Monthly Archives: April 2014

When fear fails to motivate

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the ways in which teachers communicate with young learners can have a significant impact on academic outcomes. For some years now, studies have supported the assertions made by Carol Dweck that the way in which we praise young learners dictates (or at least influences) the mindset those young learners later adopt – effort praise encourages a growth mindset while ability praise is more likely to result in a fixed mindset (see, for example, Lam, Yim and Ng, 2008; Halmovitz and Henderlong Corpus, 2011).


Recent research has also suggested that certain motivational strategies may be backfiring due to the manner in which such strategies are communicated. David Putwain (Edge Hill) and Richard Remedios (Durham) have discovered that so-called ‘fear appeals’ might be having the opposite effect on motivation than the one intended. Fear appeals are messages that in some way elicit fear in the student with the purpose of motivation. Fear appeals tend to concentrate on the consequences of success and failure, the importance of academic credentials (that is, qualifications) and the threat that lack of motivation will ultimately jeopardise future aspirations and limit choices (Putwain & Remedios, 2014)

Putwain and Remedios invite the reader to consider the following messages:

“If you fail GCSE maths, you will never be able to get a good job or go to college. You need to work hard in order to avoid failure”

“GCSE maths is really important as most jobs that pay well require GCSE maths, and if you want to go to college you will need a pass in GCSE maths. It’s really important to try your hardest”.

The first message constitutes a fear appeal because it’s based on avoiding failure. The second message, on the other hand, is based on success – it isn’t a fear appeal.

In their study (involving 347 year 11 pupils) Putwain and Remedios found that a higher frequency of fear appeals that were seen as threatening resulted in lower self-determined behaviour (so-called intrinsic motivation, of which I have written previously) and, consequently, lower examination performance. These negative consequences appear to be related to the ‘failure’ emphasis of the fear appeal.

What struck me the most from this study was the realisation that I was prone to fear appeals. Certainly, during this time of year when my sixth form students are heavily engaged in revision, I find myself using the terms ‘fail’ and ‘failure’ far more often than I would like (especially with ‘certain’ pupils). It also brought home the importance of communication and the way in which I communicate attempts at motivation – which is perhaps more symptomatic of my own anxiety over their possible failure than anything else.

Putwain and Remedios conclude by appealing to teachers to have a greater awareness of how those statements we so often use to motivate ‘can unwittingly promote lower self-determined motivation’.

Lam, Shui-fong, Yim, Pui-shan, Ng, Yee_lam (2008) Is effort praise motivational? The role of beliefs in the effort–ability relationship Contemporary Educational Psychology 33 4 p.694-710
Halmovitz, K and Hederlong Corpus, J (2011) Effects of person versus process praise on student motivation: stability and change in emerging adulthood Educational Psychology 31 5 p.595-609
Putwain, D., & Remedios, R. (2014). The scare tactic: Do fear appeals predict motivation and exam scores? School Psychology Quarterly: The Official Journal of the Division of School Psychology, American Psychological Association. doi:10.1037/spq0000048


Boredom – now that’s interesting.

boredDid you know that there are at least 5 types of boredom? To be honest, neither did I until quite recently.

Well, there are (they are outlined in the table below), but it’s the fifth type (apathetic boredom), which seems to be the most interesting and the one that could have implications for teaching and learning. In a paper published last year (in the journal Motivation and Emotion) Thomas Goetz from the University of Konstanz, Germany and colleagues from Germany, Canada and the US, reported on series of studies utilising experience sampling techniques in order to establish the reasons why people (in this case university and high school students) get bored and, more importantly, if previous research that identified four types of boredom stand up to further experimental scrutiny (Goetz et al., 2013)


Experience sampling, as a research methodology, has quite a long history but has really come into its own since the advent of the mobile communications device (that’s mobile phones to you and me). The method is mainly associated with Reed Larson and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and originally involved participants providing self-reports by means of a pager or alarm watch. This allowed researchers to gather specific information at any moment in time. Times have moved on and now bespoke software and PDA’s or phones have replaced pagers and alarms even though the principle behind the method remains the same. The experience sampling method (or ESM) allows the researcher to obtain a number of snapshots pertaining to emotions, obstacles or other factors that impact on our day-to-day lives.

Goetz and his team supplied each participant with Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) loaded with specially designed software. The PDA’s would then emit a number of audible sounds throughout the day and participants would complete a questionnaire that appeared on the screen (the procedure was slightly different between the two group – university or high school students). The questionnaires required likert-responses to identify levels of boredom, wellbeing, satisfaction, enjoyment, anger and anxiety. If they identified themselves as being bored, they were asked a second set of questions on arousal and valence (the extent to which they were attracted or repelled by the task).

Results suggested the existence of a fifth type of boredom – apathetic boredom, which appeared widely prevalent amongst both groups of students. The interesting point here is that the team identified apathetic boredom as possessing characterises related to learned-helplessness (a condition associated with depression), making apathetic boredom a very unpleasant experience indeed. The implications for teaching and learning are as yet unknown but might suggest there is a learning process involved in certain types of boredom. On the other hand, there might also be some speculation involved in the findings and the ‘types of boredom’ might simply be the result of the statistical analysis rather than anything ‘real’ (so-called ‘reification’). Nevertheless, the mere suggestion should ignite further research, certainly in terms of pupil wellbeing and factors such as day-to-day resilience (academic buoyancy).

On the methodological side, the use of ESM in educational settings could provide a very rich source of data for understanding the complex daily lives of learners as well as an antidote to the current, often misplaced, attraction of Randomised Controlled Trials (RCT’s).

Goetz, T., Frenzel, A. C., Hall, N. C., Nett, U. E., Pekrun, R., & Lipnevich, A. a. (2013). Types of boredom: An experience sampling approach. Motivation and Emotion. doi:10.1007/s11031-013-9385-y