motivation and achievement

Many years ago, I wrote a paper for one of my graduate classes on the subject of motivation.  It regarded the age-old question of how to motivate kids to practice and succeed in music, but I think the information is both still valid and applies across the whole spectrum of education.  Here, today, I reprint it in its entirety.  Enjoy!

Preventing Band Dropout

Bernard Weiner’s Attributional Theory of Motivation and Emotion gives us a look into the human mind’s search for causes leading to success and failure at a given task, but it is also possible to use this information to shape a person’s perception of these causes, thereby changing their future expectations of success at that task.  This is important to education in general, and music education specifically, because teachers have the ability to affect students’ perceived causes of success and failure in a task (Asmus, 1985).  It is this aspect of attribution theory and how it is applied to instrumental music instruction that I will explore in this paper.  A brief overview of Weiner’s dimensional model of attribution should give enough of a foundation for the later discussions on how this applies to music instruction; and the bulk of this paper will deal with the application of these concepts, along with a review of relevant literature.

The search for causes leading to events is at the heart of attributional theory.  But what is a cause?  “The answer to a ’why’ question regarding an outcome is considered a cause…Causes are constructions imposed by the perceiver (either an actor or an observer) to account for the relation between an action and an outcome” (Weiner, 1986.  p.  22).  When we search for the cause for our success or failure at a task, we will attribute that success or failure to one or more of four major categories: Ability, effort, task difficulty, and luck.  These general categories are placed within a three dimensional matrix of locus of causality, causal stability, and controllability.  Each dimension is a bipolar continuum, with the extremes labeled internal/external (for locus), stable/unstable, and controllable/uncontrollable.

Combination of these properties (or axes) yields the eight Dimension Classifications: Internal-stable-uncontrollable, internal-stable-controllable, internal-unstable-uncontrollable, internal-unstable-controllable, external-stable-controllable, external-stable-uncontrollable, external-unstable-controllable, and external-unstable-uncontrollable (Weiner, 1986, p.  51).  Our attributions for success or failure will fall within one of these classifications (or octants).  For instance, low aptitude is internal, stable, and quite uncontrollable.  Failing to study for a test, however, is internal, unstable (not likely to happen every time), and controllable.

What is important, though, is not just where an attribute is classified, but what happens after the classification has been made.  How we attribute success or failure at a task will influence future expectancies for that task, or even a whole range of related tasks.  If one is to gain mastery over the environment, the responsibility and ownership should come from within and be within one’s own control.  Ascribing one’s failure or success to outside, uncontrollable forces only reinforces a sense of helplessness and powerlessness.  Such a causal attribution has subsequent consequences for emotional reactions and for future expectancies (Chandler, Chiarella, & Auria, 1988).

Thus, our level of aspiration for future performance is affected by knowing the level of our prior performance, along with why that level was attained.  This aspiration level, then, is simply a choice made among alternatives of differing difficulty (Weiner, p.  82).  In skill-related tasks, the aspiration level will increase following a success, and will decrease following a failure; and these expectancy shifts are determined more by the stability of the cause, rather than the locus.  “Hence, the more one ascribes failure to lack of trying and bad luck, and the less to low ability, the higher the hopes for the future” (Weiner, p.  90).

How does this information relate to the teaching of instrumental music? Music-making is, by nature, a skill-related undertaking; and a student’s desire to achieve in a musical performance will, therefore, adhere to attributional principles because observation has shown that there is a direct relationship between student motivation and musical achievement (Asmus).  To better understand motivation and musical achievement, let’s first look at music students’ causal ascriptions.

Students citing reasons for success or failure in a musical task tend to use attributions that deal with locus of causality—usually internal—with effort and ability being most often cited (Asmus).   A large number of music students attribute effort as their reason for success in music and this “implies that students believe that if they apply themselves diligently and produce the required amount of effort, they can achieve in music” (Asmus).  In a cross-cultural study, though, of causal ascription by students from three diverse elementary schools, Asmus found that “ability was the primary attributed cause assigned by the parochial students, effort the dominant cause assigned by inner city students, while the two categories of ability and effort were evenly assigned as the major causes of success and failure by suburban students.”

This causal ascription holds true whether the task outcome is perceived as either a success or a failure, and students are more expectant of success when they perceive the causes for success to be in their control (Asmus, 1985).  Students who perceive themselves as successful exert more effort in their task and attribute their success to internal factors (Chandler, Chiarella, & Auria).  Low-achievers, on the other hand, tend to attribute success or failure to external and uncontrollable factors such as luck or task difficulty (Evans & Engelberg, 1988).

Even in a band rehearsal, where the director is actively working to correct mistakes and perfect the literature, a low-achieving student can have negative expectancies.  Students who view the director as influencing and maintaining the performance are more likely to expect future failure in a performance because help from the band director is external and uncontrollable, and can lead to a case of learned helplessness (Chandler, Chiarella, & Auria).  Students feel better about successes that are attributed to internal causes rather than external ones; but it is the stability of the cause—which affects expectancy—that enhances feelings of hopelessness or hopefulness (Weiner, pp.  163–164).  This begs the question “How do I, as a band director, motivate my students to achieve in music?”

