Category Archives: Motivation

Self-determination in the Classroom.


Edward Deci and Richard Ryan view motivation in terms of different types, and like earlier researchers stress the importance of intrinsic motivators over extrinsic ones. They suggest that people have three basic psychological needs.

The need for competence:

Our desire to control or master the environment and outcomes. People want to know how things are going to turn out and they want to know the results or consequences of their own actions.

The need for relatedness:

Our desire to interact with, be connected to and experience caring for other people. Everything we do in some way concerns others and our actions impact on those around us. Through this need to build up a sense of belonging develops the feeling that we are part of a wider world beyond the limits of ourselves.

The need for autonomy:

The urge to be causal agents and have full volition and choice over what we do. If autonomous motivation concerns choice, then controlled motivation relates to the lack of choice. Ryan and Deci describe it as ‘behaving with the experience of pressure or demand towards specific outcomes that come from forces perceived to be external to the self’. Autonomy, however, does not necessarily mean acting independently; it merely means acting with choice, so it can mean acting alone but also acting interdependently with others.

The main premise of Ryan and Deci’s theory involves the role of self-determining factors (hence their theory is known as ‘self-determination theory’ or SDT). SDT is a theory of human motivation, emotion and development concerned with factors related to assimilative and growth orientated processes in people. The theory’s primary concern is with the factors that promote or prevent people from intrinsically engaging in positive behaviours.

In order to be intrinsically engaged we need to feel that our actions are based on choice and free will, even if such feelings are illusionary. Motivation, therefore, becomes intricately entwined with emotional states such as interest curiosity and boredom. How motivated we are is often related to how we feel; whether a task bores us, excites us or sends us into a state of anxiety or helplessness. Yet, motivation isn’t just about internal states – environments play a major role.

The interpersonal climate of the classroom, for example, can have a major impact on motivation, especially motivation of the intrinsic kind. Teachers, classrooms and schools all differ in terms of the control they use. Some might be highly controlling, relying heavily on the absolute authority of teachers over pupils, strictly adhered to rules of behaviour and consistent and heavily relied on extrinsic reward and punishment procedures. Others might be more liberal in their approach towards control, allowing students a greater say in how and what they learn, implementing more restorative behaviour management policies and more flexible classroom rules. Schools represent complex systems and some might require more stringent behaviour management policies than others. A greater emphasis on rules doesn’t always have to mean a more controlling environment.

The emphasis here is on the nature of control. Highly controlled classroom environments undermine intrinsic motivation while autonomy supportive classrooms nurture it. This doesn’t mean that extrinsic reward systems don’t work in the classroom – they often do, so long as the interpersonal classroom context remains informational and supportive rather than critical and authoritarian. Conversely, positive feedback given in a controlling context will also tend to decrease intrinsic motivation. Classroom environments that encourage autonomy (autonomy-supportive) lead to greater learning and performance outcomes than controlling styles and there is ample evidence that suggests that practices and policies that rely on motivating pupils through sanctions, rewards and evaluations (and other forms of coercion and manipulation) undermine quality student engagement.

While controlling environments often stifle motivation, autonomy-supportive classrooms that foster interest, value and volition encourage greater persistence and better quality engagement and learning. Autonomy and competence are essential to the maintenance of intrinsic motivation – it’s difficult to find an activity either exciting or enjoyable if we feel we have little control over what we are doing. In his 1968 book ‘Human Causality’, educational psychologist Richard deCharms described this as our ‘internal perceived locus of causality’, meaning an experience that emanates from within ourselves rather than from any external source (our perceived locus of causality can be both internal and external). Intrinsic motivation, therefore, represents a locus of causality that is internal, although there it often occurs on a continuum.

Students must feel both autonomous and confident if they are to sustain intrinsic motivation so that a student who feels competent but feels that they have little or no autonomy will be unable to maintain intrinsic motivation.

Teacher and classroom style is often a prickly subject and is often dictated by personal ideology. Authoritarian teachers maintain that an approach that insists on things being done correctly, that students should be told what to do and use a number of controlling strategies lead to more manageable classrooms and more positive outcomes in terms of exam results.

