid failing it. He brought in fewer bugs than most others, though still a number that was acceptable. He also wrote shorter answers in his journal and gave one of the shortest oral reports. It was all acceptable, but not much more than that.

“And Zoey: she was quite a case! I never knew whether to laugh or cry about her. She didn’t exactly resist doing the assignment, but she certainly liked to chat with other students. So she was easily distracted, and that cut down on getting her work done, especially about her journal entries. What really saved her—what kept her work at a reasonably high level of quality—were the two girls she ended up chatting with. The other two were already pretty motivated to do a lot with the assignment—create fine looking bug collections, write good journal entries, and make interesting oral presentations. So when Zoey attempted chitchat with them, the conversations often ended up focusing on the assignment anyway! She had them to thank for keeping her mind on the work. I don’t know what Zoey would have done without them.”

As Barbara Fuller’s recollections suggest, students assign various meanings and attitudes to academic activities—personal meanings and attitudes that arouse and direct their energies in different ways. We call these and their associated energizing and directing effects by the term motivation, or sometimes motivation to learn. As you will see, differences in motivation are an important source of diversity in classrooms, comparable in importance to differences in prior knowledge, ability, or developmental readiness. When it comes to school learning, furthermore, students’ motivations take on special importance because students’ mere presence in class is (of course) no guarantee that students really want to learn. It is only a sign that students live in a society requiring young people to attend school. Since modern education is compulsory, teachers cannot take students’ motivation for granted, and they have a responsibility to insure students’ motivation to learn. Somehow or other, teachers must persuade students to want to do what students have to do anyway. This task—understanding and therefore influencing students’ motivations to learn—is the focus of this chapter. Fortunately, as you will see, there are ways of accomplishing this task that respect students’ choices, desires, and attitudes.

Like motivation itself, theories of it are full of diversity. For convenience in navigating through the diversity, we have organized the chapter around six major theories or perspectives about motives and their sources. We call the topics (1) motives as behavior change, (2) motives as goals, (3) motives as interests, (4) motives as attributions about success, (5) motives as beliefs about self-efficacy, and (6) motives as self-determination. We end with a perspective called expectancy-value theory which integrates ideas from some of the other six theories, and partly as a result implies some additional suggestions for influencing students’ motivations to learn in positive ways.

Motives as behavior

Sometimes it is useful to think of motivation not as something “inside” a student driving the student’s behavior, but as equivalent to the student’s outward behaviors. This is the perspective of behaviorism, which we discussed in Chapter 1 (“Student learning”) as a way to think about the learning process. In its most thorough-going form, behaviorism focuses almost completely on what can be directly seen or heard about a person’s behavior, and has relatively few comments about what may lie behind (or “underneath” or “inside”) the behavior. When it comes to motivation, this perspective means minimizing or even ignoring the distinction between the inner drive or energy of students, and the outward behaviors that express the drive or energy. The two are considered the same, or nearly so.

Equating the inner and the outward might seem to violate common sense. How can a student do something without some sort of feeling or thought to make the action happen? As we will explain, this very question has led to alternative models of motivation that are based on cognitive rather than behaviorist theories of learning. We will explain some of these later in this chapter. Before getting to them, however, we encourage you to consider the advantages of a behaviorist perspective on motivation.

Sometimes the circumstances of teaching limit teachers’ opportunities to distinguish between inner motivation and outward behavior. Certainly teachers see plenty of student behaviors—signs of motivation of some sort. But the multiple demands of teaching can limit the time needed to determine what the behaviors mean. If a student asks a lot of questions during discussions, for example, is he or she curious about the material itself, or just wanting to look intelligent in front of classmates and the teacher? In a class with many students and a busy agenda, there may not be a lot of time for a teacher to decide between these possibilities. In other cases, the problem may not be limited time as much as communication difficulties with a student. Consider a student who is still learning English, or who belongs to a cultural community that uses patterns of conversation that are unfamiliar to the teacher, or who has a disability that limits the student’s general language skill. In these cases discerning the student’s inner motivations may take more time and effort. It is important to invest the extra time and effort for such students, but while a teacher is doing so, it is also important for her to guide and influence the students’ behavior in constructive directions. That is where behaviorist approaches to motivation can help.

Operant conditioning as a way of motivating

The most common version of the behavioral perspective on motivation is the theory of operant conditioning associated with B. F. Skinner (1938, 1957), which we discussed in Chapter 1 (“Learning process”). The description in that chapter focused on behavioral learning, but the same operant model can be transformed into an account of motivation. In the operant model, you may recall, a behavior being learned (the “operant”) increases in frequency or likelihood because performing it makes a reinforcement available. To understand this model in terms of motivation, think of the likelihood of response as the motivation and the reinforcement as the motivator. Imagine, for example, that a student learns by operant conditioning to answer questions during class discussions: each time the student answers a question (the operant), the teacher praises (reinforces) this behavior. In addition to thinking of this situation as behavioral learning, however, you can also think of it in terms of motivation: the likelihood of the student answering questions (the motivation) is increasing because of the teacher’s praise (the motivator).

Many concepts from operant conditioning, in fact, can be understood in motivational terms. Another one, for example, is the concept of extinction, which we defined in Chapter 1 as the tendency for learned behaviors to become less likely when reinforcement no longer occurs—a sort of “unlearning”, or at least a decrease in performance of previously learned. The decrease in performance frequency can be thought of as a loss of motivation, and removal of the reinforcement can be thought of as removal of the motivator. Table 14 summarizes this way of reframing operant conditioning in terms of motivation, both for the concepts discussed in Chapter 1 and for other additional concepts.

Table 14: Operant conditioning as learning and as motivation

Concept

Definition phrased in terms of learning

Definition phrased in terms of motivation

Classroom example

Operant

Behavior that becomes more likely because of reinforcement

Behavior that suggests an increase in motivation

Student listens to teacher’s comments during lecture or discussion

Reinforcement

Stimulus that increases likelihood of a behavior

Stimulus that motivates

Teacher praises student for listening

Positive reinforcement

Stimulus that increases likelihood of a behavior by being introduced or added to a situation

Stimulus that motivates by its presence; an “incentive”

Teacher makes encouraging remarks about student’s homework

Negative reinforcement

Stimulus that increases the likelihood of a behavior by being removed or taken away from a situation

Stimulus that motivates by its absence or avoidance

Teacher stops nagging student about late homework

Punishment

Stimulus that decreases the likelihood of a behavior by being introduced or added to a situation

Stimulus that

decreases motivation by its

presence

Teacher deducts points for late homework

Extinction

Removal of reinforcement for a behavior

Removal of motivating stimulus that leads to decrease in motivation

Teacher stops commenting altogether about student’s homework

Shaping successive approximations

Reinforcements for behaviors that gradually resemble (approximate) a final goal behavior

Stimuli that gradually shift motivation toward a final goal motivation

Teacher praises student for returning homework a bit closer to the deadline; gradually she praises for actually being on time

Continuous reinforcement

Reinforcement that occurs each time that an operant behavior occurs

Motivator that occurs each time that a behavioral sign of motivation occurs

Teacher praises highly active student for every time he works for five minutes without interruption

Intermittent reinforcement

Reinforcement that sometimes occurs following an operant behavior, but not on every occasion

Motivator that occurs sometimes when a behavioral sign of motivation occurs, but not on every occasion

Teacher praises highly active student sometimes when he works without interruption, but not every time

Cautions about behavioral perspectives on motivation

As we mentioned, behaviorist perspectives about motivation do reflect a classroom reality: that teachers sometimes lack time and therefore must focus simply on students’ appropriate outward behavior. But there are nonetheless cautions about adopting this view. An obvious one is the ambiguity of students’ specific behaviors; what looks like a sign of one motive to the teacher may in fact be a sign of some other motive to the student (DeGrandpre, 2000). If a student looks at the teacher intently while she is speaking, does it mean the student is motivated to learn, or only that the student is daydreaming? If a student invariably looks away while the teacher is speaking, does it mean that the student is disrespectful of the teacher, or that student comes from a family or cultural group where avoiding eye contact actually shows more respect for a speaker than direct eye contact?

