Defining Achievement Motivation

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on May 1, 2014

Achievement contexts can be found anywhere—on the playing field, on stage, in an art studio, or even in a kitchen or a garden. To be sure, standards and even the definitions of success vary among contexts. In sports success usually means winning, although it could also be defined in terms of personal improvement. Success for a pianist might be measured in the length of applause or in newspaper reviews, for a hostess in the amount of food the guests consume, and for a surgeon in patient survival rates. This article focuses primarily on school contexts, but most of the issues discussed apply to any context that involves some standard against which performance can be measured—any situation that offers the opportunity to succeed or fail.

Theoretical Frameworks

Several psychological theories will be used to organize our analysis of achievement motivation. Theories of motivation are created to help us explain, predict, and influence behavior. If we can explain why individuals behave the way they do in achievement settings we might be able to change their behavior. Why does Defensive Dave pretend to be working when he is not, and how can we get him to exert genuine effort on school tasks? Why does Satisfied Santos put so much more effort into intellectual activities outside of school than those in school? What can be done to interest him in the school curriculum? Why doesn't Alienated Al attend school regularly, and how can we get him interested and engaged in academic work?

Motivation theories are important to discuss because everyone has them. And consciously or unconsciously, people rely on their theories of what causes behavior when deciding how to try to change their own or another's behavior.

The theory a researcher chooses for studying motivation influences how motivation is measured and defined in his or her studies, and what his or her notions are about appropriate interventions to address motivation problems. Some of the theories discussed in this book contradict each other; they cannot both be "right." More often different theories are compatible because they account for different aspects of achievement motivation or focus on different causes of behavior.

Over time, psychological theories are often modified in response to research evidence on their usefulness in predicting and changing behavior. New theories are also developed, and different theories become prominent at different times. In general, psychological theories that have been used to explain behavior in achievement contexts have shifted focus in the last few decades, from observable behavior to psychological variables—such as beliefs, values, and goals—that can be inferred but cannot be directly observed from behavior. Below is a brief overview of the theories discussed in this book.

Reinforcement theory, which dominated the educational literature until the early 1960s, conceptualizes motivation entirely in terms of observable behavior. According to traditional reinforcement theory, individuals exhibit a particular behavior in achievement or other settings because they have been reinforced (rewarded) for that behavior in the past. Accordingly, students who are rewarded (for example, with good grades) for working hard on school tasks and for persisting when they face difficulty will continue to work hard and persist in the future.

Reinforcement theory was originally derived from drive theories, which assumed that reinforcement necessarily involved the reduction of basic biological needs (e.g., hunger and thirst; Hull, 1943, 1951). Applications to achievement contexts, however, assume that other consequences (e.g., teacher praise) take on reinforcing properties by having previously been associated with the reduction of basic drives, and can therefore influence behavior. In contrast to drive reduction theories, the best-known reinforcement theory today, developed primarily by Skinner (1974), does not make any claims about particular qualities of reinforcements. Any consequence of a behavior that increases the likelihood of its future recurrence is, by definition, reinforcing.

Reinforcement theory is considered "mechanistic" because it is not concerned with beliefs, feelings, aspirations, or any other psychological variable that cannot be directly observed. It assumes that there is a direct link between the consequences to a behavior and the likelihood that it will be repeated.

The theory has clear implications for how motivation is conceptualized and measured. Motivation is not considered a quality of the person, but rather a set of behaviors and their contingencies (i.e., whether the behaviors are rewarded or punished). Any attempt to explain, predict, or influence motivation would involve measuring behavior and examining the consequences of the current and the desired behavior. A reinforcement theorist who wanted Defensive Dave to exert more effort, for example, would first closely examine the consequences of Dave's behavior. What happens to him when he spends 20 minutes sharpening his pencil and arranging his desk? What happens on those rare occasions that he completes tasks efficiently? The next step would be to adjust the environmental consequences so that the undesirable behaviors (wasting time) were punished, or at least not rewarded, and the desired behaviors (getting to work and completing tasks) were rewarded.

By the 1960s, most motivation researchers found such mechanistic assumptions about behavior unsatisfactory, and began to explore psychological variables that are not directly observable. Cognitive motivation theorists do not rule out external reinforcement as a cause of achievement behavior. They claim, however, that cognitions (beliefs), such as expectations, "mediate" the effect of rewards. Thus, for example, they claim that students work hard because their past experience leads them to expect hard work to be rewarded in the future, not simply because they have been rewarded for working hard in the past. In fact, a student might be convinced to expect a reward for doing something (e.g., by telling her that you will give her one), even though she has never actually been rewarded for that behavior in the past. According to cognitive motivation theorists, it is her belief, not her past history, that influences her behavior.

A motivated person, therefore, is conceptualized as someone with cognitions or beliefs that lead to constructive achievement behavior, such as exerting effort or persisting in the face of difficulty. Although expectations have been especially prominent in achievement motivation research, cognitive theorists are also interested in the effects of other beliefs-such as perceptions of ability (''I'm good at math"), control over achievement outcomes ("I determine whether I succeed or fail"), and the causes of achievement outcomes ("How well I do is determined by how hard I try").

Cognitive theorists are not satisfied with merely observing behavior and its consequences. They may want to assess students' beliefs about the consequences of behavior or the causes of performance outcomes. They may also want to measure how competent the students believe themselves to be in a particular domain, whether they expect to succeed, or whether they believe grading is fair.