Others emphasise the importance of allowing students to be more self-directed, to learn from their own successes and failures and to solve problems for themselves and, although I have known teachers at both extremes, the majority of teachers fall somewhere between them. There is a growing view in education that there exists a uniform way of teaching and that as long as these skills can be taught to teachers outcomes will improve. However, many of these skills appear authoritarian in nature (even going as far as punishing students for failing to track the teacher’s movements). Unfortunately for us, authoritarian teaching styles appear to do little in terms of intrinsic motivation and related educational outcomes. Early research conducted by Edward Deci found that in classrooms where teachers were more autonomy-supportive, students tended to be more intrinsically motivated, displaying behaviours such as curiosity, a preference towards challenge and greater mastery orientations. They also felt more competent in their schoolwork and had higher levels of self-esteem.

Cross-cultural evaluations appear to support this. Wendy Grolnick and Richard Ryan found that evaluative pressure undermined students’ intrinsic motivation and their school performance in the USA while Kage and Namiki obtained similar results with Japanese students. Additional cross-cultural studies have found that interest is enhanced for lessons where the teacher is autonomy-supportive but diminished when the teacher is more controlling.

The hypothesis has also been tested in various subject domains. Martyn Standage of the University of Bath compared student and teacher ratings of autonomy, autonomy-support, confidence, relatedness and self-determined motivation in physical education. Standage found that perceived autonomy-support was associated with higher levels of autonomous self-regulation, including intrinsic motivation and these, in turn, were associated with greater effort and persistence.

These and other studies are suggestive of a number of important points.

1. Teacher orientation and certain aspects of the learning task play a role in the development of intrinsic motivation. Teachers perceived as autonomous-supportive nurture students higher in intrinsic motivation than those teachers with more authoritarian styles – and this remains consistent across cultures.

2. Where children are high in intrinsic motivation and are taught in environments that support autonomy, they display a tendency towards better learning, especially on tasks requiring conceptual understanding.

3. The way in which teachers introduce learning tasks is important in that when tasks promote the basic psychological needs of autonomy and competence they allow for greater intrinsic motivation and deeper learning. If these basic psychological needs are not met, intrinsic motivation and achievement suffer.


Masters and Performers

[This is a rather long post – sorry. It also may appear a little disjointed in places as it’s a small part of much larger work. I will update later with references]

Many teachers are familiar with the work of Carol Dweck and popularisation of her Mindset theory (I’ve blogged about it before). However, Dweck’s earlier pre-mindset research allows us to see how the theory developed and its connection with other areas such as emotion and helplessness.

Back in the 1980’s Dweck, along with Carol Diener, carried out several studies using fifth and sixth grade children in the United States. They divided the children into two groups based on the outcome a questionnaire, designed to identify those children who displayed helpless characteristics. The aim was to attempt to separate those children who showed persistence in the face of failure (the mastery-orientated approach) from those who tended not to persist when presented with the possibility of failing. The children would then be presented with a number of tasks ranging in difficulty in an attempt to see who would persist and who would give up. More importantly, Dweck and Diener also recorded the flow of the children’s thoughts and feelings as well as their performance.

This early research uncovered a number of fascinating behaviours related to learners and the learning process and highlights the dangers of helplessness. When children are comfortable with their learning and can complete tasks or problems successfully, they remain quite confident about their ability and intelligence – this is the case regardless of orientation. Setting goals too low may, therefore, create a false sense of success because challenge is negligible, however, increasing the level of challenge will trigger helpless behaviour in certain learners and mastery behaviour in others. Pupils categorised as helpless begin to act in dysfunctional and damaging ways when things start to get harder and success on the task becomes more elusive. One of the first things these students begin to do is denigrate their own abilities and blame their intelligence (or rather, their perceived lack of intelligence) on the inability to succeed. Dweck and Diener found that children made specific verbal attacks on their own ability such as ‘I guess I’m not very intelligent’ or ‘I’m no good at things like this’. In fact, one-third of the helpless group spontaneously denigrated their own intellectual ability while none of the mastery group resorted to such intense self-criticism.

