Competence and Self-Worth (page 5)
Some theorists have proposed that human beings have a basic need for competence—a need to believe that they can deal effectively with their environment (Boggiano & Pittman, 1992; Connell & Wellborn, 1991; Reeve, Deci, & Ryan, 2004; R. White, 1959). To achieve this sense of competence, children spend a great deal of time engaged in exploring and attempting to gain mastery over various aspects of their world. This need for competence may have evolutionary significance: It pushes growing children to develop ways of dealing more effectively with a variety of circumstances and thus increases their chances of survival (R. White, 1959).
One motivation theorist has proposed that one of people’s highest priorities is protecting their general belief that they are good, capable individuals—something he calls self-worth (Covington, 1992). Occasionally, people seem more concerned about maintaining consistent self-perceptions, even if those self-perceptions are negative (Cassidy, Ziv, Mehta, & Feeney, 2003; Hay, Ashman, van Kraayenoord, & Stewart, 1999). By and large, however, positive self-perceptions do appear to be a high priority.
Other people’s judgments and approval play a key role in the development of a sense of competence and self-worth, especially in children’s early years (Harter, 1999). Another important factor is regular success in daily activities, especially those that are new and challenging (N. E. Perry, Turner, & Meyer, 2006; Reeve et al., 2004). Learners who take on and master challenges experience considerable pleasure, satisfaction, and pride in their accomplishments (Csikszentmihalyi & Nakamura, 1989; Shernoff, Knauth, & Makris, 2000; A. G. Thompson & Thompson, 1989; J. C. Turner, 1995).
But consistent success isn’t always possible, of course. In the face of very difficult tasks, an alternative way to maintain self-worth is to avoid failure, because failure gives the impression of low ability (Covington, 1992; Covington & Müeller, 2001; Urdan & Midgley, 2001). Failure avoidance manifests itself in a variety of ways: Learners might refuse to engage in a task, might minimize the task’s importance, or might set exceedingly low expectations for performance (Covington, 1992; Harter, 1990; A. J. Martin, Marsh, & Debus, 2001).
When learners cannot avoid tasks at which they expect to do poorly, they have several strategies at their disposal. They may make excuses that seemingly justify their poor performance (Covington, 1992; Urdan & Midgley, 2001). They may also do things that actually undermine their chances of success—a phenomenon known as self-handicapping. Self-handicapping takes a variety of forms, including the following:
- Reducing effort: Putting forth an obviously insufficient amount of effort to succeed
- Setting unattainably high goals: Working toward goals that even the most capable individuals couldn’t achieve
- Taking on too much: Assuming so many responsibilities that no one could possibly accomplish them all
- Procrastinating: Putting off a task until success is virtually impossible
- Cheating: Presenting others’ work as one’s own
- Using alcohol or drugs: Taking substances that will inevitably reduce performance (E. M. Anderman, Griesinger, & Westerfield, 1998; Covington, 1992; D. Y. Ford, 1996; E. E. Jones & Berglas, 1978; Riggs, 1992; Urdan, Ryan, Anderman, & Gheen, 2002)
It might seem paradoxical that learners who want to be successful would actually try to undermine their own success. But if they believe they are unlikely to succeed no matter what they do—especially if failure will reflect poorly on their intelligence and ability—such behaviors increase their chances of justifying the failure and thereby protecting their self-worth (Covington, 1992; Riggs, 1992; Urdan et al., 2002). For example, in the following interview, a student named Christine explains how a lack of effort helps her take poor classroom performance in stride:
Interviewer: What if you don’t do so well [in class]?
Christine: Then you’ve got an excuse. . . . It’s just easier to cope with if you think you haven’t put as much work into it.
Interviewer: What’s easier to cope with?
Christine: From feeling like a failure because you’re not good at it. It’s easier to say, “I failed because I didn’t put enough work into it” than “I failed because I’m not good at it.” (A. J. Martin, Marsh, Williamson, & Debus, 2003, p. 621)
Curiously, some students are more likely to perform at their best, and less likely to display self-handicapping behaviors, when outside circumstances indicate that their chances of success are slim. In such cases failure doesn’t indicate low ability and thus doesn’t threaten their sense of self-worth (Covington, 1992).
