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Motivation of school pupils

March 9, 2011

This article also exists in French.

Motivation as a concept interests me because it’s a key factor behind our performance at work, and influences a large part of the way we run our lives. Psychologists recognise that more stable or innate personality traits, and our deeper tendancies combine with our learning, to influence our behavior (Lieury, 2008). Thus, motivation is certainly more complex than the behaviourists theorized. However, despite its complexities (hence psychologists’ difficulty in saying anything concrete to help us), this domain plays a key role in influencing businesses and individuals. When it comes to education, I don’t know how teachers learn or are taught about motivation during their training. To help my own daughter, who is struggling in CM2 principally because she’s Anglophone, I have felt moved to read two articles that have really got my interest, not only for their theories, but also because some of the conclusions they contain have an almost revolutionary air!

I wrote this piece as an academic essay, originally in French, to help with my studies over here. I am continuing to explore this field, hoping to come to some more concrete conclusions, to help my daughter, and to help others.

1st paper : DWECK, C. et LEGGETT, E. (1988)
A social cognitive approach to motivation and personality
in Psychological Review 95, pp.256-273.

This model of motivation leans on the principal that personality variables are inherent in determining motivation, and that motivation depends on the way an individual thinks, and their mood.

The central premise of this paper is that children can conceive of intelligance, be it their own or intelligence as a quality in general, as being more or less fixed, and more or less open to analysis or assessment. For those children who see intelligence as fixed, life seems to be a series of evaluations of their intelligence or capability. For those children who see intelligence as more fluid, intelligence is something that can be developed through their efforts and achievements. In fact, for this second group of children, it’s the experience of success, more than the fact that they are rated as being intelligent, that brings them satisfaction. On the other hand, those children who see intelligence as predetermined seek out the reassurance of positive evaluations of their “intelligence” in the form of good test marks or other quantitative means.

For this essay, those children who hold the fluid concept of intelligence will be called the “Masters”, as so named by the authors of this article; these pupils seek to master the things that they learn.

I will call the other group of pupils the “Resigned”, following the same article; they are resigned to submit to evaluations of their intelligence, which they see as a fixed entity.

The pursuit of objectives.

“Masters” pursue, as objectives, the mastery of everything they learn, thus they love learning, because that brings them a satisfaction that psychologists call “instrinsic”. This is as opposed to “extrinsic”, a motivation that might come from outside themselves, from the promise of a reward for their achievement. Also, these Master pupils are more capable of using things they’ve already learned to resolve new problems, making them tend to feel more ready to tackle more difficult objectives.
Resigned pupils, on the other hand, pursue objectives that they think will serve to prove their competence, or alternatively to refute their incompetence. Thus, they look for competition, but at the same time detest failure. As a consequence of this, they tend to avoid tough objectives. When they do fail, they seek to discredit (by “putting down”) either the task, the school system, or the teacher, and they have a tendancy to boast about their abilities in other areas, in order to detract from their failures.

Failure and Difficult Tasks

When a Resigned pupil has already begun to fail, he starts to get depressed, so he puts himself down (especially as regards his intelligence), reinforcing his poor self-image. As he already lacks conviction in the effectiveness of his own efforts, he tries less hard and his attention becomes weaker, as it’s split between the task in hand and servicing his own anxiety.

On the other hand, the Masters, confident of the efficacy of their efforts, find themselves naturally enthusiastic to take on new challenges, faced with which they find themselves capable of adjusting their efforts and investing all their intention in the task at hand – their primary reward is this accomplishment. In addition, these pupils are able to think of new techniques and original problem-solving strategies, and so they are constantly developing their own capability.

Resigned pupils respond to tasks that require a lot of effort by getting depressed, because they see the need to expend a lot of effort as evidence of their lack of capability. On the other hand the Masters, under threat of failure, push through and redouble their efforts, knowing that the difficulty of the task is giving them a great opportunity to use, to feel and to develop their mastery….
How and why do children react the way they do?

The type of objective (performance or improvement) chosen by an individual influences the way they interpret not only their performance, but events that occur along the way. Thus, the chain of events for a Resigned person will quickly lead to a dead end, while the Masters never cease to open doors to other opportunities, solutions and sources of information, all of which help them to achieve their goal.