Remember that these children had already had a string of successes and it was only when they hit problems and began to fail did they begin to lose faith in their own ability. Before they hit problems their performance was indistinguishable from that of the mastery group; they had rapidly discarded these earlier successes and decided that they weren’t clever enough even though their earlier success should have made them feel more confident about their ability. When asked how many problems they had solved successfully, the helpless children recalled more unsuccessful attempts – they remembered their performance as poorer than is actually was. In another study, students were presented with solvable problems first and difficult ones later. It was found that the helpless group were less likely to solve the later problems even though they were easier, suggesting that the helpless orientation is a reaction to failure that carries negative implications for the self. Furthermore, it works to impair ability and results in less effective cognitive strategies.

We can get a better insight into how helpless orientated students cope with failure by examining their on-going verbal responses during the task. Dweck and Diener tracked the thoughts and feelings of their participants as they solved the problems, in an attempt to gain insight into their thoughts and feelings. Change in attitude was rapid in the helpless group once the tasks got difficult and they started to fail. While the problems presented were solvable the children appeared quite pleased with themselves but when the problems became difficult they lost interest and complained of being bored. The ways in which they coped with the anxiety and self-doubt that exploded within them once they realised that they were having difficulties solving the problems, often involved the children drawing attention to other non-task related successes. In what appeared to be an attempt to counter the failure experienced in the experimental situation, some children would inform the researchers that they had been given and important part in the school play or had succeeded in some other activity unrelated to the task. Others would try to change the rules or give plausible explanations for giving the wrong answer. Even these young children were found to be making desperate attempts to safeguard their self-esteem, in other words, they were trying hard not to seem unintelligent. As a result, the helpless group displayed a significant deterioration in the strategies they used to solve the problems as they increased in difficulty. Interestingly, they didn’t appear to objectively decide that the task was too hard for them but increasingly condemned their own abilities, leading them descend into depression and anxiety.

Carol Dweck’s early work investigated the different ways in which helpless and goal orientated learners approached problems. Other psychologists working in the area of motivation and learning have identified two specific ‘goal orientations’ that appear to influence the way in which learners approach the goals set for or by them. The first is known as the ‘performance goal’ orientation (the ‘helpless’ group in the Dweck and Diener study and the orientation) while the second has been labelled the ‘mastery goal’ orientation. The primary aim of the performance goal learner is first and foremost to demonstrate their competence or to avoid looking incompetent. Furthermore, performers tend to select activities that are easier and therefore represent a higher chance of success. For performers, success is everything, even if that success comes about because they have chosen a task that is below their capabilities. Revising and preparing for exams might include constantly going over the same material because they already know it rather than moving onto to a topic they don’t fully understand. In a similar way, given the choice between a task that requires little cognitive investment and one that takes a great deal of effort and thought, the performer would be more likely to choose the latter. The performer might claim that a particular task is pointless or stupid or say that they just can’t be bothered with it. Those displaying a mastery goal orientation, however, are more likely to choose more challenging tasks and persist at them; the primary aim here is to attain a new skill, one that requires dedication and persistence. So the child who constantly complains that it’s pointless to become skilled at algebra because he is never going to use it again, is more than likely anxious about others in the class viewing him as unintelligent because he struggles with algebra, whereas another child perseveres because she wishes to master the techniques of algebra regardless of its future utiliy.

Andrew Elliot, a psychologist at the University of Rochester, further developed the view of master and performance orientations, in part due to the inconsistency of the evidence linking performance goals to a number of other motivational constructs. Elliot proposes a trichotomous model that further differentiates between performance-approach, performance-avoidance and mastery goal orientations. It’s important for us to understand that this separating out of the two performance goal orientations grew from the inconsistencies within the research involving the performance only goal orientation; essentially the original distinctions were unable to be explained in terms of research findings. Basically, performance-approach goal orientations represent the individuals’ attempts to demonstrate competence (through the strategies already discussed) while performance-avoidance orientations represent attempts for the learner to avoid being seen as incompetent. Goal orientations fundamentally alter the way learners view achievement situations, having a knock on effect on the ways in which individuals approach learning situations and, ultimately, achievement outcomes. While those students displaying performance-goal orientations will continue to avoid challenging tasks as a means of demonstrating competence, performance avoiders are more likely to disengage and withdraw from the learning process. The performance-avoidance orientation has also been linked to number of other outcomes including shallow processing, poor retention of information and performance decrements.

