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Motivation in post-compulsory secondary students: A longitudinal study

Susan Beltman
Murdoch University


How to encourage students to engage in and to persist in learning is an important issue for schools. The research presented in this paper arose in part because of a concern in a particular school. Apparently able Upper School students, enrolled in Tertiary Entry Subjects, were not completing set homework and did not seem to be interested in doing so.

This paper briefly summarises some current literature on motivation in schools. The methodology and results of the present study are described in the presentation of this paper.

Motivational goals

Goal theory considers beliefs about what success at school entails, and suggests that these determine how an individual will approach a particular learning situation.

When students adopt task goals, they believe that academic success involves improving one's own skills and knowledge and so they seek to increase their competence and to understand or master new tasks. They are primarily concerned with learning for its own sake and attribute success to their efforts.

Individuals with ego goals believe that academic success involves proving one's skill or knowledge to others such as peers, teachers or parents and they seek to appear successful and to gain favourable judgements of their competence. Success is defined as doing better than others and errors are viewed as evidence of a lack of ability or worth.

A third academic goal is that of work avoidance where the aim is to survive in school with as little effort as possible!

Most research has concentrated on academic goals in schools. Urdan and Maehr (1995) present a comprehensive case for the inclusion of social goals in theory and research on motivation. Wentzel (1991a) argued that academic goals are not the only possible goals in school and proposed that social responsibility (defined as the adherence to social rules and role expectations) has long been an implicit and explicit goal for education. In another paper (Wentzel, 1994), also investigated prosocial goals where individuals seek to have fun and make friends at school. Their main focus is on successful social interaction.

The five personal motivational goals described above - task, ego, work avoidance, social responsibility and prosocial - are those investigated in the present study.

Research findings

A variety of empirical findings has consistently found that students who adopt task rather than ego or work avoidance goals are more likely to persist in difficult learning situations, to use more effective learning strategies, and to report greater satisfaction with school (Dweck, 1986; Archer, !992; Elliott and Dweck, 1988; Nolen & Haladyna, 1990). Task goals are therefore seen to be the most desirable and suggestions have been made as to how teachers can encourage the adoption of such goals in their classrooms (Ames, 1990; Nolen & Nicholls, 1994).

Little direct investigation of social goals has occurred. Wentzel (1991a) reviewed research showing evidence of a positive relationship, at both elementary and secondary school, between social responsibility and academic performance. Particularly in early adolescence, the quality of peer relationships has a strong impact on adjustment to and subsequent performance at school (Berndt et al, 1990; Wentzel, 1991b).

Other research has investigated the relationships between motivational goals (Ames & Archer, 1988; Archer, 1992; MacCallum, 1993; Nicholls et al, 1985; Nicholls, 1989; Nolen & Haladyna, 1990; Thorkildsen, 1988; Wentzel, 1993a). More recently it has been proposed that students may pursue multiple goals or patterns of goals in school (Ainley, 1993; Blumenfeld, 1992; Dodge, Asher & Parkhurst, 1989; Meece & Holt, 1993; Wentzel 1989; Wentzel & Walker, 1994). This research, although important, is beyond the scope of the present investigation.

Motivational change in adolescence

Anderman and Maehr (1994) reviewed research showing a decline in motivation during early adolescence. These authors suggested that this is not just a function of puberty, but that contextual and environmental factors are involved:

the contexts which typical middle schools provide for early adolescence may indeed represent a mismatch with the psychological needs of youth. This mismatch may in part be responsible for the serious decline in motivation often observed at this period. (p294)

Changes in motivation: Cross-age and longitudinal studies

Differences in goals according to age and to gender have been found in an Australian study (Clayton-Jones et al, 1992). Motivational goals of Primary (years 4 and 6), Secondary (years 7, 9, & 11) and TAFE students were investigated. Ego goals tended to increase across the years of schooling whereas task goals decreased but peaked again in Year 11. Regardless of age, females tended to have higher levels of task goals than males. Males had higher levels of work avoidance goals than females, especially in Years 6 and 11.

Parallel work in the sporting domain has occurred which also suggests that changes in personal goals occur with age and that there are gender differences. Duda (1989) reported that the ego oriented dimensions of sport become more pronounced from junior to senior high school. Dysfunctional aspects of competitive sport participation such as aggressive tendencies and 'unsportsmanlike' attitudes also increased, especially among males. Female intervarsity athletes were significantly higher in task orientation than males, who reported higher task goals.

Students taking different courses of study may have different personal goals in schools. Nolen and Haladyna (1990) compared motivational goals among students of different ages who were enrolled in different science courses. Year 9 College bound students had higher mean scores for task and ego goals than non-College bound students who were higher in work avoidance goals. With increasing age, task goals of College bound students increased, and ego and work avoidance goals decreased. Maturation and teacher expectations were suggested as possible explanations for this.

Limited longitudinal research has occurred with regard to motivational goals. MacCallum (1993), investigating goals in the context of mathematics, found a significant increase in work avoidance goals as students moved from the final year (7) of primary school to the first year (8) of high school. Task goals remained high during the transition, but enjoyment of school significantly decreased.

To summarise, research findings described above, suggest that task goals and enjoyment of school decrease in early adolescence with the transition from primary school. Task goals peak again in Year 11. In both academic and sporting contexts, ego go als increase with age, and girls have higher levels of task goals. Other gender differences reported indicate that boys have higher levels of work avoidance goals than girls, especially in years 6 and 11. Finally, differences have been found in goals between students in different courses of study. Higher achieving college bound students were found to have higher task goals and lower ego and work avoidance goals than non college bound students.

The present study: Research questions

This study investigated the academic and social goals and satisfaction with school of students in their final two years of secondary schooling.

The main research questions asked were:


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Author: Susan Beltman, Murdoch University

Please cite as: Beltman, S. (1996). Motivation in post-compulsory secondary students: A longitudinal study. Proceedings Western Australian Institute for Educational Research Forum 1996. http://www.waier.org.au/forums/1996/beltman.html

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