Dr Andrew Martin, MAPS

Motivation is students' energy and drive to learn, work effectively, and achieve to their potential at school. Motivation plays a large part in students' interest in and enjoyment of school and study and underpins their achievement. In this article DR ANDREW MARTIN MAPS describes a model of student motivation - the Student Motivation Wheel - and discusses some strategies practitioners and parents can use to enhance students' motivation.

THE STUDENT Motivation Wheel (Martin, 2003) reflects the thoughts, feelings and behaviours underpinning academic engagement at school and separates motivation into factors that reflect enhanced motivation, those that reflect constrained motivation, and those that reflect reduced motivation. These are called boosters, mufflers, and guzzlers respectively.

Boosters include self-belief, learning focus, value of schooling, persistence, study management, and planning. Mufflers include anxiety and fear of failure. Guzzlers include low control and self-sabotage.

Students improve their motivation by increasing the boosters in their academic lives while also reducing the mufflers and guzzlers. Practitioners and parents play a vital role in students' capacity to do this.

A tale of two students

I want to share two students' stories that bring these boosters, mufflers, and guzzlers to life (Martin, 2003). The stories are about a high achiever and an underachiever (details have been changed to ensure anonymity). I find that most practitioners and parents recognise at least some aspects of their own clients or children in each story.

Nicole's story: Nicole performs well at school and enjoys her time there. She is high in all the motivation boosters presented above and low in most of the mufflers and guzzlers.

She is more focused on learning and improving herself than beating or comparing herself with others: "If I can grasp something by stretching my mind or working really hard, then I've made progression in myself and I'm proud of myself more so than being able to do something better than someone else."

Nicole works by a structured study timetable that she organised for herself early in the year. She plans her work carefully, and checks how she is going as she does it: "I try to be pretty organised. For an essay I'll do all the reading, I'll take notes from the readings, I'll have an essay plan, and have a general outline of where I'm going and where the essay's going."

Nicole is very persistent in the face of challenge, saying, "I'll always work until I get it," and feels in control of success: "I will put a lot of work in and then I can control how I'll do."

Peter's story: Peter does not perform well at school and is not likely to look back on his time at school with great fondness. School for him is a roller-coaster ride of anxiety, fear, poor performance, stress, and pressure.

Peter is frightened of failing and to deal with this he is deliberately pessimistic about how he will do at school: "If you do worse than expected, then it's less of a fall," he says. Peter's pessimism seems to have come from home where his parents have always said, "Don't set your goals too high because you'll only get disappointed."

In contrast to Nicole, who has a strong sense of control, Peter feels quite helpless, saying, "I could work my butt off but I still think I'll fail it if my teacher wants me to fail it. Just because I work hard won't guarantee that I'll get that mark."

In fact, unlike Nicole who maximises her chances of success, Peter seems to sabotage his chances of success, admitting, "If I have an assignment due, I'll just watch TV or go out." His fear of failure seems to underlie much of this sabotage behaviour: "If I leave study to the last minute, then I've got an excuse if I don't do well."

Strategies for practitioners and parents

There are three facets of the Student Motivation Wheel that are particularly important to motivation at school and which we saw played out in the stories above. These are self-belief, control, and failure avoidance.

Boosting students' self-belief through success: Self-belief is one of motivation's most vital components. Most of the focus on enhancing students' self-belief is usually on how to challenge their negative thinking and how to promote more positive self-talk. Although this is critical, I want to focus on something that is not addressed so frequently: the need for students to succeed.

Success is a cornerstone of self-belief (Bandura, 1997). Two strategies to build more success into students' lives are 'chunking' and expanding their views of success.

Chunking involves:
• Breaking tasks into more manageable bite-sized pieces, and
• seeing the completion of each piece as a success.

For example, in an essay a student can succeed in many ways, including: (a) fully understanding the question, (b) breaking the question into parts, (c) doing an initial search for information at the library or on the internet, (d) summarising the information they read, (e) organising the information under sub-headings, and so on.