Mastery goal learners, on the other hand, are expected to enhance their achievement though placing a greater value on improving their skills and developing competencies. Not only that, but, as Andrew Elliot and Carol Dweck discovered, they are also more likely to display greater levels of persistence and employ more advanced cognitive strategies that lead to the deeper processing of information. Furthermore, empirical evidence has discovered that those students who focus more on trying to develop competence are more resilient in the face of challenge and are more likely to employ higher-level cognitive strategies such as elaboration, critical thinking and self-regulated learning. All this would suggest that a mastery goal orientation is directly related to higher levels of achievement; however, the evidence doesn’t necessarily support this view. Lisa Linnenbrink-Garcia, a psychologist at the University of Michigan and one of the foremost researchers into emotions and motivation, analysed 74 correlational studies, finding that only about 40 per cent of them showed a positive relationship between mastery orientation and academic achievement with five per cent showing a negative relationship. This would certainly suggest that there is some benefit to mastery goal orientation, but in research terms the results are not deemed statistically significant, in other words, the effect is too small, so we can’t be sure of any causal relationship. Frustratingly, there is also some concern over the relationship between performance-approach goals and academic outcomes, with some studies showing a positive correlation between performance-approach goals and cognitive regulation while other studies have found no significant relationship or even a negative relationship.

Inconsistent findings don’t necessarily mean the theory is flawed, it can mean that things are more complex or nuanced than the theory originally proposed. The research for both mastery goals and performance approach goals is in conflict with regards to academic outcomes; the findings for performance approach goals have also been inconsistent in term of persistence. If you remember, those students displaying a performance approach orientation were less likely to persist with a task once the going got tough and much of the research supports this view. However, while in many studies those performance-approach students were more likely to withdraw or opt out of a task and to withdraw their time and energy after experiencing failure, other studies found no significant relationship between performance-approach orientation and effort. Just to make things even more complicated, Elliot found a positive relationship between performance-approach goals, effort and persistence.

The main problem we face is that there appears to be no strong relations between performance-approach orientations and achievement. There is certainly and emotional component at play and this could provide us with a way to reconcile these findings. It appears that while some learners are able to successfully regulate possible debilitating emotions, others are unable to do so, leading to less effort and persistence and the feeling that the task is somehow unworthy of their efforts. Mastery-goal orientated learners are less likely to develop debilitating emotions because they view learning as a challenge and something to become skilled at – they view difficulty and challenge as a vital part of the learning process rather than something that exists in order to trick them or to reveal their incompetence to the world. They also see failure as part of the route they must take in order to reach the goals they have set for themselves. In their model of achievement emotions Diana Tyson, Lisa Linnenbrink-Garcia and Nancy Hill proposed that mastery learners are more likely to evoke positive emotions due to the way they view difficult tasks; they don’t need to regulate debilitating negative emotions because such emotions are much less likely to arise.

When a nudge is better than a sledgehammer.

Encouraging positive behaviours in individuals can prove problematic in any domain and it’s often easier to get it really wrong than to get it even slightly right. For me, one of the most interesting
sledgehammer studies I encountered in 2014 concerned the effectiveness of ‘fear appraisals’ as a predictor of motivation and exam scores (Putwain & Remedios, 2014). Seeing as threats are often seen as a fall back position for many teachers as the exam season approaches, with such comments as ‘If you don’t revise you’ll fail your exams’ or ‘If you fail you won’t get your place at university’, these results are relevant to daily teaching practice.