Another concern about behaviorist perspectives, including operant conditioning, is that it leads teachers to ignore students’ choices and preferences, and to “play God” by making choices on their behalf (Kohn, 1996). According to this criticism, the distinction between “inner” motives and expressions of motives in outward behavior does not disappear just because a teacher (or a psychological theory) chooses to treat a motive and the behavioral expression of a motive as equivalent. Students usually do know what they want or desire, and their wants or desires may not always correspond to what a teacher chooses to reinforce or ignore. This, in a new guise, is once again the issue of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation that we discussed in Chapter 1. Approaches that are exclusively behavioral, it is argued, are not sensitive enough to students’ intrinsic, self-sustaining motivations.

As we pointed out in Chapter 1, there is truth to this allegation if a teacher actually does rely on rewarding behaviors that she alone has chosen, or even if she persists in reinforcing behaviors that students already find motivating without external reinforcement. In those cases reinforcements can backfire: instead of serving as an incentive to desired behavior, reinforcement can become a reminder of the teacher’s power and of students’ lack of control over their own actions. A classic research study of intrinsic motivation illustrated the problem nicely. In the study, researchers rewarded university students for two activities- solving puzzles and writing newspaper headlines that they already found interesting. Some of the students, however, were paid to do these activities, whereas others were not. Under these conditions, the students who were paid were less likely to engage in the activities following the experiment than were the students who were not paid, even though both groups had been equally interested in the activities to begin with (Deci, 1971). The extrinsic reward of payment, it seemed, interfered with the intrinsic reward of working the puzzles.

Later studies confirmed this effect in numerous situations, though they have also found certain conditions where extrinsic rewards do not reduce intrinsic rewards. Extrinsic rewards are not as harmful, for example, if a person is paid “by the hour” (i.e. by a flat rate) rather than piecemeal (by the number of items completed) (Cameron & Pierce, 1994; Eisenberger & Cameron, 1996). They also are less harmful if the task itself is relatively well-defined (like working math problems or playing solitaire) and high-quality performance is expected at all times. So there are still times and ways when externally determined reinforcements are useful and effective. In general, however, extrinsic rewards do seem to undermine intrinsic motivation often enough that they need to be used selectively and thoughtfully (Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 2001). As it happens, help with being selective and thoughtful can be found in the other, more cognitively oriented theories of motivation. These use the goals, interests, and beliefs of students as ways of explaining differences in students’ motives and in how the motives affect engagement with school. We turn to these cognitively oriented theories next, beginning with those focused on students’ goals.

Motives as goals

One way motives vary is by the kind of goals that students set for themselves, and by how the goals support students’ academic achievement. As you might suspect, some goals encourage academic achievement more than others, but even motives that do not concern academics explicitly tend to affect learning indirectly.

Goals that contribute to achievement

What kinds of achievement goals do students hold? Imagine three individuals, Maria, Sara, and Lindsay, who are taking algebra together. Maria’s main concern is to learn the material as well as possible because she finds it interesting and because she believes it will be useful to her in later courses, perhaps at university. Hers is a mastery goal because she wants primarily to learn or master the material. Sara, however, is concerned less about algebra than about getting top marks on the exams and in the course. Hers is a performance goal because she is focused primarily on looking successful; learning algebra is merely a vehicle for performing well in the eyes of peers and teachers. Lindsay, for her part, is primarily concerned about avoiding a poor or failing mark. Hers is a performance- avoidance goal or failure-avoidance goal because she is not really as concerned about learning algebra, as Maria is, or about competitive success, as Sara is; she is simply intending to avoid failure.

As you might imagine, mastery, performance, and performance-avoidance goals often are not experienced in pure form, but in combinations. If you play the clarinet in the school band, you might want to improve your technique simply because you enjoy playing as well as possible—essentially a mastery orientation. But you might also want to look talented in the eyes of classmates—a performance orientation. Another part of what you may wish, at least privately, is to avoid looking like a complete failure at playing the clarinet. One of these motives may predominate over the others, but they all may be present.

Mastery goals tend to be associated with enjoyment of learning the material at hand, and in this sense represent an outcome that teachers often seek for students. By definition therefore they are a form of intrinsic motivation. As such mastery goals have been found to be better than performance goals at sustaining students’ interest in a subject. In one review of research about learning goals, for example, students with primarily mastery orientations toward a course they were taking not only tended to express greater interest in the course, but also continued to express interest well beyond the official end of the course, and to enroll in further courses in the same subject (Harackiewicz, et al., 2002; Wolters, 2004).

Performance goals, on the other hand, imply extrinsic motivation, and tend to show the mixed effects of this orientation. A positive effect is that students with a performance orientation do tend to get higher grades than those who express primarily a mastery orientation. The advantage in grades occurs both in the short term (with individual assignments) and in the long term (with overall grade point average when graduating). But there is evidence that performance oriented students do not actually learn material as deeply or permanently as students who are more mastery oriented (Midgley, Kaplan, & Middleton, 2001). A possible reason is that measures of performance—such as test scores—often reward relatively shallow memorization of information and therefore guide performance-oriented students away from processing the information thoughtfully or deeply. Another possible reason is that a performance orientation, by focusing on gaining recognition as the best among peers, encourages competition among peers. Giving and receiving help from classmates is thus not in the self-interest of a performance-oriented student, and the resulting isolation limits the student’s learning.

Goals that affect achievement indirectly

Failure-avoidant goals

As we mentioned, failure-avoidant goals by nature undermine academic achievement. Often they are a negative byproduct of the competitiveness of performance goals (Urdan, 2004). If a teacher (and sometimes also fellow students) put too much emphasis on being the best in the class, and if interest in learning the material as such therefore suffers, then some students may decide that success is beyond their reach or may not be desirable in any case. The alternative—simply avoiding failure—may seem wiser as well as more feasible. Once a student adopts this attitude, he or she may underachieve more or less deliberately, doing only the minimum work necessary to avoid looking foolish or to avoid serious conflict with the teacher. Avoiding failure in this way is an example of self- handicapping—deliberate actions and choices that the reduce chances of success. Students may self-handicap in a number of ways; in addition to not working hard, they may procrastinate about completing assignments, for example, or set goals that are unrealistically high.

Social goals

Most students need and value relationships, both with classmates and with teachers, and often (though not always) they get a good deal of positive support from the relationships. But the effects of social relationships are complex, and at times can work both for and against academic achievement. If a relationship with the teacher is important and reasonably positive, then the student is likely to try pleasing the teacher by working hard on assignments (Dowson & McInerney, 2003). Note, though, that this effect is closer to performance than mastery; the student is primarily concerned about looking good to someone else. If, on the other hand, a student is especially concerned about relationships with peers, the effects on achievement depend on the student’s motives for the relationship, as well as on peers’ attitudes. Desiring to be close to peers personally may lead a student to ask for help from, and give help to peers—a behavior that may support higher achievement, at least up to a point. But desiring to impress peers with skills and knowledge may lead to the opposite: as we already mentioned, the competitive edge of such a performance orientation may keep the student from collaborating, and in this indirect way reduce a student’s opportunities to learn. The abilities and achievement motivation of peers themselves can also make a difference, but once again the effects vary depending on the context. Low achievement and motivation by peers affects an individual’s academic motivation more in elementary school than in high school, more in learning mathematics than learning to read, and more if their is a wide range of abilities in a classroom than if there is a more narrow range (Burke & Sass, 2006).

In spite of these complexities, social relationships are valued so highly by most students that teachers should generally facilitate them, though also keep an eye on their nature and their consequent effects on achievement. As we explain further, many assignments can be accomplished productively in groups, for example, as long as the groups are formed thoughtfully; in that chapter we discuss some ways of insuring that such groups are successful, such as by choosing group tasks wisely and recognizing all members’ contributions are fully as possible. Relationships can also be supported with activities that involve students or adults from another class or from outside the school, as often happens with school or community service projects. These can provide considerable social satisfaction and can sometimes be connected to current curriculum needs (Butin, 2005). But the majority of students’ social contacts are likely always to come from students’ own initiatives with each other in simply taking time to talk and interact. The teacher’s job is to encourage these informal contacts, especially when they happen at times that support rather than interfere with learning.

