IQ or motivation: which matters most at school?


IQ or motivation: which matters most at school?

How important are both IQ and motivation for students’ success at school? This question is fundamental to helping our students fulfil their potential during their education.

Knowing the answer would help teachers, parents and policy makers target strategies that would have a better chance at making a positive and meaningful difference for students.

What the Research Says

A recent study went through all the existing research to try to answer how important are both IQ and motivation for student success whilst at school. They labelled this question as “one of the oldest in psychology”.

To answer this, they combined the findings from 74 studies from across the world (these included studies from Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, China, Finland, Germany, Greece, India, Italy, the Netherlands, Nicaragua, Niger, Norway, Poland, Russia, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland, Taiwan, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the USA) which involved over 80,000 students. They found that:

  1. The overall variance in schools achievement predicted by intelligence was 66.6%
  2. The overall variance in school achievement predicted by motivation was 16.6%

So clearly, a student’s intelligence plays a big part. So much so that the researchers note that “intelligence is a strong and very important predictor of school achievement”. So what does this mean for motivation? Scratch below the surface and two really interesting findings stand out:

  1. Motivation seriously matters - the researchers are at pains to point out that “it must be emphasized that motivation incrementally predicted school achievement above and beyond intelligence” and that their data “clearly attests the relevance of motivation for school achievement”. Essentially, although intelligence predicted a larger variance in school achievement, motivation plays an additional and very significant role as well.
  1. Not all motivation matters the same – here is where it gets a little technical. The researchers highlight that motivation is not just one thing, but instead comprises of several factors that combine to make up how motivated someone is. Some of these factors were found to be far more important than others in terms of grades. These included both academic self-concept (i.e. if they viewed themselves as good learners in their subjects) and self-efficacy (i.e. if they believed they will have the ability to succeed in the future). The motivational constructs that mattered more in terms of the choices students make whilst they are in school included intrinsic motivation and their level of interest. So overall, different types of motivation have different implications.

How Can Teachers Improve Student Motivation?

Increase Their Knowledge Levels

Students who feel that they are good learners in their subject and believe they can further develop their skills are more motivated. Therefore, instead of trying to enhance motivation to improve achievement, it also makes sense to improve achievement which will in turn boost motivation. This can be done by ensuring there are early successes before building up difficulty, as well as ensuring that we teach students in the most effective way possible. This includes the use of retrieval practice, metacognition and dual-coding (to name but a few).

High Expectations

Nobody rises to low expectations. There is now a wealth of research on the positive impact that having realistically high expectations has on students. High expectations obviously means different things to different people, especially depending on their context, but at its core it is believing that every child can improve, learn and achieve more tomorrow than they did yesterday.

Develop a Sense of Purpose Towards Learning

Recent research demonstrated that, if teachers emphasise the relevance of the content they are teaching, their students show increased levels of motivation. In one particular study, students who had been told about their attitude to maths and the relevance of it later in their life were more motivated than their peers in the control group, with this effect being sustained for several months.

Final Thought

Success at school is not only determined by a student’s intelligence levels. Anyone who talks about nature vs nurture misses the point - it’s always a combination of the two.

As well as working out what matters most, we also need to reflect on which aspects we can have the most impact on. Learning, improving and doing well at school is messy and complicated, and as such, there are no quick and simple fixes.

By helping students improve their knowledge, having high expectations and being motivated to learn, hopefully we can help them develop the tools needed to succeed both in and out of school.

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