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Defining Achievement Motivation (page 3)

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Important Questions

Another way of thinking about motivation in achievement contexts is in terms of responses to three questions. Consider a child who has just been handed an assignment. Although she may not consciously ask these questions of herself, her subsequent behavior will depend on implicit answers to the following: First, "Can I succeed at this task?" This is the central question in the expectation component of "expectancy x value" theory. If, like Helpless Hannah, the student believes she has no hope of completing the task, she's not likely to try, or even to go on to the next question.

If our hypothetical student expects success, or at least believes success is a realistic possibility, the answer to the next question becomes important: "Do I want to do this task?" There are a number of different affirmative answers that are likely to lead her to get started on the task. She may "want" to do it because she fears she will be punished if she doesn't do it, or because she wants to achieve a good grade in that subject area. These would be extrinsic reasons. Or perhaps she wants to do the task for intrinsic reasons—because it looks like it will be fun or challenging, or she gets to work on it with her best friend. On the other hand, perhaps, like Satisfied Santos or Alienated At she finds no good reason for doing the task. It's boring, she doesn't care about the grade, and she sees no useful purrpose in it. Thus even if the answer to the first, "can-I" question is affirmative, a student may not complete a task because she simply doesn't want to.

Assuming that our student decides to do the task, there still remains a third question—"Why am I doing this task?"—that is relevant to the way she approaches the task and how much effort she puts into it. It like Defensive Dave, her goal is to stay out of trouble for not trying, she might work half-heartedly, just to look busy. If she is more like Safe Sally, and her goal is to get a good grade, she will do whatever she believes is required for the grade she aspires, and no more. If her goal is to master a new skill, she may go beyond the minimal requirements, for example by making up additional problems for herself or by trying different strategies to see how they work.

These questions point out that there are many reasons for a student to exert low effort, or to work ineffectively, as well as many reasons for them to complete tasks. Motivation related to academic achievement, therefore, involves a rather complicated set of issues.

Is Motivation in the Person or in the Environment?

For reinforcement theorists, motivation is not in the person at all; it is in the environment. Changes in a person's behavior are produced by changing contingencies in the environment. Other motivation theorists conceptualize achievement motivation as a stable trait—something that an individual has either a lot or a little of and that is only modestly changeable. For example, according to Atkinson's theory, achievement motivation is partly conceptualized as an unconscious trait (the motive to achieve success) which develops early in life primarily as a consequence of parenting practices. Thus, experiences in early childhood are assumed to play a continuing role in individuals' responses to achievement situations.

Still other theorists conceptualize achievement motivation as a set of conscious beliefs and values, influenced primarily by recent experiences in achievement situations (e.g., the amount of success or failure) and variables in the immediate environment, such as the nature and difficulty of the task at hand. A student's behavior when working on geography may differ from her behavior when working on algebra because of differences in her past performance in these two subjects, or because of differences in the two teachers' instructional approaches or the kinds of tasks in each subject.

Most theories allow for changes in achievement behavior—few assume that it is a fixed trait. And most theories assume that the context is important. Parents play a role, but teachers control most aspects of instruction as well as the social climate of the classroom. Although some students' motivational inclinations can create challenges for even the best teachers, I have seen teachers dramatically affect the motivation of even the most recalcitrant students.

Although most people do not know these psychological theories, everyone makes assumptions about why people behave the way they do; and their efforts to change others' and even their own behaviors are based implicitly on the theories.  A good understanding of these theoretical frameworks will make readers keener, more thoughtful observers and predictors of behavior, and help them become more effective in their efforts to change their own behavior as well as to influence students' achievement motivation.

Regardless of the theoretical orientation we take, our ultimate goal is to affect behavior. Before examining the theories in greater depth, we need a behavioral basis for judging when there is a need for intervention or changes in practices, and for evaluating whether changes made have had the desired effect. We turn, therefore, from a theoretical to a behavioral analysis of achievement motivation.

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