The intervention cognitive theorist would design a program aimed at changing maladaptive beliefs. To get Helpless Hannah to exert effort on school tasks, therefore, the teacher might begin by interviewing her to ascertain her perceptions of her competencies (i.e., does she think she is incapable of completing school tasks? which ones?). Then she might try to increase her perceptions of her competencies on tasks she doesn't believe she can do. (This may also require changing tasks so that they are appropriate for her skill level.) A teacher might ask Dave what he thinks would happen if he tried hard to complete a task but wasn't able to do it. If he expected negative consequences (e.g., teacher disapproval, ridicule from his classmates), the teacher might try to change his expectations by reassuring him that his fears are not well founded, or by making sure that his fears are not, in fact, fulfilled in the classroom.

Cognitive theorists do not assume that beliefs are based entirely on previous experiences with contingencies (e.g., reward and punishment) to one's own behavior. People's expectations are based on many factors, such as observations of what happens to others when they behave a particular way, or even simply what they are told about what they can expect. When teachers call attention to the consequences of students' behavior ("Table 3 can go to recess because everyone is sitting quietly"), and when they promise rewards ("if you finish all your work before recess I'll let you play on the big kids' yard"), they are using cognitive motivation theory. They are attempting to influence behavior by influencing expectations about the consequences of desired behaviors.

Atkinson (1964) also emphasized expectations as an explanation of achievement behavior, but he added values as another explanatory variable. According to his expectancy x value theory, exerting effort and persisting on a task requires more than expecting to be able to complete it; the task must also have some value attached to it. Atkinson conceptualized value narrowly, in terms of pride in success and the avoidance of shame in failure. Other theorists have considered values more broadly, such as in terms of how important academic achievement is to self-concept and how useful particular kinds of achievement are in people's lives outside of school (Eccles, Adler, Futterman, Goff, Kaczala, Meece, & Midgley, 1983).

Researchers and teachers working from an "expectancy x value" theoretical framework, therefore, would need to measure students' perceptions of the value of rewards in any effort to predict or change behavior. Dave's teacher might try to find out whether Dave expects his effort on school tasks to lead to pride or shame, and then try to make sure that pride is more likely (e.g., by giving him tasks that he is sure to succeed in or by making sure that put-downs by classmates are not allowed). Satisfied Santos' teacher might try to increase the value Santos places on doing well in school by giving him examples of the long-term accomplishments or privileges of people who do well in school.

Intrinsic motivation theorists are also concerned with emotional as well as cognitive aspects of motivation, although they stress different emotions than the "expectancy x value" theorists. Intrinsic motivation theory is based on the assumption that humans are inherently motivated to develop their intellectual and other competencies, and that they take pleasure in their accomplishments (White, 1959). Part of the value of achievement striving is the intrinsic pleasure one feels from achieving higher levels of mastery or understanding. Intrinsic motivation researchers have examined factors that foster or inhibit human beings' intrinsic desire to engage in intellectual tasks.

They usually measure motivation by observing people's voluntary activities. Thus, to assess students' intrinsic motivation to read, researchers might find out how much they read on their own, when there is no external reward (e.g., a good grade) nor any punishment (e.g., a bad grade) involved. Or they might give them several activities to choose from and observe whether they do one involving reading.

For children who are not intrinsically motivated to engage in intellectual activities, intrinsic motivation theorists would determine first whether factors that research has shown to support intrinsic interest (e.g., feelings of control and competence) are present, and then manipulate those factors to increase interest (e.g., by providing students more autonomy or making sure they can succeed on tasks and feel competent).

While intrinsic motivation theorists emphasize feelings of enjoyment, self-worth theorists are concerned with feelings of being valued. Covington (1992, 1998) and others propose that students are naturally motivated to preserve a sense of personal worth. If a student believes his value in an educational context is based on academic competence, he will seek opportunities to demonstrate his competencies and, like Defensive Dave, avoid situations that may lead to a judgment of incompetence. Self-worth theorists, therefore, might assess students' beliefs about what others' regard is based on. Interventions might be aimed at making sure that students feel supported and admired for trying, regardless of the outcome of their efforts.

Related to self-worth theory, which emphasizes students' feelings of being valued, self-system theory claims that feeling socially connected is a basic human need and that people do not function well in environments where this need is not met. They study the quality of children's relationships with the teacher and classmates. They might suggest that a teacher make a greater effort to develop an emotionally close relationship with a child who is not exerting much effort. For example, a teacher or a counselor might reach out to Alienated Al to let him know that he or she cared about AI's academic success and is interested in understanding his feelings about school.

Recently goal theorists have pointed out that people engage in the same behavior for different reasons, and that the reason for engaging in a task is just as important as the level of effort, degree of persistence, or any other observable behavior. Most goal theorists promote the goals of learning, mastering, or understanding as the most conducive to learning. Unfortunately these goals are not usually the most prominent in school. Sally's goal is to get good grades. As a consequence, she does only what is likely to contribute directly to grades. Some students work to meet the school's minimum requirement for being on the football team (and stop working when this minimum requirement is achieved). Santos doesn't work hard at all on academic tasks because his goal is to enjoy himself. Dave engages in behaviors that achieve his goal of avoiding looking stupid. According to goal theorists, interventions designed to change maladaptive behaviors and increase student learning would require changing students' goals.

That children often have goals that are different from the teacher's is illustrated by Wentzel's (1989, 1991) research in which she asked high school students how often they tried to achieve each of 12 goals while they were in class. "Making or keeping friends" ranked the highest among students with average GPA's and second highest (after "having fun") among the lowest achieving students. Only the highest achieving students ranked "learning" above friends as an important goal in school. 

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