Enhancing Motivation Using Struggle Stories

Motivation is important for academic success because motivated students are more likely to work hard, persevere through challenging moments, and focus on completing tasks at hand. However, these decisions that students make when learning – whether to work hard or take the easy way out, whether to persevere or give up – is related to their beliefs on factors that contribute to success. On one hand, if students believe that success can be achieved with greater effort, they will be more willing to take on challenges and strive for better learning outcomes. On the other hand, if students believe that success is related to factors that they are not capable of changing, for example intelligence, they will be less likely to work on challenges and easily give up since they will not succeed even if they invest a lot effort. This is also known as the attribution theory. The attribution theory states that motivation is affected by one’s belief of the origin of their own or other’s success or failure. Based on the attribution theory, Lin-Siegler, Ahn, Chen, Fang, and Luna-Lucero (2016) investigated the effects of an instructional method to challenge students’ beliefs on their motivation to learn science.

During a 5-week intervention, students were randomly assigned to one of the three groups: 1) intellectual struggle stories (ISS), 2) life struggle stories (LSS), and 3) achievement stories (AS). Students in the ISS group read and responded to stories of intellectual struggles of scientists such as the mistakes and failures they made when making scientific discoveries. Students in the LSS group read and responded to stories on difficulties scientists experienced in their personal lives such as poverty. Students in the AS group read and responded to stories about the achievements made by scientists.  Results showed that students in the ISS and LSS groups achieved higher science grades than students in the AS group. Moreover, only students in the AS group showed a decline in their post-intervention science grades. The struggle stories were most beneficial for low-performing students. Students in the ISS and LSS group also reported that they were able to relate more to the scientists when reading about their struggles compared to the students in the AS group. Surprisingly, no differences were found on students’ general beliefs on intelligence and effort across the three groups.

The authors argued that general beliefs on intelligence and effort are different from domain- specific beliefs. Furthermore, beliefs are more persistent compared to behaviors that could be modified more visibly. Despite the small effect size, this study adds to our understanding on the aspect of attribution theory on student motivation. Exposing students to not only achievements but also struggles of successful people may emphasize the desirable attributes of success and increase students' motivation to learn. Students who are struggling in schools may feel that they are not alone as successful people go through similar struggles. Therefore, it will help students to believe that they will ultimately achieve success if they persist and put in effort to learn. Future studies may want to investigate whether similar positive effects can be found when teachers share their own struggle stories and how they overcome their struggles instead of struggle stories of successful people. Perhaps, a closer role model may be more relatable than a public figure. 

Lin-Siegler, X., Ahn, J. N., Chen, J., Fang, F. F. A., & Luna-Lucero, M. (2016). Even Einstein struggled: Effects of learning about great scientists’ struggles on high school students’ motivation to learn science. Journal of Educational Psychology, 108(3), 314

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