Encouraging mastery goals

Even though a degree of performance orientation may be inevitable in school because of the mere presence of classmates, it does not have to take over students’ academic motivation completely. Teachers can encourage mastery goals in various ways, and should in fact do so because a mastery orientation leads to more sustained, thoughtful learning, at least in classrooms, where classmates may sometimes debate and disagree with each other (Darnon, Butera, & Harackiewicz, 2006).

How can teachers do so? One way is to allow students to choose specific tasks or assignments for themselves, where possible, because their choices are more likely than usual to reflect prior personal interests, and hence be motivated more intrinsically than usual. The limitation of this strategy, of course, is that students may not see some of the connections between their prior interests and the curriculum topics at hand. In that case it also helps for the teacher to look for and point out the relevance of current topics or skills to students’ personal interests and goals. Suppose, for example, that a student enjoys the latest styles of music. This interest may actually have connections with a wide range of school curriculum, such as:

      • biology (because of the physiology of the ear and of hearing)
      • physics or general science (because of the nature of musical acoustics)
      • history (because of changes in musical styles over time)
      • English (because of relationships of musical lyrics and themes with literary themes)
      • foreign languages (because of comparisons of music and songs among cultures)

Still another way to encourage mastery orientation is to focus on students’ individual effort and improvement as much as possible, rather than on comparing students’ successes to each other. You can encourage this orientation by giving students detailed feedback about how they can improve performance, or by arranging for students to collaborate on specific tasks and projects rather than to compete about them, and in general by showing your own enthusiasm for the subject at hand.

Motives as interests

In addition to holding different kinds of goals—with consequent differences in academic motivation—students show obvious differences in levels of interest in the topics and tasks of the classroom. Suppose that two high school classmates, Frank and Jason, both are taking chemistry, and specifically learning how to balance chemical equations. Frank finds the material boring and has to force himself to study it; as a result he spends only the time needed to learn the basic material and to complete the assignments at a basic level. Jason, on the other hand, enjoys the challenges of balancing chemical equations. He thinks of the task as an intriguing puzzle; he not only solves each of them, but also compares the problems to each other as he goes through them.

Frank’s learning is based on effort compared to Jason’s, whose learning is based more fully on interest. As the example implies, when students learn from interest they tend to devote more attention to the topic than if they learn from effort (Hidi & Renninger, 2006). The finding is not surprising since interest is another aspect of intrinsic motivation—energy or drive that comes from within. A distinction between effort and interest is often artificial, however, because the two motives often get blended or combined in students’ personal experiences. Most of us can remember times when we worked at a skill that we enjoyed and found interesting, but that also required effort to learn. The challenge for teachers is therefore to draw on and encourage students’ interest as much as possible, and thus keep the required effort within reasonable bounds—neither too hard nor too easy.

Situational interest versus personal interest

Students’ interests vary in how deeply or permanently they are located within students. Situational interests are ones that are triggered temporarily by features of the immediate situation. Unusual sights, sounds, or words can stimulate situational interest. A teacher might show an interesting image on the overhead projector, or play a brief bit of music, or make a surprising comment in passing. At a more abstract level, unusual or surprising topics of discussion can also arouse interest when they are first introduced. Personal interests are relatively permanent preferences of the student, and are usually expressed in a variety of situations. In the classroom, a student may (or may not) have a personal interest in particular topics, activities, or subject matter. Outside class, though, he or she usually has additional personal interests in particular non-academic activities (e.g. sports, music) or even in particular people (a celebrity, a friend who lives nearby). The non-academic personal interests may sometimes conflict with academic interest; it may be more interesting to go to the shopping mall with a friend than to study even your most favorite subject.

Benefits of personal interest

In general, personal interest in an academic topic or activity tends to correlate with achievement related to the topic or activity. As you might suppose, a student who is truly interested is more likely to focus on the topic or activity more fully, to work at it for longer periods, to use more thoughtful strategies in learning—and to enjoy doing so (Hidi, 2001; Hidi & Renninger, 2006). Small wonder that the student achieves more! Note, though, a persistent ambiguity about this benefit: it is often not clear whether personal interest leads to higher achievement, or higher achievement leads to stronger interest. Either possibility seems plausible. Research to sort them out, however, has suggested that at least some of the influence goes in the direction from interest to achievement; when elementary students were given books from which to learn about a new topic, for example, they tended to learn more from books which they chose themselves than from books that were simply assigned (Reynolds & Symons, 2001). So interest seemed to lead to learning. But this conclusion does not rule out its converse, that achievement may stimulate interest as well. As Joe learns more about history, he steadily finds history more interesting; as McKenzie learns more about biology, she gradually wants to learn more of it.

Stimulating situational interests

If a student has little prior personal interest in a topic or activity, the teacher is faced with stimulating initial, situational interest, in hopes that the initial interest will gradually become more permanent and personal. There are a number of strategies for meeting this challenge:

      • It helps to include surprises in your comments and in classroom activities from time to time: tell studentsfacts that are true but counter-intuitive, for example, or demonstrate a science experiment that turns out differently than students expect (Guthrie, Wigfield, & Humenick, 2006).
      • It also helps to relate new material to students’ prior experiences even if their experiences are not related to academics or to school directly. The concepts of gravitation and acceleration, for example, operate every time a ball is hit or thrown in a softball game. If this connection is pointed out to a student who enjoys playing a lot of softball, the concepts can make concepts more interesting.
      • It helps to encourage students to respond to new material actively. By having students talk about the material together, for example, students can begin making their own connections to prior personal interests, and the social interaction itself helps to link the material to their personal, social interests as well.

A caution: seductive details

Even though it is important to stimulate interest in new material somehow, it is also possible to mislead or distract students accidentally by adding inappropriate, but stimulating features to new material (Garner, et al., 1992; Harp & Mayer, 1998). Distractions happen a number of ways, such as any of these among others:

      • deliberately telling jokes in class
      • using colorful illustrations or pictures
      • adding interesting bits of information to a written or verbal explanation

When well chosen, all of these moves can indeed arouse students’ interest in a new topic. But if they do not really relate to the topic at hand, they may simply create misunderstandings or prevent students from focusing on key material. As with most other learning processes, however, there are individual differences among students in distractability, students who are struggling, and are more prone to distraction and misunderstanding than students who are already learning more successfully (Sanchez & Wiley, 2006). On balance the best advice is probably therefore to use strategies to arouse situational interest, but to assess students’ responses to them continually and as honestly as possible. The key issue is whether students seem to learn because of stimulating strategies that you provide, or in spite of them.

Motives related to attributions

Attributions are perceptions about the causes of success and failure. Suppose that you get a low mark on a test and are wondering what caused the low mark. You can construct various explanations for—make various attributions about—this failure. Maybe you did not study very hard; maybe the test itself was difficult; maybe you were unlucky; maybe you just are not smart enough. Each explanation attributes the failure to a different factor. The explanations that you settle upon may reflect the truth accurately—or then again, they may not. What is important about attributions is that they reflect personal beliefs about the sources or causes of success and failure. As such, they tend to affect motivation in various ways, depending on the nature of the attribution (Weiner, 2005).

Locus, stability, and controllability

Attributions vary in three underlying ways: locus, stability, and controllability. Locus of an attribution is the location (figuratively speaking) of the source of success or failure. If you attribute a top mark on a test to your ability, then the locus is internal; if you attribute the mark to the test’s having easy questions, then the locus is external. The stability of an attribution is its relative permanence. If you attribute the mark to your ability, then the source of success is relatively stable—by definition, ability is a relatively lasting quality. If you attribute a top mark to the effort you put in to studying, then the source of success is unstable—effort can vary and has to be renewed on each occasion or else it disappears. The controllability of an attribution is the extent to which the individual can influence it. If you attribute a top mark to your effort at studying, then the source of success is relatively controllable—you can influence effort simply by deciding how much to study. But if you attribute the mark to simple luck, then the source of the success is uncontrollable—there is nothing that can influence random chance.