According to Asmus “Music educators have long realized the importance of motivating students to participate and achieve in music.  Yet the role of motivation in musical achievement is little understood and has received scant attention by music education researchers.” One of the greatest motivating factors for instrumental music students stems from selecting their own instrument.  Too often, band directors will select an instrument for the student based not on the student’s wishes, but on non-motivational factors such as instrumentation of the group, students’ hand size, facial construction, etc.  This denies the fact that students choose instruments that they like to hear, and are more likely to enjoy playing these instruments.  Students who enjoy playing their instrument are less likely to believe that luck affects their performance, and more likely to attribute success to an internal locus of causality (Chandler, Chiarella, & Auria).

When a student enjoys playing their instrument, they will tend toward more outside practice, and practice then becomes both cause and effect (Chandler, Chiarella, & Auria).  The success that a music student has in this situation will, rightly, be attributed to the extra effort they put forth, and will in turn lead to higher goal expectancies.

Like any goal, the grades a student receives as a result of performance will be attributed to factors in one of the octants (internal-stable-controllable, etc.) “Higher-achieving students, more than lower-achieving students, are expected to like getting graded and to see grades as important, [and will] attribute successful grades to internal factors…while lower-achieving students are more likely to identify external attributes…as influential in getting satisfactory grades” (Evans & Engelberg, 1988).  As students mature they begin to see that effort is a primary determinant for achieving good grades; and they also begin to show a strong preference for being graded more on effort than ability in music classes (Evans & Engelberg).

The standard method of motivation found in most band rooms around the country involves the Skinnerian model of operant conditioning.  Band directors use rewards and punishment schemes (both positive and negative) to guide their students and motivate them to achieve.  According to Skinnerian psychologists, after failure at baseball a player would be expected to be less likely to appear for the next game.

After all, failure to most of us is aversive, and punishment decreases the probability that the antedating behavior will be repeated…But all the emotional reactions and all the cognitive processes known to play such a major part in human behavior…fall beyond the range of Skinnerian conception…although [they] can provide an explanation for the decreased achievement strivings in this situation, they cannot readily account for an increase in goal-directed activity following failure.  (Weiner, p.  165)

Obviously, this is not the best method for motivating students in, what is supposed to be, an artistic endeavor.  What makes more sense would be to attempt to replace these dysfunctional causal attributions for failure (external, unstable, uncontrollable) with more positive ones (Weiner, p.  180).  In the Asmus study it was found that it is, indeed, possible for teachers to modify a student’s perceived causes of success or failure and, therefore, their motivation.  When lower-achieving students attribute poor performance to external and uncontrollable causes, it becomes unlikely they will work to improve their performance; but if the teacher can show convincingly that causes are internal to the student, then the student is more likely to be successful (Evans & Engelberg).

Direct, and pre-emptive, intervention by the teacher can have a profound effect on low-achievers.  Band directors should try to identify those students who have low future expectancies of success, and who may be potential band dropouts.  The director may help these students become successful—and, therefore, continuing members—by helping them to acquire technical knowledge, develop specific technical skills, and obtain practice with reinforced feedback (Chandler, Chiarella, & Auria).

Using the attributional model for goal expectancy analysis a director can identify those students who will be musical low-achievers; but more importantly, the attributional model can be used to enhance the goal expectancies of all the students in the class by emphasizing the internal attributes related to achievement.  The methods discussed here would work in a classroom of high- and low-achievers in any proportion.  These include:

  • When students succeed or fail at a task, emphasize their level of effort (internal-unstable) as a primary factor—emphasize the need to try harder after failures;
  • View mistakes as something to learn from and as indicators of a need for a change in strategy;
  • Downplay the role of ability (internal-stable-uncontrollable) in success or failure at a task;
  • Build from one successful task to the next;
  • Set individual learning goals that emphasize improvement rather than performance goals, and grade student performance primarily on effort;
  • Whenever possible, allow students to choose their own instruments;
  • Teach them proper practice methods, and monitor their practice while giving them positive and reinforced feedback;
  • In successful rehearsals and performances attribute this success to the students, and remove yourself as a possible cause.

There are certainly more rules governing the motivation of instrumental music students, but these are the basics.  Following these guidelines should lead to students who are more motivated to achieve successes, and are less likely to attribute failures to external factors.  This will reduce the learned helplessness effect, and help to build the self-confidence they will need to continue to achieve and enjoy success.

Works Cited

Asmus, E.  P.  (1985).  Sixth graders’ achievement motivation: Their views of success and failure in music.  Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education, 85, 1–13.

Chandler, T.  A., Chiarella, D., & Auria, C.  (1988).  Performance expectancy, success, satisfaction, and attributions as variables in band challenges.  Journal of Research in Music Education, 35, 249–258.

Evans, E.  D., & Engelberg, R.  A.  (1988).  Student perceptions of school grading.  Journal of Research and Development in Education, 21, 45–53.

Weiner, Bernard.  (1986) An attributional theory of motivation and emotion.  New York: Springer-Verlag.


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