Which comes first: motivation or achievement?

What seems like a chicken-and-egg situation in children’s learning is actually a feedback loop
Photo by Katerina Holmes from Pexels
Photo by Katerina Holmes from Pexels

Looking more closely at how children learn and progress can demystify pathways in learning. Juanita Bawagan spoke with Martijn Meeter and TuongVan Vu, two experts in learning, about the evolving field of motivation theory.

Juanita Bawagan: How would you define motivation?

TuongVan Vu: That’s harder than you might think. Even back in the ‘80s there were more than 100 definitions of motivation. While the definition varies by theory, we define motivation as a condition that energises our behaviour, and our research focuses particularly on learning behaviour.

JB: Does motivation change as you go from learning as a child to learning as an adolescent?

Martijn Meeter: In most countries, young children are very motivated when they enter school, and then their motivation steadily declines over the years. With every shift, for example from primary to secondary school, there is a small bubble of motivation. There’s an illusion that ‘now everything will be different and school will stop being boring’, but instead the decline continues.

“The more you think of yourself as a good learner, the better you become at learning.”

Also, the effect of prior performance becomes much bigger with age. Young children don’t care or really know where they rank; all they know is that they can do more than they could previously, which makes them think that they’re pretty good. Then in mid-primary school, they begin to measure themselves against their peers. If you rank high, you feel like you’re the big fish, and that motivates you. If you rank lower, you may feel like you’re forcing yourself to do something you’re not good at. The older children are, the stronger the correlation between prior performance and motivation.

JB: Does motivation lead to achievement, or is it the other way around?

TV: Motivation affects achievement, but achievement also affects motivation. Over time it becomes a feedback loop. The question is: Where does it start? From our perspective, it’s outside influences, such as quality of instruction, external pressure, and cultural and social influences, that keep this loop going.

I think the idea that academic self-concept influences academic achievement is really interesting. It means that the more you think of yourself as a good learner, the better you become at learning. It seems almost magical – because you think of yourself as a good student, you actually become better.

“When it’s mostly the system that determines how much time you spend studying, motivation plays a less significant role.”

There are two pathways from motivation to achievement, with important differences. The first is grounded in self-esteem and self-efficacy, with what you think about yourself determining what you do. If you think of yourself as a good learner you will put in more effort, because that is in line with how you expect yourself to act. The second pathway is the value of motivation construct, whereby learning becomes more enjoyable and you put more effort into it because you see value in it.

JB: What role does culture play?

MM: There’s probably a huge cultural component, but we don’t really know because virtually all studies of motivation have been done in the so-called WEIRD countries – Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic. In some cultures, and at some stages, kids have a lot of freedom to choose how many hours they spend on schoolwork, so motivation is important. When it’s mostly the system that determines how much time you spend studying, motivation plays a less significant role.

We have found that motivation isn’t a major determinant in how you do in formal schooling. Other factors, like your background, genes, the quality of your school or how much your parents push you, probably affect your learning more than your motivation does.

JB: How do researchers study motivation?

TV: Motivation has been studied for 30 years, and at the beginning, researchers generally used cross-sectional data. This method was flawed because there are so many differences between kids. Nowadays, there has been a shift to longitudinal data, with a group of students followed over several years.

“We believe that motivation is integral to a person, but recognize school structure and the environment are also important factors in motivation.”

Researchers have been looking for more creative ways to study motivation – for example, creating a mobile phone app for experience sampling, or using online environments like Maths Garden, which make it possible to observe motivation in real time without interrupting a learning activity.

In another shift, more attention is being paid to physiological measures. Researchers can measure electrical brain potentials or heart rate variability to determine how much a person is concentrating on a given learning task or how much effort is being expended. This approach has potential for future research, but considerable validation work will be needed to show that the results actually reveal something about motivation.

JB: What is the future of this research?

TV: Researchers have been looking at motivation on the individual level, but are starting to address the environmental level as well. We believe that motivation is integral to a person, but recognize that school structure and the environment are also important factors in motivation. This is an area that future research should certainly explore.

Read part 2 of our interview series on motivation theory: “Finding motivation during the COVID-19 pandemic

Martijn Meeter is a professor of education sciences at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Netherlands. From 2015 to 2019 he served as director of the LEARN research institute, the teacher training program at Vrije Universiteit. His research focuses on learning, using traditional methods of education research as well as techniques drawn from cognitive neuroscience, such as computational modelling and EEG. In the last year, he was co-leader of a research program into learning decrements due to Covid-19, and efforts to mitigate these.

TuongVan Vu is a postdoctoral researcher at the Lab of Learning, Department of Clinical, Neuro-, and Developmental Psychology at the VU University Amsterdam (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam). Her research focuses on self-concept, social emotional cognition (theory of mind, empathy, emotion regulation), prosociality and learning. TuongVan Vu obtained her PhD in psychology and cognitive neuroscience at the same university in 2019.

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