This kind of research then raises other questions, such as ‘How do I motivate my students in a more effective and productive way?’ Behavioural economics might have the answer, however its techniques have so far failed to permeate the world of education and have, instead, concentrated on health and wellbeing. Nevertheless, if we dip our toes into some of research intended to promote healthier living, it becomes possible to see glimpses of where behavioural economics could fit within an educational paradigm.

A recent paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) exhumes the once popular concept of self-affirmation. My immediate reaction to the paper was a wry smile as I recalled my old next-door neighbour who wrote the word ‘winner’ in lipstick on his rear-view mirror. Needless to say, I’ve never been a big fan of self-affirmations and not just because they involve the wilful misuse of copious amounts of post-it notes.

Despite my initial reservations (although many remain), I eventually realised that the research itself seemed quite promising. The paper (Falk et al., 2015), entitled ‘Self-affirmation alters the brain’s response to health messages and subsequent behavior change’ is interesting on several level (and not just because it has the word ‘brain’ in it).

According to the paper, self-affirmation (the affirmation of core-values) are effective if invoked prior to a message being given (and this is supported by previous research). Falk et al. wanted to investigate whether or not prior affirmation of core-values would lead to a group of sedentary participants being more receptive to health messages (i.e. would they be more likely to engage in physical activity) presented post core-value affirmation and how the brain responded to these messages.

The study supported previous research (in that reflecting on personal core-values led to the health message being more effective) but also highlighted the brain’s response to such messages in that the messages appeared to active the part of the brain associated with self-relevant information.

While information obtained through brain scans remains controversial and the sample size here was extremely small (67), it does throw up some interesting ideas of how the affirmation of core-value and other self-relevant information might help to ‘nudge’ learners in the right direction even before a message has been presented. It also raises a few questions concerning how positive emotional attributes could be ‘triggered’ prior to an important message or test situation.


Falk, E.B., O’Donnell, M.B., Cascio, C.N., Tinney, F., Kang, Y., Lieberman, M.D., Taylor, S.E., An, L., Resnicow, K. & Strecher, V.J. (2015). Self-affirmation alters the brain’s response to health messages and subsequent behavior change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. [Online]. p.p. 201500247. Available from:

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. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed: 21 April 2014].

Thinking about… Feedback

If feedback is one of the most effective routes to academic achievement then why do so many teachers do it so badly?

I’ve been teaching 6th Form students for a decade now and I’ve tried many different methods of written feedback. Early in my career I quickly realised two things:

  • Most students don’t read feedback
  • All students read the grade they have been awarded for the task

This in itself is an interesting observation seeing as research (Harks, Rakoczy, Hattie, Besser, & Klieme, 2014) has discovered that so-called ‘grade orientated feedback’ is far less effective than ‘process orientated feedback’ (the latter emphasising the type of feedback that aims to improve outcomes by giving specific targeted and goal-orientated advice). Furthermore, process orientated feedback not only has a positive effect on achievement, it also positively impacts on emotionally–based processes such as interest.

In an attempt to curb this I have, over the years, omitted the grade and given process-orientated feedback only, but because students often appear to be more concerned with how well they have done rather than how they can improve this tended to lead to criticism from students, parents and (on one occasion some years ago) school management. More recently I instructed students that they could have their grade only if they came to me to discuss the feedback – needless to say, few were motivated enough to follow up on this. I’m assuming that the unwillingness to discuss the feedback was as much to do with a fear of failure (they actually didn’t want to know the grade) so that their actions constituted a method of self-handicapping rather than genuine laziness.

The purpose of process-orientated feedback.

Feedback should be elaborated sufficiently to help the learner change erroneous knowledge components and, thus, improve achievement (Harks et al., 2014)

Feedback should offer information that contributes to the satisfaction of the student’s basic need to feel competent (Ryan & Deci, 2000)

Feedback, therefore, has both meta-cognitive and motivational components so content should reflect both of these. Hattie has suggested that process orientated feedback should ask the following questions:

Where am I going (learning intentions/goals/success criteria)?

How am I going (self-assessment/self-evaluation)?

Where next (progression/new goals)?

