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  • Writer's pictureAaron Daffern

Competence Beliefs Greatly Affect Motivation

Photo by Candra Winata on Unsplash

What if I encouraged you to participate in a marathon? What kind of thoughts would run (pun intended) through your mind?

For most, that would seem extremely unlikely. Some might run a few times a week for personal health but those runs might last around 2-4 miles. If I told you that you would ever run a marathon (26.2 miles), you might scoff at me. Maybe if you incrementally increased your distance and altered your pace, you might complete a marathon. Eventually.

What if I told you that you that you’ve already been signed up for a marathon being held just three weeks from now?

My wife experienced this motivational phenomenon first hand. Several years ago a local elementary school hired her as a part-time tutor. In Texas, 5th grade students must pass both the math and reading state exams in order to promote to 6th grade. They have two attempts to pass the tests during school and one attempt during summer school. Thus, in most Texas elementary schools, instruction radically shifts for 5th graders after the initial test results return.

By the time the results come back students usually have about three weeks left before they get another crack at the test. Those students usually miss nonessential classes and go into boot camp mode for whatever test(s) they need to pass.

In this instance, the local elementary school decided to group all of their 5th grade failures together into a single tutoring group. Rather than have them taught by their teacher or a school instructional specialist, they hired my wife to work with them. She lasted just 3 days.

The Problem

She later described to me how the students acted and I immediately knew that she had an unwinnable situation. The students had labeled themselves as failures. Not only had they all failed the 5th grade mathematics state test, they hadn’t passed the state math test in either 3rd or 4th grade. Failing their current math classes, the state test results had just reinforced their hopelessness.

Then, on top of all that, they could easily perceive that no one in their school wanted to work with them. Their teacher or a specialist they might have been familiar with could not be found. Instead they went to a room with a well-meaning but unknown lady (my wife). As you could imagine, they behaved poorly. They didn’t want to do anything that my wife asked them to do. It was a motivational nightmare.

They did not believe in themselves and they had no hope. The school (and the state) had asked them to run a marathon in three weeks’ time but they couldn’t even run a metaphorical mile without getting winded. The students lacked one of the key components to student motivation – competence. They did not have positive beliefs about their ability to succeed in math. Neither did they have positive expectations about what the upcoming test would bring. They had labeled themselves as losers and didn’t see the point in even trying. 

Competence Beliefs Affect Motivation

The 5th graders suffered from both low self-efficacy beliefs and a low expectancy of success. Not only did they believe they lacked the ability to succeed in math, the results from their first attempt confirmed their views. They had no reason to believe that three weeks of cramming would produce a different result. These 5th graders lacked the motivation to even attempt to learn something new.

Teachers, if you find yourself up against a wall of unmotivated students, consider the competence angle. Do your students think they have any chance of success or have they already sentenced themselves to defeat? As much as believing in themselves helps, students also need structured experiences of success before they can begin to change their competence beliefs. Let students build up their confidence with small victories before attempting something as difficult as a high-stakes test. They need to walk before they can run. 


Zimmerman, B. J. (2000). Self-efficacy: An essential motive to learn. Contemporary educational psychology, 25(1), 82-91.

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