As you might suspect, the way that these attributions combine affects students’ academic motivations in major ways. It usually helps both motivation and achievement if a student attributes academic successes and failures to factors that are internal and controllable, such as effort or a choice to use particular learning strategies (Dweck, 2000). Attributing successes to factors that are internal but stable or controllable (like ability), on the other hand, is both a blessing and a curse: sometimes it can create optimism about prospects for future success (“I always do well”), but it can also lead to indifference about correcting mistakes (Dweck, 2006), or even create pessimism if a student happens not to perform at the accustomed level (“Maybe I’m not as smart as I thought”). Worst of all for academic motivation are attributions, whether stable or not, related to external factors. Believing that performance depends simply on luck (“The teacher was in a bad mood when marking”) or on excessive difficulty of material removes incentive for a student to invest in learning. All in all, then, it seems important for teachers to encourage internal, stable attributions about success.

Influencing students’ attributions

How can they do so? One way or another, the effective strategies involve framing teachers’ own explanations of success and failure around internal, controllable factors. Instead of telling a student: “Good work! You’re smart!”, try saying: “Good work! Your effort really made a difference, didn’t it?” If a student fails, instead of saying,“Too bad! This material is just too hard for you,” try saying, “Let’s find a strategy for practicing this more, and then you can try again.” In both cases the first option emphasizes uncontrollable factors (effort, difficulty level), and the second option emphasizes internal, controllable factors (effort, use of specific strategies).

Such attributions will only be convincing, however, if teachers provide appropriate conditions for students to learn—conditions in which students’ efforts really do pay off. There are three conditions that have to be in place in particular. First, academic tasks and materials actually have to be at about the right level of difficulty. If you give problems in advanced calculus to a first-grade student, the student will not only fail them but also be justified in attributing the failure to an external factor, task difficulty. If assignments are assessed in ways that produce highly variable, unreliable marks, then students will rightly attribute their performance to an external, unstable source: luck. Both circumstances will interfere with motivation.

Second, teachers also need to be ready to give help to individuals who need it—even if they believe that an assignment is easy enough or clear enough that students should not need individual help. Readiness to help is always essential because it is often hard to know in advance exactly how hard a task will prove to be for particular students. Without assistance, a task that proves difficult initially may remain difficult indefinitely, and the student will be tempted to make unproductive, though correct, attributions about his or her failure (“I will never understand this”, “I’m not smart enough”, or “It doesn’t matter how hard I study”).

Third, teachers need to remember that ability—usually considered a relatively stable factor—often actually changes incrementally over the long term. Recognizing this fact is one of the best ways to bring about actual increases in students’ abilities (Blackwell, Trzniewski, & Dweck, 2007; Schunk, Pintrich, & Meese, 2008). A middle- years student might play the trumpet in the school band at a high level of ability, but this ability actually reflects a lot of previous effort and a gradual increase in ability. A second grade student who reads fluently, in this sense may have high current ability to read; but at some point in the distant past that same student could not read as well, and even further back he may not have been able to read at all. The increases in ability have happened at least in part because of effort. While these ideas may seem obvious, they can easily be forgotten in the classroom because effort and ability evolve according to very different time frames. Effort and its results appear relatively immediately; a student expends effort this week, this day, or even at this very moment, and the effort (if not the results) are visible right away. But ability may take longer to show itself; a student often develops it only over many weeks, months, or years.

Motivation as self-efficacy

In addition to being influenced by their goals, interests, and attributions, students’ motives are affected by specific beliefs about the student’s personal capacities. In self-efficacy theory the beliefs become a primary, explicit explanation for motivation (Bandura, 1977, 1986, 1997). Self-efficacy is the belief that you are capable of carrying out a specific task or of reaching a specific goal. Note that the belief and the action or goal are specific. Self- efficacy is a belief that you can write an acceptable term paper, for example, or repair an automobile, or make friends with the new student in class. These are relatively specific beliefs and tasks. Self-efficacy is not about whether you believe that you are intelligent in general, whether you always like working with mechanical things, or think that you are generally a likeable person. These more general judgments are better regarded as various mixtures of self-concepts (beliefs about general personal identity) or of self-esteem (evaluations of identity). They are important in their own right, and sometimes influence motivation, but only indirectly (Bong & Skaalvik, 2004). Self-efficacy beliefs, furthermore, are not the same as “true” or documented skill or ability. They are self- constructed, meaning that they are personally developed perceptions. There can sometimes therefore be discrepancies between a person’s self-efficacy beliefs and the person’s abilities. You can believe that you can write a good term paper, for example, without actually being able to do so, and vice versa: you can believe yourself incapable of writing a paper, but discover that you are in fact able to do so. In this way self-efficacy is like the everyday idea of confidence, except that it is defined more precisely. And as with confidence, it is possible to have either too much or too little self-efficacy. The optimum level seems to be either at or slightly above true capacity (Bandura, 1997). As we indicate below, large discrepancies between self-efficacy and ability can create motivational problems for the individual.

Effects of self-efficacy on students’ behavior

Self-efficacy may sound like a uniformly desirable quality, but research as well as teachers’ experience suggests that its effects are a bit more complicated than they first appear. Self-efficacy has three main effects, each of which has both a “dark” or undesirable side and a positive or desirable side.

Choice of tasks

The first effect is that self-efficacy makes students more willing to choose tasks where they already feel confident of succeeding. This effect is almost inevitable, given the definition of the concept of self-efficacy, it has also been supported by research on self-efficacy beliefs (Pajares & Schunk, 2001). For teachers, the effect on choice can be either welcome or not, depending on circumstances. If a student believes that he or she can solve mathematical problems, then the student is more likely to attempt the mathematics homework that the teacher assigns. Unfortunately the converse is also true. If a student believes that he or she is incapable of math, then the student is less likely to attempt the math homework (perhaps telling himself, “What’s the use of trying?”), regardless of the student’s actual ability in math.

Since self-efficacy is self-constructed, furthermore, it is also possible for students to miscalculate or misperceive their true skill, and the misperceptions themselves can have complex effects on students’ motivations. From a teacher’s point of view, all is well even if students overestimate their capacity but actually do succeed at a relevant task anyway, or if they underestimate their capacity, yet discover that they can succeed and raise their self-efficacy beliefs as a result. All may not be well, though, if students do not believe that they can succeed and therefore do not even try, or if students overestimate their capacity by a wide margin, but are disappointed unexpectedly by failure and lower their self-efficacy beliefs.

Persistence at tasks

A second effect of high self-efficacy is to increase a persistence at relevant tasks. If you believe that you can solve crossword puzzles, but encounter one that takes longer than usual, then you are more likely to work longer at the puzzle until you (hopefully) really do solve it. This is probably a desirable behavior in many situations, unless the persistence happens to interfere with other, more important tasks (what if you should be doing homework instead of working on crossword puzzles?). If you happen to have low self-efficacy for crosswords, on the other hand, then you are more likely to give up early on a difficult puzzle. Giving up early may often be undesirable because it deprives you of a chance to improve your skill by persisting. Then again (on the third hand?), the consequent lack of success because of giving up may provide a useful incentive to improve your crossword skills. And again, misperceptions of capacity make a difference. Overestimating your capacity by a lot (excessively high self-efficacy) might lead you not to prepare for or focus on a task properly, and thereby impair your performance. So as with choosing tasks, the effects of self-efficacy vary from one individual to another and one situation to another. The teacher’s task is therefore two-fold: first, to discern the variations, and second, to encourage the positive self- efficacy beliefs. Table 15 offers some additional advice about how to do this.

Table 15: Ways of encouraging self-efficacy beliefs

Strategy

Example of what the teacher might say

1. Set goals with students, and get a commitment from them to reach the goals.

“By the end of the month, I want you to know all of the times table up to 25 x 25. Can I count on you to do that?”

2. Encourage students to compare their performance with their own previous performance, not with other students.

“Compare that drawing against the one that you made last semester. I think you’ll find improvements!”

3. Point out links between effort and improvement.

“I saw you studying for this test more this week. No wonder you did better this time!”

