(mis)Understanding Motivation

Motivation is a highly misunderstood and oversimplified concept. On the one hand we tend to think of motivation as something that happens to us, a kind of external force. This leads us to try and find external sources of motivation for children. We might show them a motivational movie or quote, give them an inspiring book to read, or even show them motivational speakers like Tony Robbins.




We also simplify the concept of motivation when we reduce it down to goals. The general recipe which we teach students is that: “If you have a goal > you will become motivated > this motivation will lead you to take action (in this case you will study) > and if you study you will get good grades.”


The problem with this advice is that while it is true, it is incomplete.


In reality:


· Some goals actually decrease motivation


· Similarly, some goals actually decrease academic performance


· It turns out, doing well is actually about having the right goals, in the right context.

The Development of Motivational Theory


Motivational theory started to become more nuanced in the 1950s with the arrival of David McLelland. In his Human Motivation Theory, he said there isn’t one generic type of goal.


Instead, he argued that goals come in a number of forms, and that the type of goal an individual chooses will depend on their inherent motivational disposition, which comes in one of two forms, and they are:


1. the movement towards achievement

2. movement away from failure


This is what is traditionally called the approach / avoidance dichotomy. Someone with an achievement disposition is likely to adopt a challenging goal, whereas someone with an avoidance disposition, is obviously likely to adopt a much less challenging goal, which they have a high probability of achieving. It goes without saying that the different goals will likely lead to very different motivational states.


Building upon this body of research, Carol Dweck and Carole Ames argued that when it comes to pursuing achievement based goals, there tends to be 2 types:


1. Performance Goals: whereby we seek to demonstrate our relative competence to others, generally through a normative test (getting a good grade on a test)


2. Mastery Goals: which we pursue simply to get better at something (playing Stairway to heaven on guitar or learning to bake the perfect cake)


Dweck and her colleagues argued that not only were these goals different in nature, but they also had radically different levels of impact on our motivation levels, as well as our performance levels.


Then in the 90s, people like Martin Seligmann argued that our motivation wasn’t just impacted by the goals we set ourselves, or the reasons we set them, but that our motivation was also significantly impacted by our self-efficacy or the level of belief we had in our own ability levels.


In summary, the Hierarchical Model of Motivation works as follows:


  1. A person will typically have an inherent disposition towards achievement and avoidance. This will inform the type of goal that they pick. It’s your starting point as a person, how you feel about the world right now.

  2. The type of goal they pick will then be moderated by their perceived levels of self-efficacy or competency.

  3. The combination of motivation disposition and self-efficacy, will then lead us to pick one of three types of goals:

  • a mastery goal

  • a performance goal or

  • an avoidance goal


The nature of the goal we pick then has a direct impact on our levels of intrinsic motivation, our enjoyment of the tasks and the level of success we achieve.


Does your child set avoidance goals?


Does your child tend to:


  1. Display more negative feelings than positive ones towards their progress and achieving their personal goals?

  2. Display lower self-esteem when it comes to their ability in a given subject?

  3. Display lower satisfaction when it comes their academic results?

  4. Feel less competent in relation to their goal pursuits?

  5. Frame their goals academic goals around ‘not failing’ or ‘not coming in the bottom half of the class’?


We have worked with over 150 families this year through our coaching service and when we begin working with a family, we run an initial diagnostic interview with the student to understand their specific strengths and weaknesses. When conducting the motivation section of the diagnostic interview we have found that over 45% of students set a performance goal and 30% set an avoidance goal, leaving only 25% set a mastery goal.


There are 2 reasons that students set avoidance goals. The first reason is that students don’t believe they have the capacity or self-efficacy to set a more challenging goal. That is to say, they don’t have sufficient belief that they can achieve highly.


The second reason that a student may set an avoidance goal is that they fear failure. In this case, a student may even have sufficient self-efficacy or self-belief, but the very thought of not achieving their goal, or failing, or losing is so anxiety inducing that it leads them to set an avoidance goal. So let’s have a look at how we overcome these obstacles starting with self-efficacy.


Tips for helping your child move up the motivational hierarchy


Tip 1: Increase self-efficacy by focusing on process not outcomes


One of the biggest pitfalls for students, and for people in general, is that we tend to view the world in binary terms: we win or we lose; things are good or bad; we are smart or stupid. When we work with students we ask them why they think the top students get the top marks and the most common answer is that they are smart. When a student does well, they put it down to being smart. When a student does badly, they put it down to being stupid. The best example of this with students is the students who say “I am just not a maths student”, or “I'm terrible at writing essays".


In many cases, students become conditioned to respond in this way because of the type and frequency of feedback they receive, often getting a grade back on a test with little to no qualitative feedback. There is nothing telling students why they lost their marks, or what they have done wrong. Even more importantly, there is nothing telling students what they could do to correct these mistakes. As a result, we just focus students on the mark, or the output of the exam.


In this context students ask themselves: “why did I get this result?” and the only thing that they have to fall back on is the simplistic explanation: because I am smart or stupid. In reality, some marks might have been lost because of a poor or convoluted introduction. Some more marks may have been lost because the paragraph lacked a topic sentence. Some more marks might have been lost because the paragraph was missing evidence in the form of a quote. If a student knows these things all of a sudden, they begin to realise that the problem isn’t them. The problem isn’t some innate talent or ability that they are lacking. They simply need to: learn to write a better introduction, learn to write a better topic sentence, and include some quotes within each paragraph. Each of these problems is simply a problem or process that can be easily rectified.


