Australian psychologist unravels mysteries of motivation 

Teenagers at risk of losing motivation at school are being targeted with an easy-to-use Australian-made psychological tool, which has proved to be so effective it has been adopted by business leaders, concert musicians and elite athletes.

The Motivation and Engagement Wheel, devised less than a decade ago by Professor Andrew J. Martin, of the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney, is now being used by academic experts throughout the world to measure what the creator calls “the good, the bad and the ugly” of motivation, and help users to achieve their full potential by tackling negative thoughts and behaviour – and increasing those that are positive.

Speaking ahead of the Australian Psychological Society’s College of Educational and Developmental Psychologists national conference where he is presenting a keynote address on the Wheel, Professor Martin said that the Australian education system was well-regarded internationally, but was not “top of the pack”, especially when it came to supporting some of those not among the high achievers.

He said: “Our students and the results they get are generally positive, but there remain some groups of Australian students who are at disproportionate risk of underperforming.”

The Wheel was devised because existing research into motivation, and tools for boosting it, focussed on just one or two factors, rather than the eleven addressed in the Wheel. Its success is in part due this holistic approach, as well as its simple, visual design.

Data relating to 21,000 Australian students found that adolescents remained the group most vulnerable to disengagement as the pressures confronting them piled up, leading to a decline in performance or marks.

Professor Martin said: “Primary school students are generally bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and university students or those out in the workplace are generally there because they want to be. But high school students are craving independence and are going through massive social, emotional, physical and cognitive changes. School can have great trouble competing with all these factors.”

He said: “It is all very well to be motivated, and it is very easy to be so, when the going is good but when a student gets one or two dud grades, has a run-in with a teacher or the deadlines stack up, students need to be able to bring something else to the table. They need resilience and the ability to recover from academic setbacks, which helps them to develop.” 

 “This approach plays to teenagers’ curiosity. Adolescence is a time when they are trying to figure themselves out and where they fit in the scheme of things. The Motivation and Engagement Wheel can help them understand who they are in regard to many factors, from confidence through to anxiety, and what that means for their ability to perform.

And for those who may be struggling in the classroom, the Wheel can operate like a third umpire, laying out where they stand and helping them in discussions with teachers or other professionals,” Professor Martin said. 

Research into the Wheel has shown “slight but consistent” differences between girls and boys, with female students generally more motivated than boys, but also more likely to be afflicted by academic anxiety.

Professor Martin said: “Although girls may work harder and be better motivated as a rule, they don’t necessarily think they are doing so. Boys tend to have more confidence that they are on top of everything.”

Importantly, another research project found that users could act on information provided by the Wheel to overcome their academic challenges.

When students were supplied with tailored psychological strategies in key areas identified as needing improvement, their motivation and engagement substantially improved – and continued to get better several months after they had been schooled in Professor Martin’s techniques.

Professor Martin is the author of three highly respected books Building Classroom Success: Eliminating Fear and Failure (published by Continuum this year), as well as How to Motivate Your Child for School and Beyond (Bantam, 2003), and How to Help Your Child Fly Through Life: the 20 Big Issues (Bantam, 2005). 

He is now looking at how the techniques of athletes, in pushing to achieve personal bests, can be adapted to help students.


The conference is being held on 26 November 2010, at the University of Melbourne (Hawthorn Campus).
For media enquiries, or to arrange an interview with Professor Martin, please contact:

Judith Heywood
Media and Public Relations Coordinator
Australian Psychological Society
T: 03 8662 3301
M: 0435 896 444

Karen Coghlan
Senior Media Coordinator
Australian Psychological Society
T: 03 8662 6638
M: 0414 740 891

The APS is the largest professional association for psychologists in Australia, representing more than 19,000 members. The APS is committed to advancing psychology as a discipline and profession. It spreads the message that psychologists make a difference to peoples' lives, through improving psychological knowledge and community wellbeing.