4. In giving feedback about performance, focus on information, not evaluative judgments.

“Part 1 of the lab write-up was very detailed, just as the assignment asked. Part 2 has a lot of good ideas in it, but it needs to be more detailed and stated more explicitly.”

5. Point out that increases in knowledge or skill happen gradually by sustained effort, not because of inborn ability.

“Every time I read another one of your essays, I see more good ideas than the last time. They are so much more complete than when you started the year.”

Response to failure

High self-efficacy for a task not only increases a person’s persistence at the task, but also improves their ability to cope with stressful conditions and to recover their motivation following outright failures. Suppose that you have two assignments—an essay and a science lab report—due on the same day, and this circumstance promises to make your life hectic as you approach the deadline. You will cope better with the stress of multiple assignments if you already believe yourself capable of doing both of the tasks, than if you believe yourself capable of doing just one of them or (especially) of doing neither. You will also recover better in the unfortunate event that you end up with a poor grade on one or even both of the tasks.

That is the good news. The bad news, at least from a teacher’s point of view, is that the same resilience can sometimes also serve non-academic and non-school purposes. How so? Suppose, instead of two school assignments due on the same day, a student has only one school assignment due, but also holds a part-time evening job as a server in a local restaurant. Suppose, further, that the student has high self-efficacy for both of these tasks; he believes, in other words, that he is capable of completing the assignment as well as continuing to work at the job. The result of such resilient beliefs can easily be a student who devotes less attention to school work than ideal, and who even ends up with a lower grade on the assignment than he or she is capable of.

Learned helplessness and self-efficacy

If a person’s sense of self-efficacy is very low, he or she can develop learned helplessness, a perception of complete lack of control in mastering a task. The attitude is similar to depression, a pervasive feeling of apathy and a belief that effort makes no difference and does not lead to success. Learned helplessness was originally studied from the behaviorist perspective of classical and operant conditioning by the psychologist Martin Seligman (1995). The studies used a somewhat “gloomy” experimental procedure in which an animal, such as a rat or a dog, was repeatedly shocked in a cage in a way that prevented the animal from escaping the shocks. In a later phase of the procedure, conditions were changed so that the animal could avoid the shocks by merely moving from one side of the cage to the other. Yet frequently they did not bother to do so! Seligman called this behavior learned helplessness.

In people, learned helplessness leads to characteristic ways of dealing with problems. They tend to attribute the source of a problem to themselves, to generalize the problem to many aspects of life, and to see the problem as lasting or permanent. More optimistic individuals, in contrast, are more likely to attribute a problem to outside sources, to see it as specific to a particular situation or activity, and to see it as temporary or time-limited. Consider, for example, two students who each fail a test. The one with a lot of learned helplessness is more likely to explain the failure by saying something like: “I’m stupid; I never perform well on any schoolwork, and I never will perform well at it.” The other, more optimistic student is more likely to say something like: “The teacher made the test too hard this time, so the test doesn’t prove anything about how I will do next time or in other subjects.”

What is noteworthy about these differences in perception is how much the more optimistic of these perspectives resembles high self-efficacy and how much learned helplessness seems to contradict or differ from it. As already noted, high self-efficacy is a strong belief in one’s capacity to carry out a specific task successfully. By definition therefore self-efficacy focuses attention on a temporary or time-limited activity (the task), even though the cause of successful completion (oneself) is “internal”. Teachers can minimize learned helplessness in students, therefore, by encouraging their self-efficacy beliefs. There are several ways of doing this, as we explain next.

Sources of self-efficacy beliefs

Psychologists who study self-efficacy have identified four major sources of self-efficacy beliefs (Pajares & Schunk, 2001, 2002). In order of importance they are (1) prior experiences of mastering tasks, (2) watching others’ mastering tasks, (3) messages or “persuasion” from others, and (4) emotions related to stress and discomfort. Fortunately the first three can be influenced by teachers directly, and even the fourth can sometimes be influenced indirectly by appropriate interpretive comments from the teacher or others.

Prior experiences of mastery

Not surprisingly, past successes at a task increase students’ beliefs that they will succeed again in the future. The implication of this basic fact means that teachers need to help students build a history of successes. Whether they are math problems, reading assignments, or athletic activities, tasks have to end with success more often than with failure. Note, though, that the successes have to represent mastery that is genuine or competence that is truly authentic. Success at tasks that are trivial or irrelevant do not improve self-efficacy beliefs, nor does praise for successes that a student has not really had (Erikson, 1968/1994).

As a practical matter, creating a genuine history of success is most convincing if teachers also work to broaden a student’s vision of “the past”. Younger students (elementary-age) in particular have relatively short or limited ideas of what counts as “past experience”; they may go back only a few occasions when forming impressions of whether they can succeed again in the future (Eccles, et al., 1998). Older students (secondary school) gradually develop longer views of their personal “pasts”, both because of improvements in memory and because of accumulating a personal history that is truly longer. The challenge for working with any age, however, is to insure that students base self-efficacy beliefs on all relevant experiences from their pasts, not just on selected or recent experiences.

Watching others’ experiences of mastery

A second source of efficacy beliefs comes from vicarious experience of mastery, or observing others’ successes (Schunk & Zimmerman, 1997). Simply seeing someone else succeed at a task, in other words, can contribute to believing that you, too, can succeed. The effect is stronger when the observer lacks experience with the task and therefore may be unsure of his or her own ability. It is also stronger when the model is someone respected by the observer, such as a student’s teacher, or a peer with generally comparable ability. Even under these conditions, though, vicarious experience is not as influential as direct experience. The reasons are not hard to imagine. Suppose, for example, you witness both your teacher and a respected friend succeed at singing a favorite tune, but you are unsure whether you personally can sing. In that case you may feel encouraged about your own potential, but are likely still to feel somewhat uncertain of your own efficacy. If on the other hand you do not witness others’ singing, but you have a history of singing well yourself, it is a different story. In that case you are likely to believe in your efficacy, regardless of how others perform.

All of which suggests that to a modest extent, teachers may be able to enhance students’ self-efficacy by modeling success at a task or by pointing out classmates who are successful. These strategies can work because they not only show how to do a task, but also communicate a more fundamental message, the fact that the task can in fact be done. If students are learning a difficult arithmetic procedure, for example, you can help by demonstrating the procedure, or by pointing out classmates who are doing it. Note, though, that vicarious mastery is helpful only if backed up with real successes performed by the students themselves. It is also helpful only if the “model classmates” are perceived as truly comparable in ability. Overuse of vicarious models, especially in the absence of real success by learners, can cause learners to disqualify a model’s success; students may simply decide that the model is “out of their league” in skills and is therefore irrelevant to judging their own potential.

Social messages and persuasion

A third source of efficacy beliefs are encouragements, both implied and stated, that persuade a person of his or her capacity to do a task. Persuasion does not create high efficacy by itself, but it often increases or supports it when coupled with either direct or vicarious experience, especially when the persuasion comes from more than one person (Goddard, Hoy, & Hoy, 2004).

For teachers, this suggests two things. The first, of course, is that encouragement can motivate students, especially when it is focused on achievable, specific tasks. It can be motivating to say things like: “I think you can do it” or “I’ve seen you do this before, so I know that you can do it again”. But the second implication is that teachers should arrange wherever possible to support their encouragement by designing tasks at hand that are in fact achievable by the student. Striking a balance of encouragement and task difficulty may seem straightforward, but sometimes it can be challenging because students can sometimes perceive teachers’ comments and tasks quite differently from how teachers intend. Giving excessive amounts of detailed help, for example, may be intended as support for a student, but be taken as a lack of confidence in the student’s ability to do the task independently.

Emotions related to success, stress or discomfort

The previous three sources of efficacy beliefs are all rather cognitive or “thinking oriented”, but emotions also influence expectations of success or failure. Feeling nervous or anxious just before speaking to a large group (sometimes even just a class full of students!) can function like a message that says “I’m not going to succeed at doing this”, even if there is in fact good reason to expect success. But positive feelings can also raise beliefs about efficacy. When recalling the excitement of succeeding at a previous, unrelated task, people may overestimate their chances of success at a new task with which they have no previous experience, and are therefore in no position to predict their efficacy.

