Gaining an understanding of theories of motivation - Tutor CPS

Motivation is sometimes a challenge to properly understand, and there are a few reasons for this. It is difficult to accurately measure, it is quite a subjective experience, and it is defined and manifested in a variety of ways. For parents, it can be difficult to assess their child’s motivation regarding their studies, especially if their child is seriously struggling in school. Our instinct is to associate low motivation with “laziness” and to claim that if students just tried harder, they would be more successful in school. In truth, lack of motivation is complex and at times, an illusion.

There are multiple theories of motivation that may help us better understand it. Let’s take a brief look at 3 of them.

  • Self-Efficacy Theory

This theory suggests that a person’s level of motivation is based on their own assessment of their sense of self-efficacy or capabilities when it comes to given tasks. If a student has low confidence in their ability to complete an academic task or master a skill taught in school, they will be less willing to put in the effort, appearing to the observer as unmotivated). When self-confidence is high, students are better able to stay calm and manage anxiety, which can help them persevere through stressful academic times.

  • Attribution Theory

Attributions are the causes we assign to outcomes. For students, this means explaining a failed exam by pointing to how difficult the test was, bad luck or how this specific teacher dislikes them. How we choose to make attributions affects our attitude towards the challenges we face. If a student reacts negatively to failing in school, they are more likely to react negatively to school in general, hence lowering their drive to succeed (appears as low motivation).

  • Achievement Goal Theory

This theory states that motivation is dependent on the types of goals students are setting. Students can either set mastery goals or performance goals. These can make all the difference in terms of how enthusiastic or not a student is about school.

  • Mastery goals: These types of goals are based on the process rather than the outcome. The main factors that affect one’s ability to achieve their goals come from within through self-regulation and self-determination. The process is what matters most of all. A goal is seen a learning opportunity. It fosters flexibility and adaptation. This type of goal fosters motivation because it encourages a student to focus on incremental tasks, allows them to change their approach to better suit the goal and boosts confidence by providing for multiple small victories along the way. Most importantly, mistakes are viewed as a positive, allowing students to improve further.
  • Performance goals: These types of goals are more basic with a focus on an outcome rather than process. The only factor of importance for the student is the final grade. One danger is that struggling student may consider themselves “less smart” than their peers, thus, unable to complete the task. They will therefore not bother trying. This often appears as a lack of motivation. It can cause students avoid any task they deem too difficult. Mistakes are viewed as negative, appearing to further confirm a child’s inability to have success in school.

Student motivation is likely a mix of many factors and no one theory can explain it all. It is impacted by how a student thinks about school, how they behave, and how they react emotionally to their own successes and failures. It can be helpful to engage in conversations with our children about what school means to them. Do they see and understand the purpose of their academic journey? Do they feel capable? Do they feel supported? Do they feel they have the tools and resources to achieve success? Do they believe that intelligence is fixed or that it is a process of growth? Answering these questions will help them better chart a course for their own learning journey. As they find their way, they will become more engaged and determined and hopefully feel more motivated to give it a try.