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Motivation in School Pupils

April 2, 2011

Here’s the text to a presentation I wrote (because it’s more user-friendly than the essay I’d already written). I don’t know how to display a true presentation in WordPress, but I hope it will be of interest despite its aesthetic shortcomings !

Ce diaporama existe aussi en français

Pupil Motivation

Emily Crews-Montès

Definition of Motivation

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

The concept of intelligence

“Masters” and “Resigned” pupils

Goals, tasks and rewards

Can one become a Master ?


The cognitive evaluation theory of motivation (Deci & Ryan, 1982) – states that motivation occurs on a continuuem from intrinsic motivation to “amotivation”, passing by extrinsic motivation on the way.

“Amotivation” means a total lack of motivation, resignation to failure, and discouragement

Different motivations and behaviours can be explained by two fundamental needs: the need for esteem and the need to be self-directed (Lieury et Fenouillet, 2006)

Schematic on motivation, autodetermination and self-esteem (see diagram)

Different types of motivation can be explained by two fundamental needs : the need for the esteem of others, and the need for self-direction (to be allowed to decide for oneself how to approach a task).(Lieury et Fenouillet, 2006)

Extrinsic Motivation

Is a product of factors that are independant and exterior to the person

Is a product of rewards offered

Provided that the person sees those rewards as desirable and that the individual believes they can achieve the goal and hence claim the reward, the reward will be effective

This type of motivation disappears quickly in the face of failure, especially where the person lacks intrinsic motivation – and the person quickly withdraws effort. An increase in extrinsic motivation doesn’t increase intrinsic motivation

Intrinsic Motivation

Is linked to task-orientation and achievement

Is correlated with a feeling of competence and a need to be self-directed

Stays solid in the face of failure. The individual possessing intrinsic motivation looks for work-arounds when they encounter a problem, rather than giving up.

Intrinsic motivation is vulnerable to reduction if rewards are introduced, as a reward system decreases the feeling of self-direction. It is also decreased if goals are given that are too easy.

What lies behind motivation :

The concept of intelligence held by the pupil

Dweck et Leggett (1988) conducted a series of experiments on Year 6 and 7 pupils. They found that the concept of intelligence held by pupils took two forms :

For the “Masters” (group of pupils who deal well with challenges), their concept of intelligence is that it is always possible to develop, and they were always looking to improve it.

For the “Resigned” (those who find challenges difficult), intelligence is fixed, and each one of life’s challenges is a test and demonstration of their level. In fact, life is full of stressful tests, which they try to avoid by various means.

The Masters

Adore challenges, because they take them as opportunities to develop their capabilities.

They like the feeling of improvement they get as they look for new solutions to problems

This improvement sensation is their reward – they have no need for external reward.

They see any failures along the way as “information” telling them how to modify their approach, and not as a judgment of their capability or achievement level

The Resigned

They don’t like difficult tasks, because these make them vulnerable to failure, so they avoid them.

When thay get something wrong, they withdraw their effort and lose self-confidence.

They tend to try to mask their failures by putting down the task, the system or the teacher – or otherwise they try to augment their image by boasting of their achievements in other, unrelated, areas (such as sports or fashion sense).

In situations where they feel that they have had to expend a lot of effort in order to succeed, they interpret this as “evidence” that they are not very capable – so they prefer easy tasks and goals.

Also behind motivation :
Guit versus shame

How the child deals with setbacks

  • He reads it as a reflection of his lack of ability (which is a stable condition, in other words out of his control), and which he looks on with shame
  • Or as the result of a lack of effort, for which he feels guilt ?

Where the child feels shame he’s likely to withdraw effort, while if he feels guilt he’s likely to remedy this with an increase of effort in order to avoid a recurrence of the bad mark or other failure. In other words, shame is an activator of motivation.

Goals and Tasks

Should be presented in a way that encourages the pupils to feel capable.

Goals, devised to be achieveable and pitched just a little bit above the pupils’ current level, but not too much higher

If goals and tasks are set this way, this would provide “evidence” that daily goals are part of a system of incremental developent – in this way the teacher reinforces the concept of intelligence and ability as things that can be constantly improved.