(Hattie, 2009)


A Model of Feedback (Hattie, 2009)

These questions then feed into the other growth components I have discussed previously:

Growth Goals (Personal Bests)


Implicit Theories of Intelligence (Mindset)

Academic Buoyancy (day-to-day resilience)

Feedback needs to be ‘active’.

Effective marking and detailed feedback can be time-consuming, especially with A-level students who are often required to produce extended pieces of writing. I encourage my students to word-process essays so that I can add comments in the margin as well as general comments/targets at the end (and a grade when appropriate). This can sometimes mean that each essay can take up to 30-45 minutes to mark, comment on, set targets and grade and with class numbers ranging from 20 to 25 students… well you can do the maths. All this, of course, with the probability that most students won’t read any of the comments.

Microsoft Word allows the insertion of comments

Microsoft Word allows the insertion of comments – but will anyone read them?

Making feedback ‘active’ can both reduce the time taken to mark each piece of work and ensure that (most) students read the feedback. I recently came across this wonderful resource on Tom Sherrington’s blog (@headguruteacher) – I’m especially interested in test-driving the first suggestion.


When feedback is executed effectively it can have a major impact on achievement. The EEF Toolkit suggests an increase of around 8 months but offers the following considerations.


Bringing it all together.

For me, feedback is one of suite of tools that combine to produce increases in achievement, motivation and study skills. No strategy exists in isolation and feedback is only one component of a larger whole. Effective feedback encourages a growth mindset by being explicit about ways to improve while those students who adopt a fixed mindset appear to be less responsive to feedback (especially when it calls into question their ability) and less resilience (buoyant). Meta-cognitive strategies aid active feedback while the explicit use of growth goals motivate the learner to exceed their personal best by acting on the feedback.


Harks, B., Rakoczy, K., Hattie, J., Besser, M., & Klieme, E. (2014). The effects of feedback on achievement, interest and self-evaluation: the role of feedback’s perceived usefulness. Educational Psychology, 34(3), 269–290. doi:10.1080/01443410.2013.785384
Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning. Routledge.
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. The American Psychologist, 55(1), 68–78. Retrieved from

Metacognition and Academic Growth

What do we mean by ‘meta-cognition’?

Meta-cognition relates to the process of actively thinking about our own learning. It’s often referred to as ‘learning skills’ or ‘learning to learning’ and is centered on one’s ability to evaluate and monitor one’s own learning and to readjust as necessary through continual self-monitoring. It also includes the ability to self-regulate one’s own learning in terms of managing motivation.

Meta-cognitive Regulation

This refers to the adjustments people make in order to help them control their own learning and includes:

  • Planning
  • Information Management Strategies
  • Comprehension Monitoring
  • ‘de-bugging’ strategies
  • Evaluative and Progress Goals
  • Knowing when and where to use particular strategies for learning and problem solving
  • How and why to use such strategies
  • The use of prior knowledge to plan a strategy for approaching a learning task
  • Taking the necessary steps to:
    • Problem Solve
    • Reflect on and/or evaluate the results
    • Modify the approach as needed

Meta-cognitive Knowledge

This relates to what individuals know about themselves as ‘cognitive processers’ as well as what they understand about the different approaches that can be used for learning and problem solving as well as a knowledge about the demands of a particular task.

In my experience, many students are generally unable or unwilling to evaluate their own learning. However, the students who do best are often the ones who can self-evaluate and self-regulate when given the opportunity to do so (for example, through careful consideration of teacher feedback). For this reason I’m going to look at my own practice, specifically the way in which I present feedback and how I expect my students to approach it.

Does it really work?

Over the past few years teachers have become more concerned with ‘evidenced based’ approaches to teaching rather than relying on untested and often highly erroneous ones (e.g. Learning Styles and Brain Gym). A great deal of the pressure for evidence based learning has grown from a grass-roots level though social media (predominately Twitter), culminating in the ResearchED movement.

The teaching of metacognitive strategies, as well as an awareness of meta-cognition in general, has strong empirical support.

Hattie (2009), in his synthesis of more then 800 meta-analyses of learning interventions found meta-cognitive strategies to have an effect size* of 0.71, suggesting a high impact on educational achievement.

