skip to main content

Students’ motivation to succeed at school

Long reads
Students’ motivation to succeed at school

Australian students are more motivated to succeed at school than their OECD peers, but results from a new report released by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) show high levels of motivation do not necessarily correspond to high performance.

PISA Australia in Focus Number 3: Motivation ­­analyses data produced by the 2015 OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey. Overall, Australian students reported higher levels of motivation than 26 of the 35 OECD countries that participated.

However, the data also show that motivation is significantly affected by disadvantage, as well as cultural and geographical groupings within Australia.

‘The data show that disadvantage continues to negatively affect Australian students, with those from Indigenous and low socioeconomic status backgrounds, and those in regional and remote areas, less motivated to achieve academically,’ ACER Deputy CEO (Research) Dr Sue Thomson says. 

‘This is important because motivation to achieve plays a key role in educational success, and in an individual’s drive to set and attain education and career goals.’

The report specifically looks at two kinds of motivations.

Achievement motivation

The report discusses the importance of achievement motivation and acknowledges that motivating students to achieve is one of the major challenges that teachers face in their classrooms.

‘Teachers provide their students with a plethora of learning opportunities in the hope of spurring enthusiasm, sparking curiosity and capturing and inspiring interest to pursue goals for their future aspirations,’ the report reads.

How achievement motivation was measured in PISA 2015

PISA 2015 collected data about students’ achievement motivation using their responses to five items: I want top grades in most or all of my courses; I want to be able to select from among the best opportunities available when I graduate; I want to be the best, whatever I do; I see myself as an ambitious person; and, I want to be one of the best students in my class.

Achievement motivation across the globe

The report compares Australian data with 11 other countries, including both high performing countries (Canada, Estonia, Finland, Hong Kong (China), Japan, Macao (China), and Singapore) and culturally similar English-speaking OECD countries (New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Ireland and the United States).

Australian students reported having a significantly higher level of achievement motivation compared to their OECD peers. Australia’s mean index score was 0.33, and the OECD average was -0.01. By comparison, Finland scored -0.63 and Macao (China) scored -0.50, indicating that high performance in PISA testing does not necessarily correspond to high achievement motivation. In fact, some countries with the highest scores on achievement motivation were some of the lower performing countries.

Within Australia, students in New South Wales reported the highest levels of achievement motivation, while Tasmania reported the lowest across the country. Female, non-Indigenous, high socioeconomic status (SES) and metropolitan-based students were more highly motivated to achieve than their peers, while Australian-born students recorded the lowest motivation levels, compared to first generation and foreign-born students.

Instrumental motivation

PISA measures reading literacy, mathematical literacy and scientific literacy. Testing has taken place every three years since 2000. Survey information about student motivation has also been collected in each cycle, focusing on the major test domain. The focus for the 2015 cycle (as in 2006) was scientific literacy.

‘A student’s instrumental motivation refers to how relevant they view different subject areas to their own lives and the external rewards they expect to receive from mastering the content and skills associated with the subjects (Eccles & Wigfield, 2002). In other words, instrumental motivation can be described simply as the answer to the question “What’s in it for me?”’ the report explains.

How PISA measures instrumental motivation in science

PISA 2015 collected data about students’ instrumental motivation to learn science using their responses to four items: Making an effort in my science subject(s) is worth it because this will help me in the work I want to do later on; Studying my science subject(s) is worthwhile for me because what I learn will improve my career prospects; What I learn in my science subject(s) is important for me because I need this for what I want to do later on; and, Many things I learn in my science subject(s) will help me to get a job.

Instrumental motivation across the globe

Students in Singapore reported the highest levels of instrumental motivation with a mean index score of 0.51, followed by students in Canada (0.46) and New Zealand and the United Kingdom (both 0.38).

Students in Australia had a mean index score of 0.16 on the instrumental motivation index, which was significantly higher than the OECD average of -0.14. While Australian students reported having a level of instrumental motivation that was significantly higher compared to students across the OECD, their instrumental motivation in the domain of science was substantially lower than among students in many of the countries selected for comparison here.

PISA Australia in Focus Number 3: Motivation is available to download (7.4MB)

References

Eccles, J.S. & Wigfield, A. (2002). In the mind of the achiever: The structure of adolescents’ academic achievementrelated beliefs and self-perceptions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21, 215–225.

Underwood, C. (2018). PISA Australia in Focus Number 3: Motivation. https://research.acer.edu.au/ozpisa/32

Thinking about your own school context, how do you believe your students would respond to the following questions, on a scale of strongly agree, agree, disagree and strongly disagree?

  • I want top grades in most or all of my courses
  • I want to be able to select from among the best opportunities available when I graduate
  • I want to be the best, whatever I do
  • I see myself as an ambitious person
  • I want to be one of the best students in my class.
Peter 11 September 2018

I think that most of my pupils would choose “agree” and more so, but then most do not adjust/improve their learning habits and focus to work towards meeting those statements.

Mark Gould 11 September 2018

In many ways students see these as ‘motherhood statements’ or platitudes. Students would agree with most (not necessarily ambitious) of these without feeling any great need to change their behaviours as is seen by the evidence. True motivation is internal, either intrinsic or fully integrated extrinsic and cannot be imposed from outside. School has to be designed in ways that support these natural internal forms of motivation for best results.

Susan Beltman 15 September 2018

I agree with Mark. It is disappointing that the report flags the importance of intrinsic motivation but that the measures used only focus on extrinsic motivation - being better than others or achieving top grades. While these are important in our current system, we know the importance of intrinsic motivation in promoting persistence and enjoyment of learning - wanting to learn and understand something, loving a particular subject, or wanting to improve or achieve a personal best. Not everyone can be the best so only focusing on this can demotivate.

Leave a comment




Skip to the top of the content.