Why everything you thought you knew about success and motivation may be wrong

Why everything you thought you knew about success and motivation may be wrong

It is the psychological equivalent of the chicken and the egg. Which comes first: success or motivation?

For years, the general assumption has been that the more we can help motivate students, the more likely they are to be successful. But is the basic equation of “more motivated = more likely to achieve success” always true? In other words, what if reversing the equation actually made it more powerful?


What does the research say?

It’s fair to say that one could write a whole literature review on this topic, which is sadly beyond the scope of this blog. So, we thought we’d pick a few studies that give a good flavour of the research. Here is what they say…

Study #1

A recent large scale meta-analysis looking at 132 studies explored the relationship between motivation and reading achievement in students. The researchers found that motivation did have an impact on reading achievement. But crucially, when tracked over time, they found a stronger impact from reading achievement on motivation.

Essentially, this means that achieving success in reading early led to higher motivation, and much more so than high motivation led to better reading performance. 

Study #2

This large scale study tracked students from Germany, England, Australia and Japan to explore the impact between emotions and maths achievement. The researchers described their findings as “bi-directional”: the more students enjoyed and took pride in their work, the higher their grades were. But the reverse was also true — the more success students had, the more pride and enjoyment they felt.

They also found a similar relationship for negative emotions. The more negative emotions that students experienced (i.e. anger, anxiety, shame, boredom and helplessness), the worse their grades were. And it’s fair to assume that the worse their grades were, the more negative emotions students would experience afterwards.


How does this link to Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction?

Rosenshine’s 10 Principles of Instruction have become increasingly popular in education, as they provide a good overview and clear guidelines as to how we can help students learn. Two of them ("present information in small steps” and “obtain a high success rate”) underline the importance of ensuring students experience success in order to develop their confidence and motivation.

Combined with the above studies, this would suggest that although increased motivation can indeed lead to increased success, the reverse (i.e. success leads to motivation) may be a) more powerful, b) more sustainable and c) more achievable.

This is because achieving early success can trigger the start of a positive cycle:

Success and motivation virtuous cycle


Do we want competence or confidence?

Through our work both with elite athletes and in education, we often get requests to help individuals improve their confidence. However, this is often not what people really need. Actually, what they really want is to help improve their competence. If they do that, they will also improve their confidence.

Equally, if we just improve someone’s confidence, it doesn’t necessarily improve their competence (see basically every bad but confident X-factor audition for proof). The same is true of motivation to an extent. Yes it can lead to increased performance. But it doesn’t always. And yet, if someone achieves success, they are more likely to achieve longer-lasting motivation.


So where does this leave things like Growth Mindset and Resilience?

If we take this to its logical conclusion and prioritise achieving success over “motivational interventions”, what does this mean for popular strategies such as growth mindset and resilience? Do we even need them?

It is important not to throw the baby out with the bath water. Both the studies listed earlier in this blog do talk about the bi-directional nature of the relationship between success and motivation. So, let’s briefly take a look at growth mindset and resilience to see how they could compliment the “success to motivation” relationship:

  • Growth Mindset – this is the belief that students have that they can improve. Achieving initial success can play a huge part in this belief, as each prior success acts as “proof” for them to draw on. Without this “evidence", this belief can be very fragile and more akin to blind faith, and can crumble in the face of repeated failure.
  • Resilience – we think it is best to frame resilience as something that can be developed, as opposed to something that can be taught. Research has suggested that “focusing on development” and “strengthening confidence from a range of sources” would compliment the idea of banking successes along the way.


What does this mean for education?

The fact that success leads to motivation much more than motivation leads to success is good news for those in education. This lends itself to a number of concrete strategies, which include:

  1. Ensure early wins – one of the biggest predictors of confidence is prior success. Ensuring your students have some success at the start can help minimise any negative unhelpful stereotypical thoughts (such as “I am not a maths person”) and have a positive foundation to build on.
  2. Consider how we use “motivational assemblies” – positive and inspiring assemblies can be a really effective way of reinforcing key themes or beliefs to a large amount of students in one go. However, many have been deflated when their motivational assembly didn’t lead to behaviour change. That’s not to say they haven’t planted a seed that will later grow, but it is important not to get too down on ourselves if the assembly we spent ages preparing doesn’t lead to instant turnarounds.
  3. Model your thought process – this can be a key strategy that helps actually achieve the initial success. We’ve recently written a blog that looks at the research on how to do this; here are the key tips:
    - Be clear;
    - Be consistent;
    - Be concise;
    - Include several demonstrations, more if the skill being taught is complex.
  4. Teach using strategies that lead to learning/success – if the research is leaning towards success leading to more motivation, then it is important we use teaching strategies that increase the chances of success. Fortunately there has been a whole heap of research on this, which includes the likes of retrieval practice, spacing, interleaving and dual coding.
  5. Avoid information overload – the more we dig into the research, the more we think this fundamental concept underpins everything (both for memory and motivation). This is partly why Cognitive Load Theory has drawn a lot of attention. Information overload can overwhelm fragile working memory (the technical term in the research is the Redundancy Effect), which can hinder learning. As a result, if we ensure we don’t overload students with excessive, irrelevant or redundant information, we increase the likelihood of success, which triggers the positive cycles.


Final Thoughts

On reflection, the chicken or egg comparison isn’t quite right. When it comes to success and motivation, it shouldn’t be viewed as either/or. It is clearly a combination of both, each serving their own purpose.

However, it is illuminating to consider the powerful impact that starting with success can have. Potentially, it can free up time spent on failed motivational interventions, and lead to longer-lasting and more robust motivation over time.

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