For teachers, the most important implication is that students’ motivation can be affected when they generalize from past experience which they believe, rightly or wrongly, to be relevant. By simply announcing a test, for example, a teacher can make some students anxious even before the students find out anything about the test— whether it is easy or difficult, or even comparable in any way to other experiences called “tests” in their pasts. Conversely, it can be misleading to encourage students on the basis of their success at past academic tasks if the earlier tasks were not really relevant to requirements of the new tasks at hand. Suppose, for example, that a middle- years student has previously written only brief opinion-based papers, and never written a research-based paper. In that case boosting the student’s confidence by telling him that “it is just like the papers you wrote before” may not be helpful or even honest.

A caution: motivation as content versus motivation as process

A caution about self-efficacy theory is its heavy emphasis on just the process of motivation, at the expense of the content of motivation. The basic self-efficacy model has much to say about how beliefs affect behavior, but relatively little to say about which beliefs and tasks are especially satisfying or lead to the greatest well-being in students. The answer to this question is important to know, since teachers might then select tasks as much as possible that are intrinsically satisfying, and not merely achievable.

Another way of posing this concern is by asking: “Is it possible to feel high self-efficacy about a task that you do not enjoy?” It does seem quite possible for such a gap to exist. As a youth, for example, one of us (Kelvin Seifert) had considerable success with solving mathematics problems in high school algebra, and expended considerable effort doing algebra assignments as homework. Before long, he had developed high self-efficacy with regard to solving such problems. But Kelvin never really enjoyed solving the algebra problems, and later even turned away permanently from math or science as a career (much to the disappointment of his teachers and family). In this case self-efficacy theory nicely explained the process of his motivation—Kelvin’s belief in his capacity led to persistence at the tasks. But it did not explain the content of his motivation—his growing dislike of the tasks. Accounting for such a gap requires a different theory of motivation, one that includes not only specific beliefs, but “deeper” personal needs as well. An example of this approach is self-determination theory, where we turn next.

Motivation as self-determination

Common sense suggests that human motivations originate from some sort of inner “need”. We all think of ourselves as having various “needs”, a need for food, for example, or a need for companionship—that influences our choices and activities. This same idea also forms part of some theoretical accounts of motivation, though the theories differ in the needs that they emphasize or recognize. In Chapter 3, for example, we talked about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as an example of motivations that function like needs that influence long-term personal development. According to Maslow, individuals must satisfy physical survival needs before they seek to satisfy needs of belonging, they satisfy belonging needs before esteem needs, and so on. In theory, too, people have both deficit needs and growth needs, and the deficit needs must be satisfied before growth needs can influence behavior (Maslow, 1970). In Maslow’s theory, as in others that use the concept, a need is a relatively lasting condition or feeling that requires relief or satisfaction and that tends to influence action over the long term. Some needs may decrease when satisfied (like hunger), but others may not (like curiosity). Either way, needs differ from the self- efficacy beliefs discussed earlier, which are relatively specific and cognitive, and affect particular tasks and behaviors fairly directly.

A recent theory of motivation based on the idea of needs is self-determination theory, proposed by the psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan (2000), among others. The theory proposes that understanding motivation requires taking into account three basic human needs:

      • autonomy—the need to feel free of external constraints on behavior
      • competence—the need to feel capable or skilled
      • relatedness—the need to feel connected or involved with others

Note that these needs are all psychological, not physical; hunger and sex, for example, are not on the list. They are also about personal growth or development, not about deficits that a person tries to reduce or eliminate. Unlike food (in behaviorism) or safety (in Maslow’s hierarchy), you can never get enough of autonomy, competence, or relatedness. You (and your students) will seek to enhance these continually throughout life.

The key idea of self-determination theory is that when persons (such as you or one of your students) feel that these basic needs are reasonably well met, they tend to perceive their actions and choices to be intrinsically motivated or “self-determined”. In that case they can turn their attention to a variety of activities that they find attractive or important, but that do not relate directly to their basic needs. Among your students, for example, some individuals might read books that you have suggested, and others might listen attentively when you explain key concepts from the unit that you happen to be teaching. If one or more basic needs are not met well, however, people will tend to feel coerced by outside pressures or external incentives. They may become preoccupied, in fact, with satisfying whatever need has not been met and thus exclude or avoid activities that might otherwise be interesting, educational, or important. If the persons are students, their learning will suffer.

Self-determination and intrinsic motivation

In proposing the importance of needs, then, self-determination theory is asserting the importance of intrinsic motivation, an idea that has come up before in this book (see especially Chapter 1, about learning theory), and that will come again later (see especially Chapter 10, about planning instruction). The self-determination version of intrinsic motivation, however, emphasizes a person’s perception of freedom, rather than the presence or absence of “real” constraints on action. Self-determination means a person feels free, even if the person is also operating within certain external constraints. In principle, a student can experience self-determination even if the student must, for example, live within externally imposed rules of appropriate classroom behavior. To achieve a feeling of self-determination, however, the student’s basic needs must be met—needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. In motivating students, then, the bottom line is that teachers have an interest in helping students to meet their basic needs, and in not letting school rules or the teachers’ own leadership styles interfere with or block satisfaction of students’ basic needs.

“Pure” self-determination may be the ideal for most teachers and students, of course, but the reality is usually different. For a variety of reasons, teachers in most classrooms cannot be expected to meet all students’ basic needs at all times. One reason is the sheer number of students, which makes it impossible to attend to every student perfectly at all times. Another reason is teachers’ responsibility for a curriculum, which can require creating expectations for students’ activities that sometimes conflict with students’ autonomy or makes them feel (temporarily) less than fully competent. Still another reason is students’ personal histories, ranging from divorce to poverty, which may create needs in some individuals which are beyond the power of teachers to remedy.

The result from students’ point of view is usually only a partial perception of self-determination, and therefore a simultaneous mix of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. Self-determination theory recognizes this reality by suggesting that the “intrinsic-ness” of motivation is really a matter of degree, extending from highly extrinsic, through various mixtures of intrinsic and extrinsic, to highly intrinsic (Koestner & Losier, 2004). At the extrinsic end of the scale is learning that is regulated primarily by external rewards and constraints, whereas at the intrinsic end is learning regulated primarily by learners themselves. Table 16 summarizes and gives examples of the various levels and their effects on motivation. By assuming that motivation is often a mix of the intrinsic and extrinsic, the job of the teacher becomes more realistic; the job is not to expect purely intrinsic motivation from students all the time, but simply to arrange and encourage motivations that are as intrinsic as possible. To do this, the teacher needs to support students’ basic needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

Table 16: Combinations of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation

Source of regulation of action

Description

Example

“Pure” extrinsic motivation

Person lacks the intention to take any action, regardless of pressures or incentives

Student completes no work even when pressured or when incentives are offered

Very external to person

Actions regulated only by outside pressures and incentives, and controls

Student completes assignment only if reminded explicitly of the incentive of grades and/or negative consequences of failing

Somewhat external

Specific actions regulated internally, but without reflection or connection to personal needs

Student completes assignment independently, but only because of fear of shaming self or because of guilt about consequences of not completing assignment

Somewhat internal

Actions recognized by individual as important or as valuable as a means to a more valued goal

Student generally completes school work independently, but only because of its value in gaining admission to college

Very internal

Actions adopted by individual as integral to self-concept and to person’s major personal values

Student generally completes school work independently, because being well educated is part of the student’s concept of himself

“Pure” intrinsic regulation

Actions practiced solely because they are enjoyable and valued for their own sake

Student enjoys every topic, concept, and assignment that every teacher ever assigns, and completes school work solely because of his enjoyment

Using self-determination theory in the classroom

What are some teaching strategies for supporting students’ needs? Educational researchers have studied this question from a variety of directions, and their resulting recommendations converge and overlap in a number of ways. For convenience, the recommendations can be grouped according to the basic need that they address, beginning with the need for autonomy.

