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The good, the bad, and the ugly of student motivation

In a webinar with The Education Hub, Professor Andrew Martin, an educational psychologist at the University of New South Wales,  explained the key parts of motivation and engagement that switch students on (the ‘good’) and the key parts that switch students off (the ‘bad’ and the ‘ugly’).

What is motivation?

Motivation may be defined as a student’s energy and drive to learn, to work effectively, and to achieve to potential, as well as the behaviours that follow from that energy and drive, which are often referred to as engagement. Specifically, motivation refers to the thoughts, behaviours, and feelings that reflect students’ energy and drive to learn. A student’s thoughts includes their attitudes, beliefs, and assumptions about themselves, about the teacher, about the assigned work, and about their parents. Their behaviours can be summarised as how long, how well, and how hard they try, while their feelings involve such things as anxiety, enjoyment, and boredom.  As motivation is an individual construct, assessments of student motivation and interventions to boost student motivation need to be at the individual rather than group or classroom level.

The impact of motivation on academic outcomes

Motivation is both a desirable end in itself and a means to other desirable outcomes. Research has found that motivation and engagement predict academic achievement gains. Motivation is also associated with school attendance, participation, educational aspirations, and post-school pathways. Academic motivation and engagement have positive implications for social emotional wellbeing, including self-esteem and a sense of meaning and purpose.

The good, the bad, and the ugly

Motivation is not solely a positive construct: while there are aspects of motivation that optimise students’ academic development and help them strive towards reaching their potential, there are also aspects of motivation that impede students, and there are aspects of motivation and engagement that actually reduce students’ academic development. These different parts of motivation and engagement are expressed in the framework of the Motivation and Engagement Wheel:

The Motivation and Engagement Wheel was developed by Dr Andrew Martin and can be downloaded from https://lifelongachievement.com/pages/the-wheel

Positive motivation (The good)

Self-belief: refers to academic self-confidence, or a student’s belief that they can achieve what they set out to do.

Valuing: interest, enjoyment, and a student’s belief that what they learn at school is useful, relevant, and connected to their lives now and in the future.

Learning focus: a focus on the process of learning (mastery, skill development, effort, improvement) rather than on marks and academic ranking.

Positive engagement (The good)

Planning and monitoring: the student’s ability to understand what is required and monitor their progress towards that goal.

Task management: this involves the student prioritising the work, ensuring they have the necessary resources, and managing their time effectively.

Persistence: how students respond to challenges and difficulties.

Negative motivation (The bad)

Anxiety: while a certain level of anxiety or arousal is important for performance, it can impede performance once it hits a certain level. Anxiety involves a cognitive component (worry) and an emotional component (nervousness, churning stomach).

Failure avoidance: this involves students doing their school-work for fear-based reasons, such as not wanting to fail, appear stupid, or disappoint their teachers and parents, rather than for success-oriented reasons such as learning, skill development, or goal achievement.

Uncertain control: when students feel they lack control over things that impact their academic success, they experience a sense of helplessness and often lose their sense of agency. For example, they may believe they won’t succeed no matter how hard they try.

Negative engagement (The ugly)

Self-sabotage: this involves students putting obstacles in their path to success, such as procrastinating, wasting time, or doing little or no study for a test or assessment. Self-saboteurs are fearful of failure, particularly the implications of failure for their sense of self-worth, and the obstacles they create are designed to be a scapegoat for failure (‘I failed because I didn’t study, not because I lack ability’).

Disengagement: students are disaffected, withdrawn, and disenfranchised, often after having abandoned their efforts at self-sabotage. From an academic perspective, disengagement is the end of the line, and this is where students are at a high risk of dropping out of school. However, it important to note that disengagement is not irreversible.

Effective intervention is highly dependent on a strong conceptual framework. The Motivation and Engagement Wheel serves as the conceptual foundation for assessing students’ levels of motivation (see the Motivation and Engagement Scale) and planning inventions to target specific areas of student motivation and engagement (see the Student Booster Programme and the Online Staff Trainer). It also provides a shared language that teachers can use with students. The different components of the wheel are applicable to students from early primary onwards, and it applies both to academic work and beyond the classroom in areas like sport and the arts.

Domain-general versus domain-specific motivation

Research has found that about 50% of a student’s motivation and engagement is shared across all subjects, while the other 50% pertains to more specific components over which the teacher has some influence, such as their pedagogy, how well they relate to and connect with students, and the levels of social connection among the students in the class. They have also found that some parts of the Wheel, such as valuing, tend to be more specific to subjects, while others, such as anxiety, tend to be more general.

Patterns of motivation and engagement by age and gender

Research has found that motivation tends to be higher in primary school students than in secondary students, and that the positive aspects of motivation tend to decline in students from middle school levels into early secondary, although they pick up again in senior secondary levels (while the opposite happens for the negative components of motivation and engagement). Girls tend to return to higher levels of motivation and engagement earlier than boys, and tend to be higher overall on the positive factors and lower on the negative, with the notable exceptions of anxiety and uncertain control (in the sense that they often have the perception that they are not on top of their work even when they are).

The role of teacher effects in boosting student motivation

A key teacher effect related to motivation and engagement involves teachers’ relationships with students. A teacher’s ability to motivate a student is vastly improved where they have a strong, positive relationship with the student. The impact of teacher-student relationships has actually been shown to be higher than the impact of parent-child relationships and peer relationships on student motivation in the area of academic development.

Research has also found that a particular instructional approach known as Load Reduction Instruction (LRI) has a very positive impact on students’ level of motivation and engagement. LRI aims to strike a balance between explicit instruction and inquiry-based learning: specifically, it leads with explicit instruction in order to arm students with high levels of knowledge and understanding before they embark on inquiry-based activities.

Useful links and resources

Click here to download a pdf of the Motivation and Engagement Wheel

Click here to access the resources that Andrew referred to during to the webinar

Click here for the Motivation and Engagement Scale for assessment of the components of motivation

Articles on Load Reduction Instruction:

Martin, A. (2020). Kids learn best when you add a problem-solving boost to ‘back-to-basics’ instruction: Load reduction instruction (LRI). The Conversation.

Martin, A. (2018). Integrating explicit instruction  with independent learning:  Load Reduction Instruction (LRI). Australian Educational Leader, 40(2), 36-39.

Martin, A. J. (2016). Using Load Reduction Instruction (LRI) to boost motivation and engagement. Leicester, UK: British Psychological Society.

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