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7.3 COGNITIVE APPROACHES TO MOTIVATION

In many ways, cognitive theories of motivation also developed as a reaction to the behavioral views. Cognitive theorists believe that behavior is determined by our thinking, not simply by whether we have been rewarded or punished for the behavior in the past. Behavior is initiated and regulated by plans, goals, schemas, expectations and attributions. One of the central assumptions in cognitive approaches is that people do not respond to external events or physical conditions such as hunger, but rather to their interpretations of these events. In cognitive theories, people are seen as active and curious, searching for information to solve personally relevant problems. Thus, cognitive theorists emphasize intrinsic motivation. Bernard Weiner’s attribution theory is a good example.

Attribution Theory:

This cognitive explanation of motivation begins with the assumption that we try to make sense of our own behavior and the behavior of others by searching for explanations and causes. To understand our own successes and failures, particularly unexpected ones, we all ask “Why?” Students ask themselves, “Why did I flunk my midterm?” or “Why did I do so well this grading period?” They may attribute their successes and failures to ability, effort, mood, knowledge, luck, help, interest, clarity of instructions, the interference of others, unfair policies, and so on. To understand the success and failures of others, we also make attributions-that the others are smart or lucky or work hard, for example. Attribution theories of motivation describe how the individual’s explanations, justifications, and excuses about self or others influence motivation.

Bernard Weiner is one of the main educational psychologists responsible for relating attribution theory to school learning. According to Weiner, most of the attributed causes for successes or failures can be characterized in terms of three dimensions:

  • Locus (location of the cause internal or external to the person),
  • Stability (whether the cause stays the same or can change), and
  • Controllability (whether the person can control the cause).

Every cause for success or failure can be categorized on these three dimensions. For example, luck is external (locus), unstable (stability), and uncontrollable (controllability). Table shows some common attributions for success or failure on a test.

Weiner believes that these three dimensions have important implications for motivation they affect expectancy and value. The stability dimension, for example, seems to be closely related to expectations about the future. If students attribute their failure to stable factors such as the difficulty of the subject, they will expect to fail in that subject in the future. But if they attribute the outcome to unstable factors such as mood or luck, they can hope for better outcomes next time. The internal external locus seems to be closely related to feelings of sell-esteem. If success or failure is attributed to internal factors, success will lead to pride and increased motivation, whereas failure will diminish self-esteem.

The controllability dimension is related to emotions such as anger, pity, gratitude, or shame. If we feel responsible for our failures, we may feel guilt; if we feel responsible for successes, we may feel proud. Failing at a task we cannot control can lead to shame or anger.

When failure is attributed to lack of ability, and ability is considered uncontrollable, the sequence of motivation is:Failure Lack of Ability Uncontrollable →→ Not Responsible Shame, Embarrassment → Withdraw →Performance Declines

When failure is attributed (a controllable cause), the sequence is:

Failure →Lack of Effort →Controllable →Responsible→Guilt →Engagement → Performance Improves

Also, feeling in control of your own learning seems to be related to choosing more difficult academic tasks, putting out more effort, using better strategies, and persisting longer in school work. Factors such as continuing discrimination against women, people of color, and individuals with special needs can affect these individuals’ perceptions of their ability to control their lives. Weiner’s locus and controllability dimensions are closely related to Deci’s concept of locus of causality.

Attributions in the Classroom:

When usually successful students fail, they often make internal, controllable attributions: They misunderstood the directions, lacked the necessary knowledge, or simply did not study hard enough, for example. As a consequence, they usually focus on strategies for succeeding next time. This response often leads to achievement, pride, and a greater feeling of control.

The greatest motivational problems arise when students attribute failures to stable, uncontrollable causes. Such students may seem resigned to failure, depressed, helpless-what we generally call “unmotivated”. These students respond to failure by focusing even more on their own inadequacy; their attitudes toward schoolwork may deteriorate even further. Apathy is a logical reaction to failure if students believe the causes are stable, unlikely to change, and beyond their control. In addition, students who view their failures in this light are less likely to seek help; they believe nothing and no one can help.

Teacher Actions and Student Attributions:

How do students determine the causes of their successes and failures? Remember, we also make attributions about the causes of other peoples’ successes and failures. When teachers assume that student failure is attributable to forces. beyond the students’ control, the teachers tend to respond with sympathy and avoid giving punishments. If, however, the failures are attributed to a controllable factor such as lack of effort, the teacher’s response is more likely to be irritation or anger, and reprimands may follow. These tendencies seem to be consistent across time and cultures.

What do students make of these reactions from their teachers? There is evidence that when teachers respond to students’ mistakes with pity, praise for a “good try,” or unsolicited help, the students are more likely to attribute their failure to an uncontrollable cause usually lack of ability. For example, Graham and Barker (1990) asked subjects of various ages to rate the effort and ability of two boys viewed on a videotape. On the tape, a teacher circulated around the class while students worked. The teacher stopped to look at the two boys’ papers, did not comment to the first boy, but said to the *second, “Let me give you a hint. Don’t forget to carry your tens.” The second boy had not asked for help and did not appear to be stumped by the problem. All the age groups watching the tapes, even the youngest, perceived the boy who received help as lower in ability than the boy who did not get help. It is as if the subjects read the teacher’s behavior as saying, “You poor child, you just don’t have the ability to do this hard work, so 1 will help.’

Does this mean that teachers should be critical and withhold help? Of course not! But it is a reminder that “praise as a consolation prize” for failing or oversolicitous help can give unintended messages. Graham (1991) suggests that many minority group students could be the victims of well-meaning pity from teachers. Seeing the very real problems that the students face, teachers may “ease up” on requirements so the students will “experience success.” But a subtle communication may accompany the pity, praise, and extra help: “You don’t have the ability to do this, so I will overlook your failure.” Graham says, “The. pertinent question for blacks is whether. their own history of academic failure makes them more likely to be the targets of sympathetic feedback from teachers and thus the recipients of low-ability cues”. This kind of sympathetic feedback, even if well-intended, can be a subtle form of racism.

Expectancy x Value Theories:

Theories that take into account both the behaviorists concern with the effects or outcomes of behavior and the cognitivists interest in the impact of individual thinking can be characterized as expectancy x value theories. This means that motivation is seen as the product of two main forces: the individual’s expectation of reaching a goal and the value of that goal to him or her. In other words, the important questions are “If I try hard, can I succeed?” and “If I succeed, will the outcome be valuable or rewarding to me?” Motivation is a product of these two forces, because if either factor is zero, there is no motivation to work toward the goal. For example, if I believe I have a good chance of making the basketball team (high expectation), and if making the team is very important to me (high value), then my motivation should be strong. But if either factor is zero (I believe 1 haven’t a prayer of making the team, or I couldn’t care less about playing basketball), then my motivation will be zero, too.

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