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What affects your motivation? Ideas from educational psychologist Scientia Professor Andrew Martin

When educational psychologist Scientia Professor Andrew Martin from UNSW’s School of Education spoke to the Warrane boys on Wednesday 24 May 2017, he spoke of his area of research – motivation. A timely topic for the boys with university exams upon them, Martin told them how he looks at the factors and the processes that are relevant to learning: what switches students on and what switches them off?

This is not something foreign to Martin’s own experience. “One of the low points in my life was Year 10,” he said. “I guess like most or many Year 10 boys, I wasn’t doing a great deal of work and it showed up in my school report card. And so there was one parent-teacher night at the end of Year 10 where the year master was quite surprised that I had any intention of going on to Year 11! But I guess like many males, we need to fall flat on our faces to have an epiphany, so that was one of them. And I got my act together and did Year 11 and 12 and went to uni.”

Martin had another period of de-motivation after his undergraduate and honours, not knowing what to do next. After a few years of self-confessed drifting, he started the process of entering the research world, first as a research assistant and then as a PhD student. After completing his PhD, in the early 2000s Martin became frustrated at the range of motivation theories out there. With so many different theories it was difficult for educational practitioners to know what to do in the classroom.

“There was a real need to develop a framework that integrated the motivation and engagement factors that make us tick,” he said, “and so I turned my mind to this. And I trawled through dozens and dozens and dozens of constructs to identify which factors are related to achievement and other academic outcomes. And so that led me to develop this framework… called The Motivation and Engagement Wheel. The Wheel represents key motivation and engagement factors that we find underpin a student’s willingness and inclination to work and strive to their potential.”

Martin explained to the boys how the factors in the Wheel are not limited to any one demographic or performance domain. He said: “The factors you’re looking at here are pan-human – they’re across the globe and in many different walks of life. Yes, some nationalities or cultures will score higher on some of these factors, but those factors still exist deep in the motivation and engagement lives of all the other students across the globe.”

Being as these motivation factors are relevant not only in an academic scenario but also in business, sport and wherever one is required to perform, Martin walked the boys through the four sections of the Wheel (Positive Motivation, Positive Engagement, Negative Motivation and Negative Engagement) so that they could learn to use it as an effective tool to identify their own strengths as well as areas they might look to improve.

Positive Motivation

The first of these factors is “self-efficacy” (or self-belief). “This is our belief in our capacity to do what we set out to do. A belief in yourself will go a long way in whatever domain you’re pushing through,” said Martin.

“Valuing” was the second factor in Positive Motivation. As Martin explained, this is: “Valuing of your academic life, valuing of work, valuing of your sport. This involves believing, for example, your university life is useful, is relevant to what you do today, is interesting, is important, but also is connected to your life down the track.”

“Mastery orientation” was the third factor here. “This is where students are focused more on process rather than outcome,” said Martin. “We find the students who tend to perform best are the ones who are focused on doing the job right, a little more than focused exclusively on the marks, rank and pecking order. We find the more  you focus on the task at hand, the effort, the skill development, understanding, knowledge building, and the more that you can dedicate your cognitive resources to that task… No surprises, we find these people perform better. The more you’re wondering about ‘how am I going, who’s beating me, who am I beating?’…the more you play to the scoreboard and you dedicate less attention to the actual task at hand. And when you do this, we find often anxiety comes along for the ride as well. Mastery-oriented students do not get distracted or affected in such ways.”

Positive Engagement

“Planning” was the first aspect of Positive Engagement. “Planning is where you get it clear in your head what you’ve been asked to do, and monitoring your progress as you do it,” said Martin.

After that came “task management”. Martin explained this is “where you manage yourself as a student, you prioritise, you do what’s important first. You have and use the appropriate materials. Increasingly we’re finding that it also includes managing your digital world… when you’d like to be doing other things on the internet [e.g. gaming] when study or an assignment need attention, task management is your self-regulation to manage that.”

Next under Positive Engagement is “persistence”. Martin asked, “What do you do when the work’s difficult, the work’s multi-task, it’s a large task, or you’ve hit a wall? Persistence will be a critical response to that,” he said.

Negative Motivation

The first of these factors is “anxiety” – and as Martin said, “We know well what that is.”