Not only does this strategy provide multiple success experiences, it is also a very effective way of building intrinsic motivation: the student is being rewarded with success throughout the essay and this sustains interest and persistence (Schunk & Miller, 2002). Chunking can also be applied to non-academic activities such as dealing with personal issues or problems, working towards a personal goal, settling into a new job, or training for an upcoming sporting meet.

Students also have more opportunities to succeed when they expand their views of success. In our highly competitive schooling system students tend to see success in terms of being the best, topping the class, and beating others. Certainly, competing successfully is one facet of success and must be celebrated accordingly. However, if students focus solely on such narrow definitions of success they run the risk of cutting themselves off from opportunities to succeed. This is because under this narrow view of success only a few students can 'win' (Covington, 1992).

There are broader views of success that increase opportunities for success - and which can operate effectively within the competitive school system. Such expanded views include improvement, skill development, personal progress, mastery, understanding new things, learning new things, developing better study skills, and personal bests (Nicholls, 1989).

Placing greater emphasis on these expanded views of success and recognising such achievements can be a vital step in maximising students' opportunities to succeed.

Building control into students' academic lives: Students who have a strong sense of academic control believe they can influence academic outcomes in their life. For example, they believe that through appropriate quality and quantity of effort they can avoid failure or attain success.

Enhancing students' sense of control requires practitioners and parents to encourage students to focus their attention on factors within their control. Too often students attribute their successes and failures to factors beyond their control - factors such as good or bad luck, easy or tough marking, or a good or bad teacher. Enhancing students' sense of control means placing greater emphasis on their effort and strategy - that is, on how hard they work and the way they do that work. Effort and strategy are within students' control and the more they focus on these, the more empowered they are at school.

Reducing students' fear of failure: Another cost of our competitive school system is the high fear of failure experienced by many students. Students who fear failure tend to be anxious, pessimistic, and can buckle under the pressure of excessive challenge or stress (Martin & Marsh, 2003; Martin, Marsh, & Debus, 2001a, 2001b, 2003).

There are two ways to help reduce students' fear of failure. The first is to encourage students to view mistakes, poor performance, and setback differently. Motivated students see poor performance as information that helps them improve next time (Covington, 1992). When students see mistakes in this way, they are less fearful of poor performance and are less inclined to manoeuvre in defensive ways.

Another reason students fear failure is because they define their worth as a person in terms of how they perform at school (Covington, 1992). The more students get a sense that their worth is wrapped up in how they perform at school, the more every project, essay, and exam becomes a test of their worth. Reducing students' fear of failure therefore involves minimising the link between students' achievement and their self-worth. Students' behaviour (that is, their hard work or their lack of work, their effective study or their ineffective study etc.) needs to be the focus and not so much them as a person. It may seem like a subtle distinction but it is a distinction that has significant implications for students' orientation to challenge, adversity, failure, poor performance, and setback.


Unmotivated students can become more motivated and students who are motivated can be sustained in some straightforward ways. The strategies presented above are just a few ways this can be achieved. Without doubt, the rate of change will differ from student to student and so assisting some students' motivation will be a commitment over the medium to longer term. However, given the impact of students' motivation and engagement on their enjoyment and achievement at school, the commitment will be worth it.

Dr Andrew Martin is Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Self-concept Enhancement and Learning Facilitation (SELF) Research Centre, University of Western Sydney.


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Martin, A.J. Marsh, H.W., & Debus, R.L. (2003). Self-handicapping and defensive pessimism: A model of self-protection from a longitudinal perspective. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 28, 1-36.

Nicholls, J.G. (1989). The competitive ethos and democratic education. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Schunk, D.H., & Miller, S.D. (2002). Self-efficacy and adolescents' motivation. In F. Pajares & T. Urdan (Eds). Academic motivation of adolescents. Connecticut: Information Age Publishing.