For those that find that this sounds familiar, the concept of “Locus of Control” has already been written about (LEFCOURT, 1976, ROTTER, 1966) and is well known among psychologists. Extroverts tend to have an external locus of control (things happen due to factors outside themselves), whereas introverts tend to attach events and outcomes to factors within themselves, and are said to have an internal Locus of Control (and to be more prone to depression). Dweck & Leggett, in this article, place their model in a position superimposed over the Locus of Control, i.e. that the same predisposition that leads to a conception of intelligence as more or less under the control of the individual, also leads to the development of an internal or external locus of control.
However, I ask whether they are right when it comes to causality, to state that stable personality variables lead an individual to have opinions and to make judgments, as would external factors, and influence their mood, as much as would, say, the individual’s brain chemistry? In any case the authors admit specifically that such other factors could have a bearing on an individual’s behavior, and that the mechanism they describe would lead to a tendancy that would prevail, but that is not immune from other internal and or external factors, especially if such factors have a strong influence.

2nd Référence :
ERLICH S. et FLORIN A. (1989)
Ne pas décourager l’élève (How not to discourage pupils)
in Revue française de Pédagogie, pp.35-48.

The fundamental premise in this article is that if teachers set goals that are too far from a pupil’s present ability, this will discourage them. Equally, a level that is too low will discourage pupils as well.

The paper is a write-up of several experiments which demonstrate that the setting of objectives has many weaknesses. In particular, because every class has pupils at so many different levels, it is practically impossible to fix objectives that are at the right level for each pupil. Their tests, given to CM2 and 6ième pupils (last year of primary school and 1st year of 2ndary school). They show for the most part that the more difficult the goals are, the more discouragement sets in, though for the pupils who have a constructive way of dealing with difficult tasks, this affect is lessened. Also, setting individualised goals so that they stretch the pupil without overwhelming them, also leads to good performance.

The last of their experiments shows that if the instructions to a task are modified to include a definition of “success” as step-by-step improvement, rather than achieving “champion” status in one go, the decrease in performance when faced with repeated testing that they had seen in previous trials, could be neutralized. This worked even when the goals were too tough.
The authors argue that in order to see an education strategy founded on these principles, it must be followed consistently, and that it would only work on pupils who already have a 75% success rate in their current objectives. It’s therefore not surprising, then, that they admit that their recommendations would be impossible to put into practice in the current education system. They write in 1988, but I’m not sure the system has changed much since then in terms of the factors that would limit the recommended approach. They recommend greater use of IT, which was just in its infancy (as regards popular use) at the time, but I don’t think teachers use it to the extent that the authors would have envisaged, nor to an extent that would truly facilitate the implementation of the recommended methods of goal setting or assessment. Finally, the authors expressly recommend that teachers avoid trying to cast all pupils in the same mould.


To help a child to become a Master, one would need to help them to develop the idea that intelligence is evaluative, and not a fixed quality to be marked and assessed by a series of tests, etc. This would need to be done bearing in mind a potential weakness, which is that objectives do, in practice, need to be set in such a way that the pupil’s attention can stay on the goal, in order to keep the goal relevant and in proportion to their ability.

When a “Resigned” pupil has already begun to fail, it’s no good asking them “Well, how can you resolve this problem?”, as one would be tempted to do in order to spur them on, because he has, in fact, already started to get depressed, and so to put himself down. To put another challenge in front of him will only torment him further! On the other hand, Masters rejoice in a new challenge, which they attack with enthusiasm, learning new techniques and developing their capacities along the way. Thus, these pupils become more and more autonomous. The question, then, is how to help to change a child from a “Resigned” pupil into a “Master”. Perhaps the suggestions of Erlich & Florin (1989) would be pertinent, but as they recognized that the school system couldn’t provide the mileu to make the necessary changes, it seems to me that the solution would have to be exercised at the individual level, that’s to say the level of the person himself. This is why I’m continuing to research this in the pursuit of a solution for my own daughter. Could one see a solution where the pupil learns to re-frame his objectives to be more appropriate (how remains another question), potentially to the detriment of the objectives set by the teacher? For this, the child would have to have a a high level of self-confidence. He would have to know how to formulate his own objectives, potentially sometimes in conflict with those set by the teacher. Another solution might be to agree individual objectives in consultation with the teacher, if that could be made feasible, and this would depend upon the school, the teacher, and also the parent and the pupil.

How to get a pupil to frame his own objectives constructively.