The second is “failure avoidance”. Martin said, “This is where the reason we have for doing what we do is fear-based, or avoidance-based. So the main reason we study is to avoid failure… because we don’t want to look dumb or disappoint our parents, or let lecturers down, and so on. For example, we might be motivated to avoid missing out on a particular course or job (fear and avoidance based motives) rather than trying to get into a particular course or job (success-oriented motive). We’re not playing with words here; we’re talking about a distinctly negative orientation for what we do.”

“Uncertain control” was the last factor under Negative Motivation. “This is where a sense of helplessness can start creeping in to our academic life, our work life, our sporting life or even our personal life,” explained Martin. “Uncertain control is where you start thinking: it doesn’t matter how hard I try, the wrong questions always come up in the exam, or the teacher’s a stingy marker, or the teacher doesn’t like me, and so on. So you start losing that precious connection between your effort and an outcome. You start developing a sense of helplessness and powerlessness. You don’t feel in the driver’s seat. Uncertain control is deliberately placed on the precipice of negative engagement because we find it’s a precursor to giving up. If you genuinely believe there’s not much you can do about something, why bother trying?”

Negative Engagement

Under this section of the Wheel, Martin started with “self-handicapping” or self-sabotage. “This is where students put obstacles in their path to success,” he said. “So for example, the night before an exam, the night before something’s due, a self-handicapper will procrastinate, go out, leave things to the last minute. What we find is that these students are fearful of failing, and even though they do increase the chances of poor performance, what they do is they have an excuse or an alibi in case they fail. They’re able to deflect the cause of a poor performance away from a lack of ability, and on to a lack of effort. Why is that important? Well in our society, ability equals worth, smarts is currency and esteem. So if you fail due to a lack of ability, that hits your self-worth very hard: far harder than if you fail due to a lack of effort. So what the self-handicapper does is establish an alibi so no one can conclude they lack ability; they simply didn’t try hard enough. Thus, all we can conclude is they lacked effort. And so by protecting their competence image, they protect their self-esteem. So even though they don’t avoid failure per se, they avoid the self-worth implications of failure.”

The other factor under Negative Engagement is “disengagement”. Martin explained: “After a while, the self-handicapper’s excuses run out. The attempted alibi loses its credibility. That’s when students, employees, sports people move to this final part of the Wheel and that’s disengagement.”

To conclude

Martin told the boys that while this Wheel is definitely useful in describing his work, it’s also a helpful tool for self-reflection and self-knowledge. It characterises the journeys we take – whether that be in sport, academics, music, employment and so on, because it showcases strengths and weaknesses that affect the paths we take.

Before finishing up, Martin had one final point on motivation – and its connection to the vital quality of academic resilience.

“Another thing about motivation is: it’s not too hard to be motivated when life’s going your way,” he said. “When you’re getting okay marks, you’re getting on with the boss, the work’s not too hard  – it’s not too difficult to be motivated when that’s happening. But what about when that doesn’t happen? What about when you get results you don’t quite like? What about when you hit the wall? What about when there’s a teacher you don’t quite get on with, or the deadlines are colliding and you’re really under the pump? That’s when your capacity to deal with adversity enters the frame.”

He continued: “And so a corollary to all of this is called academic resilience. Motivation and engagement are very important, but it is academic resilience that is critical when you’re doing it tough. Academic resilience refers to students’ capacity to bounce back from academic setback and adversity. So one of our research studies looked at which are the key parts of the Motivation and Engagement Wheel that underpin students’ academic resilience. We found five of the above-described Wheel factors was critical to students’ academic resilience: self-efficacy (students who had higher self-efficacy and believed in themselves were far more likely to bounce back from adversity than others); planning (a lot of resilience is about being able to reduce or offset or minimise risk, and one way to do that is to see risk coming along before it engulfs you); persistence (you cannot bounce back if you don’t persist and hang in there); low anxiety (managing anxiety and keeping it a low and manageable level is critical); and a sense of control (that is, focusing on what is in your control – such as how hard you try and the way you try).”

Martin concluded, “Essentially, then, the well-rounded student is the one who is motivated and engaged when things are going well and can bounce back when the going gets tough.”