The Education Endowment Foundation has found similar results, finding that meta-cognitive and self-regulatory strategies can add between 7 and 9 months additional progress on average.


How should we ‘teach’ meta-cognitive strategies?

If the impact of meta-cognitive strategies is so large, why are students still so poor at self-evaluation and self-regulation? It could be that many schools view it as a faddy bolt-on rather than a highly effective tool to improve students outcomes – the strategies never become imbedded into the system. Meta-cognitive stills need to be part of the culture of the school and be employed in every lesson (rather than being taught in isolation). I would also argue that feedback is a major part of the process and that feedback needs to be detailed, useful and attached to growth goals. The process then becomes a cyclic one that spirals outwards as learning and growth becomes visible.

The recognition of meta-cognition is particularly interesting as it so easily feeds into a more joined up set of initiatives that incorporate other evidence-based interventions such as resilience/buoyancy and Mindset.

*Effect Size is a measurement of the effectiveness of the intervention or strategy based on the results of meta-analysis (the analysis of several studies in the same area). An effect size of 0.4 or above is considered to be within the ‘zone of desired effects’. The greater the effect size, the more the strategy or intervention is seen to be effective. But note that some meta-analyses will be based on far fewer studies than others, leading to lower reliability.

Growth Goals: One Path to a Growth Mindset.

Top athletes use both competitive & growth goals

Top athletes use both competitive & growth goals

Goals come in many shapes and sizes. Generally, when we talk of goals in an educational context they usually involve mastery goals, our pursuit of mastery over a skill or particular learning
task (e.g. “My goal is to master algebra”). Other goals might be less productive, for example avoidance goals whose purpose to is to avoid failure or negative outcomes which may lead to success but often lead to self-handicapping, allowing us to survive rather than thrive.

A third kind of goal is a Growth Goal. Martin uses the term Personal Best (PB) to describe the managed attempt to exceed oneself rather than to be “top of the class”. Personal Bests centre on a specific personal challenge (e.g. “I want an A in my next essay because I got a B in my last one”) and the specific steps required to reach the goal – so PB’s are competitively self-referenced – doing better than you did before.

PB’s have been found to increase engagement and academic achievement (Martin & Liem, 2010) as well as promote other skills including self-efficacy, intrinsic motivation and ‘flow’. Studies have also found that PB’s are just one way to encourage and promote an incremental (growth) mindset (Martin, 2014).

Mindset theory continues to gain ground over other motivational and engagement strategies primarily due to its rapidly growing and significant evidence base. The problem of implementation often centres around the actual process by which the fixed mindset (entity based self theory) is transformed into a growth mindset (incremental based self theory). PB’s work by drawing on this incremental philosophy and using a series of small steps to go from one personal best to the next, in the same way an Olympic sprinter aims to shave a second here and second there off his or her fastest time.

Furthermore, PB’s aren’t confined to specific cultural groups, with PB’s being generalised to non-western (Chinese) contexts (Yu & Martin, 2014).

PB’s encourage students to examine feedback constructively and set out a plan by which they either maintain their current level or exceed it, ensuring that they take on board teacher comments and identify gaps in either subject knowledge or study skills. In many ways PB’s are similar to the SMART-type objects used in employee appraisal systems and coaching in that they provide specific time-bound criteria by which progress can be made without relying on extrinsic factors.


PB Worksheet and Worked Example

Martin, A. J. (2014). Implicit theories about intelligence and growth (personal best) goals: Exploring reciprocal relationships. The British Journal of Educational Psychology, 1–17. doi:10.1111/bjep.12038
Martin, A. J., & Liem, G. A. D. (2010). Academic personal bests (PBs), engagement, and achievement: A cross-lagged panel analysis. Learning and Individual Differences, 20(3), 265–270. doi:10.1016/j.lindif.2010.01.001
Yu, K., & Martin, a. J. (2014). Personal best (PB) and “classic” achievement goals in the Chinese context: their role in predicting academic motivation, engagement and buoyancy. Educational Psychology, (May), 1–24. doi:10.1080/01443410.2014.895297




Motivation, Learning and Memory (Part 2)


Do monetary (extrinsic) rewards enhance motivation and/or memory consolidation?