Supporting autonomy in learners

A major part of supporting autonomy is to give students choices wherever possible (Ryan & Lynch, 2003). The choices that encourage the greatest feelings of self-control, obviously, are ones that are about relatively major issues or that have relatively significant consequences for students, such as whom to choose as partners for a major group project. But choices also encourage some feeling of self-control even when they are about relatively minor issues, such as how to organize your desk or what kind of folder to use for storing your papers at school. It is important, furthermore, to offer choices to all students, including students needing explicit directions in order to work successfully; avoid reserving choices for only the best students or giving up offering choices altogether to students who fall behind or who need extra help. All students will feel more self-determined and therefore more motivated if they have choices of some sort.

Teachers can also support students’ autonomy more directly by minimizing external rewards (like grades) and comparisons among students’ performance, and by orienting and responding themselves to students’ expressed goals and interests. In teaching elementary students about climate change, for example, you can support autonomy by exploring which aspects of this topic have already come to students’ attention and aroused their concern. The point of the discussion would not be to find out “who knows the most” about this topic, but to build and enhance students’ intrinsic motivations as much as possible. In reality, of course, it may not be possible to succeed at this goal fully—some students may simply have no interest in the topic, for example, or you may be constrained by time or resources from individualizing certain activities fully. But any degree of attention to students’ individuality, as well as any degree of choice, will support students’ autonomy.

Supporting the need for competence

The most obvious way to make students feel competent is by selecting activities which are challenging but nonetheless achievable with reasonable effort and assistance (Elliott, McGregor, & Thrash, 2004). Although few teachers would disagree with this idea, there are times when it is hard to put into practice, such as when you first meet a class at the start of a school year and therefore are unfamiliar with their backgrounds and interests. But there are some strategies that are generally effective even if you are not yet in a position to know the students well. One is to emphasize activities that require active response from students. Sometimes this simply means selecting projects, experiments, discussions and the like that require students to do more than simply listen. Other times it means expecting active responses in all interactions with students, such as by asking questions that call for “divergent” (multiple or elaborated) answers. In a social studies class, for example, try asking “What are some ways we could find out more about our community?” instead of “Tell me the three best ways to find out about our community.” The first question invites more divergent, elaborate answers than the second.

Another generally effective way to support competence is to respond and give feedback as immediately as possible. Tests and term papers help subsequent learning more if returned, with comments, sooner rather than later. Discussions teach more if you include your own ideas in them, while still encouraging students’ input. Small group and independent activities are more effective if you provide a convenient way for students to consult authoritative sources for guidance when needed, whether the source is you personally, a teaching assistant, a specially selected reading, or even a computer program. In addition, you can sometimes devise tasks that create a feeling of competence because they have a “natural” solution or ending point. Assembling a jigsaw puzzle of the community, for example, has this quality, and so does creating a jigsaw puzzle of the community if the students need a greater challenge.

Supporting the need to relate to others

The main way of support students’ need to relate to others is to arrange activities in which students work together in ways that are mutually supportive, that recognize students’ diversity, and minimize competition among individuals. We will have more to say about this strategy in Chapter 9 (“Instructional strategies”), where we describe several varieties of cooperative learning, as well as some of their pitfalls to be avoided. For now, simply note that having students work together can happen in many ways. You can, for example, deliberately arrange projects that require a variety of talents; some educators call such activities “rich group work” (Cohen, 1994; Cohen, Brody, & Sapon-Shevin, 2004). In studying in small groups about medieval society, for example, one student can contribute his drawing skills, another can contribute his writing skills, and still another can contribute his dramatic skills. The result can be a multi-faceted presentation—written, visual, and oral. The groups needed for rich group work provide for students’ relationships with each other, whether they contain six individuals or only two.

There are other ways to encourage relationships among students. In the jigsaw classroom (Aronson & Patnoe, 1997), for example, students work together in two phases. In the first phase, groups of “experts” work together to find information on a specialized topic. In a second phase the expert groups split up and reform into “generalist” groups containing one representative from each former expert group. In studying the animals of Africa, for example, each expert group might find information about a different particular category of animal or plant; one group might focus on mammal, another on bird, a third on reptiles, and so on. In the second phase of the jigsaw, the generalist groups would pool information from the experts to get a more well-rounded view of the topic. The generalist groups would each have an expert about mammals, for example, but also an expert about birds and about reptiles.

As a teacher, you can add to these organizational strategies by encouraging the development of your own relationships with class members. Your goal, as teacher, is to demonstrate caring and interest in your students not just as students, but as people. The goal also involves behaving as if good relationships between and among class members are not only possible, but ready to develop and perhaps even already developing. A simple tactic, for example, is to speak of “we” and “us” as much as possible, rather than speaking of “you students”. Another tactic is to present cooperative activities and assignments without apology, as if they are in the best interests not just of students, but of “us all” in the classroom, yourself included.

Keeping self-determination in perspective

In certain ways self-determination theory provides a sensible way to think about students’ intrinsic motivation and therefore to think about how to get them to manage their own learning. A particular strength of the theory is that it recognizes degrees of self-determination and bases many ideas on this reality. Most people recognize

combinations of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation guiding particular activities in their own lives. We might enjoy teaching, for example, but also do this job partly to receive a paycheck. To its credit, self-determination theory also relies on a list of basic human needs—autonomy, competence, and relatedness—that relate comfortably with some of the larger purposes of education.

Although these are positive features for understanding and influencing students’ classroom motivation, some educators and psychologists nonetheless have lingering questions about the limitations of self-determination theory. One is whether merely providing choices actually improves students’ learning, or simply improves their satisfaction with learning. There is evidence supporting both possibilities (Flowerday & Schraw, 2003; Deci & Ryan, 2003), and it is likely that there are teachers whose classroom experience supports both possibilities as well. Another question is whether it is possible to overdo attention to students’ needs—and again there is evidence for both favoring and contradicting this possibility. Too many choices can actually make anyone (not just a student) frustrated and dissatisfied with a choice the person actually does make (Schwartz, 2004). Furthermore, differentiating activities to students’ competence levels may be impractical if students are functioning at extremely diverse levels within a single class, as sometimes happens. Differentiating may be inappropriate, too, if it holds a teacher back from covering key curriculum objectives which students need and which at least some students are able to learn. These are serious concerns, though in our opinion not serious enough to give up offering choices to students or to stop differentiating instruction altogether. In Chapter 8 (“Classroom management and the learning environment”), therefore, we explain the practical basis for this opinion, by describing workable ways for offering choices and recognizing students’ diversity.

Expectancy x value: effects on students’ motivation

As we have explained in this chapter, motivation is affected by several factors, including reinforcement for behavior, but especially also students’ goals, interests, and sense of self-efficacy and self-determination. The factors combine to create two general sources of motivation: students’ expectation of success and the value that students place on a goal. Viewing motivation in this way is often called the expectancy-value model of motivation (Wigfield & Eccles, 2002; Wigfield, Tonk, & Eccles, 2004), and sometimes written with a multiplicative formula: expectancy x value = motivation. The relationship between expectation and value is “multiplicative” rather than additive because in order to be motivated, it is necessary for a person to have at least a modest expectation of success and to assign a task at least some positive value. If you have high expectations of success but do not value a task at all (mentally assign it a “0” value), then you will not feel motivated at all. Likewise, if you value a task highly but have no expectation of success about completing it (assign it a “0” expectancy), then you also will not feel motivated at all.

Expectancies are the result of various factors, but particularly the goals held by a student, and the student’s self- efficacy, which we discussed earlier in this chapter. A student with mastery goals and strong self-efficacy for a task, for example, is likely to hold high expectations for success—almost by definition. Values are also the result of various factors, but especially students’ interests and feelings of self-determination. A student who has a lasting personal interest in a task or topic and is allowed to choose it freely is especially likely to value the task—and therefore to feel motivated.

Ideally both expectancies and values are high in students on any key learning task. The reality, however, is that students sometimes do not expect success, nor do they necessarily value it when success is possible. How can a teacher respond to low expectations and low valuing? We have offered a number of suggestions to meet this challenge throughout this chapter. In brief, raising low expectations depends on adjusting task difficulty so that success becomes a reasonable prospect: a teacher must make tasks neither too hard nor too easy. Reaching this general goal depends in turn on thoughtful, appropriate planning—selecting reasonable objectives, adjusting them on the basis of experience, finding supportive materials, and providing students with help when needed.

