Student Motivation – Part 2

I continue the previous post with the other three theories on motivation that have relevance in the field of education.

4. Motives as attributions

Attributions are perceptions about the causes of success and failure. Students cannot escape this dimension of motivation: they do assign the result of a learning experience, wrongly or otherwise, to certain factors. Let’s assume the student fails a test: s/he may develop different attributions to explain this failure – maybe s/he did not put enough effort into the task, maybe the task was too difficult, or maybe s/he is not intelligent enough.

Not only these attributions (self-constructed explanations) may be completely wrong, but they are somewhat out of the teacher’s reach as

“they reflect (students’) personal beliefs about the sources or causes of success and failure.”

Seifert, however, recommends that teachers influence these attributions through their own feedback. This should never be framed around uncontrollable factors (such as intelligence) and gives two examples of reactions to success and failure: 

Instead of telling a student: “Good work! You’re smart!”, try saying: “Good work! Your effort really made a difference, didn’t it?” If a student fails, instead of saying, “Too bad! This material is just too hard for you,” try saying, “Let’s find a strategy for practicing this more, and then you can try again.

As you notice, the emphasis on effort situates future learning in the zone of personal controllable factors, fact that enables the student to appreciate the power of perseverance (in the case of success) and of deliberate practice (in the case of failure). Too often, both parents and teachers, manipulate qualitative words that judge the person rather than the task performance. No wonder we create learners who experience anxiety, become demotivated in the long run, and consequently, undermine their own learning and joy of discovery.

5. Motivation as self-efficacy

This theory resembles the previous one in many ways.

“Self-efficacy is the belief that you are capable of carrying out a specific task or of reaching a specific goal.”

Again, as a “belief”, self-efficacy may be in contrast with a person’s real abilities. For instance, a student may think that s/he can write an excellent essay at the end of the semester without demonstrating it eventually; the opposite is true, as well (when students underestimate their abilities).

Seifert identifies several effects of self-efficacy on student behavior:

– choice of tasks

– persistence at tasks

– response to failure

Obviously, students with high self-efficacy will choose more challenging tasks, will persevere in performing and will recover quicker from failure. Reverse the situation (low self-efficacy), and the student will not be willing to engage in more difficult or complex activities, will give up easily and will find learning (that now s/he identifies with failure) very stressful. Moreover, if their self-efficacy is very low they can develop learned helplessness:

“The attitude is similar to depression, a pervasive feeling of apathy and a belief that effort makes no difference and does not lead to success. In adults, learned helplessness leads to characteristic ways of dealing with problems. They tend to attribute the source of a problem to themselves, to generalize the problem to many aspects of life, and to see the problem as lasting or permanent.”

Seifert further on identifies several major sources of self-efficacy beliefs and two seemed critical to me as an educator:

– prior experiences of mastery

– social messages and persuasion

From the first it follows that teachers should create situations where students experience success (and I do not mean they should accommodate student needs to the point of “dumbing down”); the second, although it implies a larger social circle (parents, included), invites teachers to be extremely aware of the language they use in their feedback as well as the classroom culture they build.

Before we are tempted to find this theory on motivation rather “on the spot”, Seifert cautions:

“A caution about self-efficacy theory is its heavy emphasis on just the process of motivation, at the expense of the content of motivation.” 

What complicates the matter is that a person can have a high self-efficacy (process) but completely dislike doing the task/s (content) they perform. In other words, one can display mastery, say, in solving math problems but does not feel motivated to do math.

6.  Motivation as self-determination

This theory is based on the work of two psychologists, Edward Deci and Richard Ryan (2000). As you can see, long before Daniel Pink talked about Drive, they concluded that three basic human needs are critical to motivation:

autonomy—the need to feel free of external constraints on behavior

competence—the need to feel capable or skilled

relatedness—the need to feel connected or involved with others

We all think these are common sense as we experienced them ourselves. However, Seifert, like me, questions the theory to some extent as it does not always trigger effective, in-depth learning: do all three improve students’ learning, or “simply improve their satisfaction with learning.”


If you read through all six theories, it is impossible not to realize that they are different parts of the same puzzle. You cannot exclude any (including behaviorism) because, one way or another, we did/do experience motivation either as “goals”, as “interests”, as “self-efficacy” beliefs and so forth. Think of your own set of motivations both in your teaching career and in your daily life and you will see that we have a myriad of combinations of these puzzle pieces.

Oh well, 2 a.m. again. I hope these two posts made you think, rethink and reflect. Because it is easy to talk about “student interests” in so simple terms as I read on Twitter (OK, and I admit – it annoys me to no end). Reality is by far more complex, and simplification can only lead to two things: greatness or misconceptions.


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