How is students’ motivation related to performance and anxiety?

By Jeffrey Mo
Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has extensively measured student achievement for more than 15 years, but there’s more to student success than academic performance. Parents and educators today are increasingly concerned about the emotional well-being of children and teenagers, which is why we expanded the PISA student questionnaire to better measure these variables.

This month’s PISA in Focus takes a closer look at two components of student well-being: motivation and anxiety. Motivated students consider themselves ambitious, want top grades and want to have a broad choice of opportunities when they graduate from school. Such students tend to perform better in class, according to findings from PISA, but for some, academic success comes at the expense of greater anxiety.

In 2015, we asked 15-year-old students in 55 education systems around the world about their motivation to achieve, both in school and in life more broadly. On average, students in Israel, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates reported the highest levels of motivation, while students in Finland, Japan and Macao (China) reported the lowest. In Finland, for example, only 36% of students said they want to be the best at whatever they do, compared to 90% in Israel.

 PISA results show that students who are more motivated also have greater anxiety.

Cultural differences make it difficult to interpret cross-country differences in how students describe their motivation. In some countries, it may be less socially acceptable to admit that one wants to be the best or that one is ambitious, and even what being the best or being ambitious means can differ across countries. Within countries, however, we found a positive correlation between motivation and PISA performance; students who said they were more motivated also performed better in all but two of the 55 education systems.

We can therefore think of motivation as a self-fulfilling prophecy: students who aim higher end up going further. They make the necessary effort to reach their goals and as they progress, they receive encouragement from their parents and teachers to aim even higher. Similarly, low levels of motivation may lead to poor performance, which could fuel further frustration and even lower motivation.

But there may be drawbacks to high levels of motivation. PISA results show that students who are more motivated also have greater anxiety. This correlation exists both across and within countries. Students in Colombia, Singapore and Turkey, for instance, are especially likely to feel both driven to succeed and anxious before a test. In all but three education systems, students who said they want the top grades in their courses were also more likely to feel very anxious before a test – even if they were well prepared for it.

Motivation seems to be more closely linked to anxiety when it is imposed by others. Students who feel undue pressure to meet the expectations of their parents or teachers, or who constantly compare themselves with others, may feel tenser and more anxious. Conversely, PISA data show that when motivation is intrinsic – when it comes from a student’s own desire to be the best that he or she can be – students may feel slightly less anxious.

That doesn’t mean that parents and teachers should take a completely hands-off approach. They should still encourage students to set ambitious goals, but these goals should focus on personal development rather than on comparisons with classmates. They should also remind them that failures and setbacks are an inevitable – and valuable – part of learning. Such students are likely to achieve higher levels of performance without being crippled by anxiety.

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