Motivation Is Caused by Achievement


It doesn’t seem right that doing well in math should cause students to have more intrinsic motivation and not the other way around. But this is just what child development researchers found recently, published here at the beginning of last year. In a large sample of students in Grades 1 to 4, the paper’s authors discovered that

achievement predicted intrinsic motivation from Grades 1 to 2, and from Grades 2 to 4. However, intrinsic motivation did not predict achievement at any time.

One reason this may seem incorrect even though it may be correct is that the way we talk about—and thus think about—causality in human affairs evolved long before we were a species that conducted experiments on people. Each of us inherits a language developed by a predominantly dualist, animist, and creationist culture, which spoke about minds, separate from the natural world, that effect change on that world, not the other way around:

It is like quantum physics; we may intellectually grasp it, but it will never feel right to us. When we see a complex structure [like mathematics achievement—JF], we see it as the product of beliefs and goals and desires. Our social mode of understanding leaves it difficult for us to make sense of it any other way. Our gut feeling is that design requires a designer.

intrinsic motivation

Thus it seems backwards to us to suggest that the internal state of a designer (e.g., his ‘motivation’) should have no significant effect on his design (e.g., his mathematical performance). And it seems truly bizarre that the opposite, in reality, is the case. But, again, that is what the results reported here suggest.

The diagram shows the significant cross-grade correlations unearthed in the study. There was a significant correlation between achievement and motivation from Grade 1 to Grade 2 and from Grade 2 to Grade 4. There was no similar correlation from motivation to achievement across grades.

Don’t Stop. Believin’.

There are many caveats, as there are with any study. You can take a look yourself at the final manuscript available online. Motivation was self-reported. Achievement was measured using two standardized assessments. The whole study was an exercise in data mining. Etc. It is worth taking a look, too, at the authors’ discussion of previous research addressing similar questions and the weaknesses of those studies.

One thing I find interesting is this part of the authors’ conclusion, under the heading of “Implications for educational practice”:

Interventions in education try to increase intrinsic motivation, and hopefully achievement through promoting students [sic] autonomy in instructional setting [sic] (e.g., opportunity to select work partners and assignment tasks; Koller et al., 2001). The present findings could mean that these practices may not be the best approach in the early school years (Cordova & Lepper, 1996; Wigfield & Wentzel, 2007).

That’s it as far as implications, which seems a bit thin. Not even the vanilla suggestion that interventions designed to increase achievement may be better uses of time than those designed to increase motivation? Because that’s the real implication here.

Garon-Carrier, G., Boivin, M., Guay, F., Kovas, Y., Dionne, G., Lemelin, J., Séguin, J., Vitaro, F., & Tremblay, R. (2016). Intrinsic Motivation and Achievement in Mathematics in Elementary School: A Longitudinal Investigation of Their Association Child Development, 87 (1), 165-175 DOI: 10.1111/cdev.12458

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Josh Fisher

Instructional designer and editor for K-12 mathematics. My research interests center mostly around mathematics education.

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