I’ve been very clear in the past about my issues with school incentive schemes and how they don’t necessarily produce the intended results (here and here). That said, research conducted by Kou Murayama (University of Reading) and Christof Kuhbandner (University of Munich) suggests that the cognitive and neurological processes involved are even more complicated than I thought.

The assumption that extrinsic rewards are an effective and reliable way to enhance motivation in students remains very strong, with several companies now making a considerable profit through selling their schemes to schools.

But does money (or Xbox games, iTunes vouchers, etc.) really lead to greater motivation and performance?

The answer is far from clear. Neurological findings appear to suggest they do. It has been discovered that monetary rewards promote memory consolidation by activating the mesolimbic reward system, which increases dopamine release in the hippocampal memory system.

But there are problems with this…

Studies have found that hippocampus-dependent memory consolidation requires an extended period of time to complete so that the effects of money on memory manifest themselves only after some time has elapsed. However, very little research has been conducted into the impact of money at different time points (for example, immediately after encoding or after a delay).

Another problem is highlighted by motivational psychology. Psychological studies have found that monetary rewards can actually undermine task engagement, especially for ‘interesting’ tasks. The generally held view is that extrinsic rewards can ‘crowd out’ the intrinsic value of the interesting task – this process is known as the ‘undermining effect’.

What’s interesting to note here is that the ‘undermining effect’ only seems to occur when the task is interesting.

This is pretty much what Murayama and Kuhbandner found. Participants were divided into two groups (money group and no-money group) and presented with a list of trivia questions. Some of the questions had been classed as uninteresting (e.g. “What is the name of the author of the book 1984?”) while others had been classed as interesting (e.g. “What is the only consumable food that won’t spoil forever?”) – the classifications of interesting and uninteresting had been decided by a panel of independent judges.

Both groups were presented with the trivia questions that they had to answer. This was followed by an immediate memory test then a time-delayed memory test one week later.

…they discovered:

  • Monetary rewards helped memory only after a delay
  • Monetary rewards helped memory only when the material was uninteresting
  • Monetary rewards had little impact on memory when the material was considered interesting

…and now for some neuroscience:

The striatum is a subcortical part of the forebrain and is thought to be responsible for executive functions and working memory but is also responsible for reward induced memory consolidation. fMRI studies conducted by Murayama et al (2010) found that extrinsic rewards appeared to dampen down activation of the striatum, but only when the task was considered to be interesting. This would suggest that paying someone to do a task they love could actually make them worse at it!

Striatum - active and inactive

Striatum – active and inactive


It seems odd that we could actually negatively affect the learning of students through extrinsic rewards, but this is (in part) what this research is suggesting. If the student is genuinely interested in the subject area, extrinsic rewards could actually prevent the learning from taking place because the area of the brain needed to induce memory consolidation has been dampened down by the extrinsic reward. This has been posited for some time (for example, as far back as 1973, Stanford psychologist Mark Lepper discovered that rewarding young children for something they loved to do actually led to a reduction in motivation within two weeks of the implementation of the incentive scheme). With the evidence from brain scans the hypothesis is strengthened further.

On the positive side, extrinsic rewards work for the boring stuff – just not straight away.

The problem is that not all students find the same things interesting and others are motivated by other factors unrelated to extrinsic rewards. There is also an ecological validity issue here (as there is with all laboratory-based experiments) as well as the continuing discussions surrounding the interpretation of brain scans.

Nevertheless, all this does suggest that we should be cautious before we begin to employ extrinsic rewards.


Murayama K & Kuhbander C (2011) Money enhances memory consolidation – But only for boring material. Cognition 119, 120-124

Murayama K, Matsumoto M, Izuma K & Matsumoto K (2010) Neural basis of undermining effect of monetary reward on intrinsic motivation PNAS doi: 10.1073/pnas.1013305107