Self-handicapping behaviors have been observed in students as early as fifth grade, and those who frequently self-handicap achieve at lower levels than those who rarely self-handicap (Urdan & Midgley, 2001). As we learned in Chapter 3, young children (e.g., kindergarteners and first graders) are generally fairly optimistic about their chances of future success; hence, they would have little reason to self-handicap.
Revisiting Self-Efficacy On the surface the concepts of competence and self-worth are similar to the concept of self-efficacy. In theory, however, there is a key difference between the needs for competence and self-worth, on the one hand, and self-efficacy, on the other. Having a sense of competence and self-worth may be a basic human need. In contrast, social cognitive theorists have suggested that self-efficacy is certainly a good thing, but they don’t go so far as to speculate that it is an essential driving force of human nature.
One point on which virtually all motivation theorists agree is that students’ confidence about their ability to handle day-to-day tasks is an important variable influencing motivation—especially intrinsic motivation—in the classroom. For instance, a lack of confidence leads to decreased interest and motivation (e.g., Boggiano & Pittman, 1992; Harter, Whitesell, & Kowalski, 1992; Mac Iver, Stipek, & Daniels, 1991; Reeve et al., 2004).
Enhancing Students’ Sense of Competence and Self-Worth We identified a variety of strategies for enhancing students’ sense of self and self-efficacy, and those strategies should enhance students’ sense of competence and self-worth as well. For instance, we should do the following:
- Help students achieve success, especially on challenging tasks.
- Give students concrete mechanisms through which they can track their progress over time.
- Minimize competitions and other situations in which students might judge themselves unfavorably in comparison with peers.
Ideally, learners’ sense of competence and self-worth should be based on a reasonably accurate appraisal of what they can and cannot accomplish. Learners who underestimate their abilities set unnecessarily low goals for themselves and give up easily after only minor setbacks. Those who overestimate their abilities—perhaps because they have been lavished with praise by parents or teachers or perhaps because school assignments have been consistently easy and unchallenging—may set themselves up for failure by forming unrealistically high expectations, exerting insufficient effort, or not addressing their weaknesses (Lockhart et al., 2002; Paris & Cunningham, 1996; H. W. Stevenson et al., 1990).
As teachers, we are more likely to encourage students to tackle realistically challenging tasks—and thus enhance students’ sense of competence and intrinsic motivation—when we create an environment in which students feel comfortable taking risks and making mistakes (Clifford, 1990; Fredricks et al., 2004). We can also provide greater rewards for succeeding at challenging tasks than for achieving easy successes; for example, we might give students a choice between doing an easy task or a more difficult one but give them more points for accomplishing the difficult one (Clifford, 1990; Lan, Repman, Bradley, & Weller, 1994).
Once students are intrinsically motivated, they seem to prefer challenges to easy tasks, as the “Motivation” video clip in the Ormrod Teacher Prep Course illustrates. When 9-year-old Elena is asked what she likes best about school, she responds:
I like PEAK [a program for students identified as gifted]. . . . It’s for smart kids who have, like, good ideas for stuff you could do. And so they make it more challenging for you in school. So instead of third-grade math, you get fourth-grade math.
Similarly, when 15-year-old Greg is asked what things encourage him to do well at school, he says, “The challenge. If it’s a really hard class, then I . . . I will usually try harder in harder classes.” In general, challenges and intrinsic motivation mutually enhance one another, leading to a “vicious cycle” of the most desirable sort.
To date, most research on competence, self-worth, and self-handicapping has focused on academic tasks and accomplishments. We must keep in mind, however, that academic achievement isn’t always the most important thing affecting students’ sense of competence and self-worth. For many students such factors as physical appearance, peer approval, and social success are more influential (Eccles et al., 1998; Rudolph et al., 2005). To the extent that we can, then, we should support students’ successes in the nonacademic as well as the academic aspects of their lives.
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