Dear reader(s),

Below are two posts (one the original post and the second a reply to a reply) that I uploaded this week regarding a reading on motivation for my current unit on Educational Psychology at Macquarie University. I really wish you could all be in the discussion boards – my classmates are amazing. What I offer below is just a very ego-centric slice of the discussion.


Part I: A writhing mass of motivations

The reading by Dowson & McInerney (2003) highlights the challenges researchers face in gathering evidence towards proving a theory of student motivation in a school setting. Dowson & McInerney’s (2003) overall aim is to “construct an inductive, systematic, and contextual approach to the study of students’ motivational goals”. They do this by using an inductive methodology (based on using the evidence provided by students as the core from which to draw conclusions, rather than have a priori approaches that seek to apply a theory to the evidence.) This is highly commendable as they clearly see the context and views of the subjects of the research as the priority in identifying motivational goals, rather than promoting a particular theory from the beginning. This is a much more practical aim that could have clear benefits to the students involved and indicate the chance to achieve real, practice-based outcomes for them as learners.

The reason for this type of investigation is explained by the authors as being in response to previous approaches that focused on cognitive representations of motivations which “may oversimplify the structure of students’ motivational goals.” (Dowson & McInerney, 2003) The authors list the various types of motivational goals that have been highlighted in previous research: mastery, performance approach and performance avoidance. They go further than this to suggest that there are other motivations beyond the task-centric goals. These include affective and social goals – both of which the authors believe are important in a middle-school setting, which I highly endorse based on experience.

The idea that was most interesting to me was the idea of multi-dimensional motivation. This is the idea, as the authors explain, that not only can students hold many motivational goals at the same time but also that these goals can interact and influence each other (Dowson & McInerney, 2003). The authors argue, compellingly, that little research has been done in this area, thus justifying their study. This is the main strength of their study: that they are building on previous research and applying their theoretical position only after collecting their data.

Though their aims are highly practical and very important in understanding the ways to help students engage effectively in task-based learning, there were some worrying features of methodology. Knowing that there are over 9000 schools in Australia (ABS, 2012), and therefore many tens of thousands of individual students studying in Australia, the fact that only 86 students were involved in the project seems exceedingly limited in scope to gain a truly accurate representation of the whole. The fact that these students were in population sizes across each grade of approximately 30 students each (Grade 6 = 27, Grade 7 = 36, Grade 8 = 23) bodes badly for the study, considering the spread of students across classes which in turn thins the population in each group.

Naturally, the project can offer clear insight into what students articulate as their motivations during the various stages of research, but it seems highly problematic that despite interviews of varying formality, classroom observations and field notes, this evidence would not be able to be applied to other contexts easily, even within the city of Sydney, where the study took place. Despite these limitations, the evidence collected and conclusions drawn seem to fit into the various categories of goals and indicate the author’s ideas on cognitive, social and behavioural components of motivation ring true. As the authors state, “these goals were not specified prior to the research but, rather, were inductively generated from students’ interview statements and from students’ observed behavior in classroom contexts.” (Dowson & McInerney, 2003)

“Thus, students’ motivation should be conceptualized as a process of managing multiple goals, which may interact in conflicting, converging, or compensating ways.” (Dowson & McInerney, 2003) This has significant implications both for researchers and for teachers. The former need to acknowledge that there are multiple possible goals that need to be concurrently studied in order to form an accurate picture of a student’s motivations. The latter needs to understand that even within one class there will be multiple goals being managed by each individual student. This is critically important for all teachers, who need to consider that some students will never be motivated by whole-school or class-based motivators (such as a rewards system) whilst, at the same time, they will be a writhing mass of competing goals that may change depending on the context in which they are learning.

Therefore, decision makers and teachers need to be highly aware and receptive to traits and states that students may take on (Duchense et al, 2013), intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, and perhaps more importantly, how the various types of motivations within these constructs are interacting within an individual – and between individuals – in order to maximise their learning experience in a school setting.


Australian Bureau of Statistics (2012) Commentary on Schools, available online at

Dowson, M., & McInerney, D. M., (2003) “What do students say about their motivational goals?: Towards a more complex and dynamic perspective on student motivation”, Contemporary Educational Psychology, 28, p91-113

Duchesne, S., McMaugh, A., Krause, K. & Bochner, S. (2013). Educational Psychology for Learning and Teaching 4th Edition. Cengage Learning: Melbourne

Part 2: Reply to my classmates reply to Part 1

Thanks for your reply! I’m always trying to be a better teacher too. Isn’t that why we’re doing a course like this? 🙂

I was questioning everything I do as a teacher when reading this article (as I do when I read most research into how people actually learn and then thinking about how schools work).

It’s kind of like how Ken Robinson explains his view of the education system (focusing on the USA) as being a product of the Enlightenment and bolted down during the Industrial Revolution. The aim was – and is still told to kids – that you study hard, get good grades and get a job. You can be extrinsically motivated throughout your entire school career because at the end you’ll have employment which allows you do to what you want with the money. However, that’s not assured today. The economy, the world, has changed. Kids don’t believe in the story any more (and Robinson argues that they are right not to – there is no guarantee of employment even with uni degrees anymore). So how do we motivate them to engage in a world if our system doesn’t prepare them for it? (as good as our intentions and our relationships with them are)

I’m reading a book called “World Class Learners” (2012) by Yong Zhao about how all nations need to educate creative and entrepreneurial learners, not just batches of automatons who have the skills for a world that no longer exists.

“Schools in general reduce instead of enhance creativity and the entrepreneurial spirit because they have been designed to prepare good employees.” (Zhao, 2012)

Even universities pride themselves on the employability of their alumni. Do they advertise what kinds of jobs these graduates are getting or how permanent and rewarding they are? I can tell you that at the moment there are not enough jobs for graduating teachers. If they are all getting jobs, it’s not in the classroom where they want and should be.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with extrinsic motivation, clearly it’s necessary for some kids (and some of the research we’ve been looking at says that in terms of performance, it can really work). But I suppose that I keep thinking.. why do I need to keep bribing my kids to be engaged, to “learn”, to participate with merits when the very act of being involved and the happiness and growth and recognition that comes with achieving something should be reward in itself? I know that in the case of my Year 10s I have the whole spectrum of motivators.. which shift and change depending on the topic and the time of day etc. They (generally) will get very involved in a discussion on, say, womens’ rights, but when we move to the aims and functions of the UN they couldn’t be less interested – so I try to make it engaging by talking about real issues. Sometimes we even deviate from the Syllabus. My Year 12s are only mildly motivated by the HSC when assessments are due – the rest of the time they want to do “interesting” stuff but I have to push on with content/skills to say I’ve “taught” the course (I say cringing). I read an article yesterday that suggests more and more students are quitting school early, working for a couple of years and going to uni as a 19/20 year old “mature age” student so they don’t need the HSC at all. Imagine having someone in a 1st year course who has worked, travelled, volunteered or already done some study purely based on interest, not based on a predetermined sequence of their lives…I’m sure Anne sees the difference.

I think the fact that we, who have been trained by the system so that we implement the system, are questioning its validity and purpose is very telling. When kids can access information anywhere, anytime, is there even a purpose of having a centralised curriculum? I think having a national approach to schooling is a no brainer, but I’m starting to question whether schools as they are built and structured can actually do the job of facilitating and cultivating learning.

Check out this video too a slightly more Bolshie version of my little rant.