As such, our first solution for parents is to focus on “process” not “output”. Don’t get hung up, and even more importantly, don’t let your child get hung up on marks, instead make their entire focus on the process, as the process can be changed, can be improved, whereas our innate characteristics can’t.


You can reinforce this by using the Short Term Planner. Your child can complete this with you, with their teacher, or a tutor, or this is something we always do with students in the lead up to exams.



It is split up into 6 columns: Subject, Assessment, Goal, Requirements, To-Do, and Mark.


First, the student will set a goal for their exam or assessment, preferably as a percentage to make it as specific and tangible as possible – let’s say 70%.


Next, they’ll go to see their teacher who will be able to tell them exactly what the requirements or assessment criteria are, as well as the revision will be conducive to achieving that 70%. It might be a case of assigning 10 practice questions for a trigonometry topic the student struggles with, or it could be getting them to memorise 15 advanced analytical words for their English essays.


Whatever the specific subject, the student now knows what tasks they need to perfect in order to achieve their target goal - and these tasks will be put into the 'to do' column, each with a deadline. The final column is for the mark that they end up receiving.


This planner is useful for a number of reasons when it comes to increasing self-efficacy. Firstly, it’s a tool to help students breakdown what work they need to do in order to achieve a target mark, which will prevent them feeling overwhelmed. More crucially though, it puts emphasis on process rather than output. If a student achieves the target mark they set, it isn’t because they fall into the binary judgement of being ‘good’ at the subject – rather it is because there is a direct causal link between the process they laid out in their To-Do column. Of course, students aren’t always going to hit their target mark. Again, here the Short-Term Planner places the emphasis on the process – the student didn’t underachieve because they were ‘bad’, but because either their To-Do list was insufficient, or it was not executed properly.


In this post-exam period, students can also use a feedback loop approach with their teachers to ensure they can develop self-efficacy and move away from the idea of being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ at a subject. They can sit with their teacher and ask “what specifically lost me mark in this question? And what specific solutions can you give me so I don’t lose marks here again?”


The final part of this process is by far the most powerful in developing self-efficacy in the student, but also the most simple: the student will re-do the exercise. The reason this is so crucial is that, if the student follows the walk through provided by the teacher, it follows that they have to achieve an improved mark. This removes the idea of a good/bad binary for the student, instead favouring a process-oriented focus: on the same exercise they moved from a ‘bad’ grade to a ‘good’ one simply by addressing the specific technique they were using.


In our Coaching Program one of the most powerful sessions is on exam planning because this is where we see students confidence increase as they are actually able to see the specific correlation between their actions and the desired result.


Tip 2: Remove fear of failure by focusing on effort not results


If we can do the above, we can start to increase a student’s self-efficacy, and we can increase the likelihood of them picking an achievement goal. However, this isn’t assured. Even if a student has higher self-efficacy, the fear of failure may still be so great that they fall back on an avoidance goal. So how do we deal with this? The answer is to praise effort not results.Reward effort first


This principle: reward effort not results, is one that can be immediately leveraged by parents.


Scenario 1: When a student does well in spite of not putting much work in, don’t celebrate the success.


Instead we want to chastise the lack of effort. This may seem unfair on the face of it, but in the long-term will embed a much healthier mindset. Why? Celebrating the success when they know they haven’t done anything conditions students to believe that they did well because they are smart.


The biggest problem here is that this creates a fixed mind-set – what happens when things go wrong? Suddenly, it becomes very easy for the student to make the logical leap that if they were achieving before because they were smart, then the reason they are underachieving now must be because they are not smart enough. This is a mindset which students can easily be led to - to avoid this, we want to move the focus from the result to the effort.


Scenario 2: When a student does well and worked hard, praise the effort not the result


This works along exactly the same principle as the first scenario. Just as we didn’t praise the good result in the first scenario, so too is the result secondary here: all of the focus is placed on how hard the student tried to achieve, not on whether they did or not. It’s not a case of ‘Well done, that’s such a good mark’, but rather ‘That’s so good because you worked so hard…its awesome to see the hard work paying off’. This creates an association for the student that effort is conducive to success, not natural ability.


Scenario 3: When a student works hard and doesn’t do well, we want to praise the effort and encourage them that the results will follow


By then focusing on the process, and possibly on how to improve it, we ensure the outcome remains secondary whilst also equipping the students for better results next time around. As we will talk about in a moment, focusing your conversations on process over intelligence is critical.


Scenario 4: If a student puts in no effort and achieves bad results, we want to focus on the lack of effort.


This way we avoid the student concluding that they did poorly because they were stupid, thus avoiding a fixed mindset.


Tip 3: Change the Messenger


You may have had these conversations with your child before but with all the stress and pressure of exams there is a chance that they won’t listen, especially when advice is coming from their parents.


The reason we see resonance and connection from our coaching students and that lightbulb moment for them, is the change in the messenger, coming from someone who has recently gone through similar experiences but also to this day are still using the same processes as they are going through their degree. Our coaches are able to walk students through their own exam plans or discuss their own experiences. Students tend to see their coach as a mentor or guide - someone who is closer to a peer sharing advice - and in turn, are much more receptive to the message. You can find out how to get a coach here.

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