Raising the value of academic tasks is equally important, but the general strategies for doing so are different than for raising expectations. Increasing value requires linking the task to students’ personal interests and prior knowledge, showing the utility of the task to students’ future goals, and showing that the task is valuable to other people whom students’ respect. Some of these strategies were discussed earlier in this chapter, but others (e.g. linking new learning with prior knowledge) are discussed in Chapter 3, which is called “The learning process”.

TARGET: a model for integrating ideas about motivation

A model of motivation that integrates many ideas about motivation, including those in this chapter, has been developed by Carole Ames (1990, 1992). The acronym or abbreviated name for the program is TARGET, which stands for six elements of effective motivation:

      • Task
      • Authority
      • Recognition
      • Grouping
      • Evaluating
      • Time

Each of the elements contributes to students’ motivation either directly or indirectly.

Task

As explained earlier, students experience tasks in terms of their value, their expectation of success, and their authenticity. The value of a task is assessed by its importance, interest to the student, usefulness or utility, and the cost in terms of effort and time to achieve it. Expectation of success is assessed by a student’s perception of the difficulty of a task. Generally a middling level of difficulty is optimal for students; too easy, and the task seems trivial (not valuable or meaningful), and too hard, and the task seems unlikely to succeed and in this sense useless. Authenticity refers to how much a task relates to real-life experiences of students; the more it does so, the more it can build on students’ interests and goals, and the more meaningful and motivating it becomes.

Autonomy

Motivation is enhanced if students feel a degree of autonomy or responsibility for a learning task. Autonomy strengthens self-efficacy and self-determination—two valued and motivating attitudes described earlier in this chapter. Where possible, teachers can enhance autonomy by offering students’ choices about assignments and by encouraging them to take initiative about their own learning.

Recognition

Teachers can support students’ motivation by recognizing their achievements appropriately. Much depends, however, on how this is done; as discussed earlier, praise sometimes undermines performance. It is not especially effective if praise is very general and lacking in detailed reasons for the praise; or if praise is for qualities which a student cannot influence (like intelligence instead of effort); or if praise is offered so widely that it loses meaning or even becomes a signal that performance has been substandard. Many of these paradoxical effects are described by self-determination and self-efficacy theory (and were explained earlier in this chapter).

Grouping

Motivation is affected by how students are grouped together for their work—a topic discussed in more detail in Chapter 9 (“Instructional Strategies”). There are many ways to group students, but they tend to fall into three types: cooperative, competitive, and individualistic (Johnson & Johnson, 1999). In cooperative learning, a set of students work together to achieve a common goal (for example, producing a group presentation for the class); often they receive a final grade, or part of a final grade, in common. In competitive learning, students work individually, and their grades reflect comparisons among the students (for example, their performances are ranked relative to each other, or they are “graded on a curve”). In individualistic learning, students work by themselves, but their grades are unrelated to the performance of classmates. Research that compares these three forms of grouping tends to favor cooperative learning groups, which apparently supports students’ need for belonging—an idea important in self-determination theory discussed earlier in this chapter.

Evaluation

Grouping structures obviously affect how students’ efforts are evaluated. A focus on comparing students, as happens with competitive structures, can distract students from thinking about the material to be learned, and to focus instead on how they appear to external authorities; the question shifts from “What am I learning?” to “What will the teacher think about my performance?” A focus on cooperative learning, on the other hand, can have double- edged effects: students are encouraged to help their group mates, but may also be tempted to rely excessively on others’ efforts or alternatively to ignore each other’s contributions and overspecialize their own contributions. Some compromise between cooperative and individualistic structures seems to create optimal motivation for learning (Slavin, 1995).

Time

As every teacher knows, students vary in the amount of time needed to learn almost any material or task. Accommodating the differences can be challenging, but also important for maximizing students’ motivation. School days are often filled with interruptions and fixed intervals of time devoted to non-academic activities—facts that make it difficult to be flexible about granting individuals different amounts of time to complete academic tasks. Nonetheless a degree of flexibility is usually possible: larger blocks of time can sometimes be created for important activities (for example, writing an essay), and sometimes enrichment activities can be arranged for some students while others receive extra attention from the teacher on core or basic tasks. More about such strategies is discussed in Chapter 9 (“Instructional Strategies”).

The bottom line about motivation: sustaining focus on learning

Sooner or later when you teach, there will be situations appropriate for each perspective about motivation described in this chapter. There will be times when focusing exclusively on students’ appropriate behavior (or lack thereof) will be both necessary and sufficient evidence of motivation. But there will be other times when it is important to encourage students’ beliefs that they can accomplish specific tasks, and still other times when providing for students’ underlying needs for competence or social connection is important. Think of these perspectives as alternatives to be used either singly or in combination when the time is right.

Because of your own values, attitudes, or beliefs, you may find one perspective more personally compatible than another. Even if you settle on favorite ways of motivating students, though, we encourage you to keep the other, less favored approaches in reserve anyway, and to experiment with them. We believe that an eclectic approach to motivation will enrich your teaching the most, and enrich your students’ motivation and learning as well. If there is a single lesson from the concepts about motivation outlined in this chapter, it is this: academic motivation has no single source, and teachers motivate students the best when they assume motivation is complex. The next two chapters look at ways of realizing such “broad-mindedness” in practice, first when you prepare activities and classes and later when you actually teach them.

Chapter summary

Motivation—the energy or drive that gives behavior direction and focus—can be understood in a variety of ways, each of which has implications for teaching. One perspective on motivation comes from behaviorism, and equates underlying drives or motives with their outward, visible expression in behavior. Most others, however, come from cognitive theories of learning and development. Motives are affected by the kind of goals set by students—whether they are oriented to mastery, performance, failure-avoidance, or social contact. They are also affected by students’ interests, both personal and situational. And they are affected by students’ attributions about the causes of success and failure—whether they perceive the causes are due to ability, effort, task difficulty, or luck.

A major current perspective about motivation is based on self-efficacy theory, which focuses on a person’s belief that he or she is capable of carrying out or mastering a task. High self-efficacy affects students’ choice of tasks, their persistence at tasks, and their resilience in the face of failure. It helps to prevent learned helplessness, a perception of complete lack of control over mastery or success. Teachers can encourage high self-efficacy beliefs by providing students with experiences of mastery and opportunities to see others’ experiences of mastery, by offering well- timed messages persuading them of their capacity for success, and by interpreting students’ emotional reactions to success, failure and stress.

An extension of self-efficacy theory is self-determination theory, which is based on the idea that everyone has basic needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness to others. According to the theory, students will be motivated more intrinsically if these three needs are met as much as possible. A variety of strategies can assist teachers in doing so. As a practical matter, the strategies can encourage motivation that is more intrinsic to students, but usually not completely intrinsic.

On the Internet

<www.des.emory.edu/mfp/self-efficacy.html> This is a rather extensive site maintained about all aspects of self-efficacy theory. The site gives access to a number of published articles on the subject as well as to extensive “lecture” notes by Frank Pajares, who publishes and teaches about self-efficacy theory.

<www.psych.rochester.edu/SDT/faculty/index.html> This, too, is a rather extensive site, maintained at the University of Rochester by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, two psychologists who have published extensively about self-determination theory. The site is especially thorough in reviewing evidence contrary to the theory and in offering many of the actual research questionnaires which have been used to study self-determination.

<www.indiana.edu/~reading/ieo/bibs/mot-gen.html> Here is a website that discusses many aspects of motivation in education. It is not limited to any one theory, perspective, or concept about this topic. Many of the references are to citations from the ERIC database (also available at <www.eric.ed.gov>), and there are links to bibliographies on additional topics about education.

Key terms

Albert Bandura

Attributions of success or failure

Autonomy, need for

Behaviorist perspective on motivation

Competence, need for

Failure-avoidant goals

Intrinsic motivation

Jigsaw classroom

Learned helplessness

Mastery goals Motivation

Need for relatedness Performance goals Personal interests

Self-determination theory Self-efficacy

Situational interests TARGET

 

 

 

 

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