According to DWECK & LEGGETT (1988), the way objectives are structured (as an evaluation or as an improvement task), leads pupils to tend to see the objective as a competition or as an opportunity to develop mastery. Their research shows that it is relatively easy to influence children’s concept of intelligence. But is it really? Is it really as simple as explaining that intelligence is fluid, evaluative, to a pupil, for him to change his strategy spontaneously? Certainly, the authors admit that external factors can also have a bearing on the child’s conception of intelligence and of tasks, but they underline that the individual’s own tendancy will prevail, expecially in the absence of strong environmental influences. Thus, as far as I can see, it would be best to help the child to learn to see intelligence differently, in order to improve his perspective, that’s to say to alter it into one where he is more likely to have a good experience of learning. For this, the child would need to want to change! On the other hand, as he makes the change, I think that he would feel better, and this would make him feel stronger, and the mechanism would reinforce itself.

Other questions that arise, and which warrant further research :

If a person decides, in order to transform himself from “Resigned “ into a “Master”, that he needs to behave like someone who looks for development opportunities, but at heart he believes that personality traits and intelligence are fixed, would he simply be in for a life of stress as he tries to behave contrarily to his “true” personality and beliefs?

The notion of « Circonscription » of one’s capability, after Gottfredson, 1981: is this a characteristic of “Resigned” people? In a society and a system like the French one, where one finds oneself “classified” relatively early in life, would this tend to produce “Resigned” people, or even that we have only the capacities we’re born with, whereas in theory our capabilities can evolve throughout our life? Dweck and Leggett, 1988, acknowledge that science and society exert influence over our ideologies in a way that evolves as society does.


DWECK, C. et LEGGETT, E. (1988)
Social cognitive approach to motivation and personality
in Psychological Review 95, pp.256-273.

ERLICH S. et FLORIN A. (1989)
Ne pas décourager l’élève
in Revue française de Pédagogie, pp.35-48.

GOTTFREDSON, Linda S. (1981). Circumscription and Compromise: A developmental theory of occupational aspirations. Journal of Counseling Psychology. Vol. 28(6), Pp. 545-579.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike permalink
    March 16, 2011 1:40 pm

    Very interesting!
    I thought these changes – measuring success as a series of small steps – had already been implemented? Perhaps not in France, but in the UK.

    The picture for any pupil is of course quite complicated, in that they will be Resigned or Master depending on context, subject area, present peers etc.

    I am noticing that the French system does appear to be very rigid and bureaucratic… which was kind of surprising given the personalities of the French, but then on reflection it probably *explains* the personality 🙂

    • March 16, 2011 3:08 pm

      Hi Mike

      You’re right, the measures of pupil ability and attainment have become more measures of small steps, in the UK, and it appears here in France as well. The point of the “Master” way a pupil thinks of his own ability, though, is that he enjoys making incremental steps, whether small or large, in his ability to understand. In fact, it’s his increasing ability, and not his results per se, that motivate him. On the other hand the “Resigned” pupil would be motivated only by external reward, and so would only be happy with high marks (or at least an improvement in his marks). This is different from the “Master” style thinker, who would derive intrinsic pleasure from “feeling” himself getting brighter, as he works out how to do things, and to some extent he wouldn’t really mind whether or not anyone else congratulates him on his success, so self-assured and self-contained he is. This is what I want for my daughter! Not to be rattled by marks on test papers, but to keep on keeping on, and to love learning!

      The fact that any school system, the French one or otherwise, contains a lot of tests, is unfortunate from the point of view of pupil motivation, because it adds external reward (and sanction) to the mix. While it’s good that some pupils are motivated by improving their grades, some of the research I’ve mentioned, as well as quite a lot of other research, shows that if you introduce external rewards, this actually lowers internal self-generated motivation. You’re kind of taking the fun out of learning for some of the brighter pupils (although some will love tests because they always do well) – and you’re certainly not doing the below-average pupils any favours.

      EXCEPT, and this is where it’s getting interesting for me, as my daughter mentioned something about this today, which shows she’s absorbing some of this stuff – test results also serve as useful feedback for a pupil who is struggling. If a pupil can learn to see test and other feedback in this light, things are starting to look up. When a pupil wants to know how they’ve done and where they’ve gone wrong, so that they can improve themselves, this is the beginning of the turning of a corner. At least I hope so, in my daughter’s case.

      (I have just written an email to her teacher asking him to return a test script for which she was disappointed not to be told her mark). Yessss!!!


  1. How good is good enough? « A New Life in France

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