New evidence on fostering motivation

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I have written before about an interesting paper by Garon-Carrier and colleagues. Briefly, they followed a group of students through elementary school and found that achievement in mathematics predicted later motivation for mathematics but that motivation for mathematics did not predict later achievement.

Now, a new paper by Nuutila and colleagues has been released that gives a similar finding. Pleasingly, both this paper and the earlier paper are open access, so you don’t have to be a PhD student or academic to read them.

One of the problems with researching motivation is establishing exactly what it is. It seems like an obvious concept, but how do you measure it? If you ask students whether they want to do well in maths, all but the most disaffected are likely to say, ‘Yes’. Instead, researchers look at constructs such as self-concept – ‘I am a good maths student’ – and self-efficacy – ‘I will successfully complete this maths task’. Once expressed this way, it is clear that these measures would be related to achievement. We can also ask about levels of interest in a subject or task and the latter measure was a focus of the new paper. Interestingly, students who were interested in one of the maths tasks also tended to be interested in the other, different, maths tasks. So it is not just about the individual task; there is something about the subject itself that is at work.

You could perhaps argue that a motivated student is one who will persist with a task, despite a lack of interest, but I’m not sure there is a conflict here because I suspect that one of the ways motivation works is to make tasks seem more interesting. This might explain why motivation doesn’t vary much from task to task in the new study. Nevertheless, there is plenty to argue about.

I am inclined to think that there is a reciprocal relationship between achievement and motivation i.e. that achievement leads to motivation and motivation leads to achievement. However, it is intriguing that both the Garron-Carrier and Nuutila studies show the relationship acting one way only. And as the authors of the new paper point out, there isn’t a huge amount of longitudinal research to draw upon to resolve this issue. Mind you, they don’t reference the Garon-Carrier paper, which seems odd.

At the very least, findings such as these should make us reflect on the ubiquitous folk theory of motivation, rooted in educational progressivism, that suggests that we need to focus on motivating students in order to improve their achievement. You see this expressed in the form of STEM initiatives that seek to inspire students with talks from professional scientists or with the promotion of supposedly motivating teaching methods such as inquiry learning.

Instead, we should pay more attention to ensuring students feel success from the outset by using the most effective teaching methods, whatever they happen to be. I find it no coincidence that Rosenshine recommends obtaining an 80% success rate and that this recommendation derives from research into effective teaching.


2 thoughts on “New evidence on fostering motivation

  1. I’ve found over the years that one of the biggest problems in this area, particularly in elective subjects, is “false motivation” – i.e. when kids are given mainly “fun”, “motivating” activities in the junior years and thus get a false impression of what the subject is going to be like later on. This can actually, in the long run, be highly de-motivating for students who might otherwise have done well in the subject (and maintained their motivation) if they had been given a firm grounding in Years 7/8/9.

    1. Yes. I agree and I like your label, ‘false motivation’. There is a lot to explore there. A similar issue from a maths perspective is when primary school teachers and parents try to motivate kids through early maths by suggesting how useful it will be in everyday life. You then have students in Year 9 asking ‘But when will I ever need this in real life?’ in a way they would be less likely ask about art or literature.

      XKCD has this right:

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