Encouragement of the value of learning in the giving of feedback – feedback following failure should include a call for the pupil(s) to increase their efforts – feedback should not include comments that infer that the pupil has low ability, unless this is logically necessary.


If these MUST be used, they must be given to reward task-oriented behaviour. Reward the development of novel solutions

Don’t set up a comparitive system, because that lowers the motivation of the “Masters” and tends to inhibit the “Resigned” pupils from making their best efforts.

For those who do respond to rewards with extrinsic motivation, rewards could sometimes increase thier motivation, but this effect would only be temporary.

Can someone become a “Master” even if they are currently “Resigned” ?

Is it possible to transform one’s self-image following an improvement in performance (perhaps achieved through extrinsic motivation), and lead oneself to be intrinsically motivated ?

Most researchers hold back from going this far, as it makes too much of a theoretical leap of faith, and is difficult to support empirically (difficult to prove through experiments).

All this despite a wealth of research on cognition, and the established link between thinking styles and the self-concept possessed by the “Masters”.

But in the end I found a study that goes nearly that far :

It’s a similar idea to that investigated by Proudfoot et al (1997), which proposed that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) could change the behaviour of the long-term unemployed.

CBT was applied in a group setting, and was effective in improving the effectiveness of the subjects in finding employment.

If that’s possible, we must be able to help our children !

We can’t all always do CBT at home, but I explained some of the key concepts of this presentation to my daughter, 10. She wasn’t at all happy at the prospect of being included in the “Resigned” category, so we’ll see what she’s going to do about it….

Conclusions : We should:

Encourage and reinforce the right concept of intelligence

Value continuous development in our children

Make the most of their innate motivation

Encourage the right concept of intelligence

Encourage pupils to believe that intelligence is a fluid quality and always open to improvement

Goals should be devised, as far as is possible, to be a little bit above their level, but not too far, this gives them the message that their goal at school should be to improve all the time, bit by bit.

Tests : give them marks for new solutions – making it clear in advance, in the instructions, that their efforts at problem solving will be rewarded, rather than penalised. If the teacher doesn’t have the flexibility in the system to award points for half-right answers, for example, then give credit for this work in the feedback after the test.

Value continuous development

Present tasks as opportunities for development, and emphasise that the (behvaiour of )seeking of new solutions will be given as many marks as correct answers.

In instructions for tests :

  • highlight that tests are also an opportunity for improvement
  • Remind pupils that tests are one part of an overall system of continuous improvement
  • Run tests in such a way that they are seen as a source of information (for the pupils) on their own level attained, and on what they may need to do to improve further

Make the most of their innate motivation

Value the development of their capabilities

Mimimise the giving of rewards, as these only act on extrinsic motivation, and in fact diminish intrinsic motivation

Value task-orientedness

Value new solutions and ideas generated by pupils

For strong pupils, avoid too much structure in school, as that lowers their motivation by reducing their scope to remain self-directed

Present any failures as learning opportunities and highlight these learnings so that the pupils can appreciate when they have made a developmental step

Stop Press…

As I was putting the finishing touches to this presentation, I found an article that says everything I’ve said here, in one fell swoop…. typical…. but I’m happy, anyway, to have spent a few weeks on this. In any case, I don’t have much choice, being 8 and a half months’ pregnant, I can’t do very much other than sit and read ! And my daughter has got something out of it, I think…..

Dweck C et leggett E 1988
Social cognitive approach to motivation and personality
Psychological review 95, 256-273
Erlich, S et Florin, A (1989)
Ne pas décourager l’élève
Revue Française de Pédagogie, p 35-48

Lieury et Fenouillet 2006
Motivation et réussite scolaire
Dunod Paris 2ième éd.
Proudfoot, J et al 1997 « Effect of cognitive-behavioural training on job-finding among long-term unemployed people »
The Lancet 350, 9071, 96-100. 0140-6736
Weiner, B, 1985 “an attributional theory of achievement motivation and emotion” Psychological Review 1985 92, 548-73

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