Expectancy-Value Theory

As we have explained in this chapter, motivation is affected by several factors, including reinforcement for behavior, but especially also students’ goals, interests, and sense of self-efficacy and self-determination. The factors combine to create two general sources of motivation: students’ expectations of success and the value that students place on a goal. Viewing motivation in this way is often called the expectancy-value model of motivation (Wigfield & Eccles, 2002; Wigfield, Tonk, & Eccles, 2004), and sometimes written with a multiplicative formula: expectancy x value = motivation. The relationship between expectation and value is “multiplicative” rather than additive because, in order to be motivated, it is necessary for a person to have at least a modest expectation of success and to assign a task at least some positive value. If you have high expectations of success but do not value a task at all (mentally assign it a “0” value), then you will not feel motivated at all. Likewise, if you value a task highly but have no expectation of success in completing it (assign it a “0” expectancy), then you also will not feel motivated at all.


Figure 6.8.1. Expectancy-value model.

Task value answers the question, “Why should I do this task?” There are four possible answers to the question: intrinsic value, attainment value, utility value, and cost (Wigfield & Eccles, 1992). Intrinsic value is the pure enjoyment a student feels from performing a task. When they are intrinsically interested in it, students are willing to become involved in a given task. Attainment value refers to the importance of doing well on a task. Tasks are perceived as important when they reflect the important aspects of one’s self. Utility value is the perception that a task will be useful for meeting future goals, for instance, taking a Chinese class to get a job in China. The last component of task value, cost, refers to what an individual has to give up to engage in a task or the effort needed to accomplish the task. If the cost is too high, students will be less likely to engage in a given task. For instance, students may not decide to take an extra course when they need to reduce the hours of their part-time job.

Numerous studies have shown that students’ expectancies for success and subjective task values positively influenced achievement behaviors and outcomes (Dennissen, Zarret, & Eccles, 2007; Durik, Shechter, Noh, Rozek, & Harackiewicz, 2015; Wigfield & Eccles, 2000). For example, Bong (2001) reported that college students’ perceived competence was a significant predictor of their performance. Also, students’ perceived utility predicted future enrollment intentions. These relations have been also found in online learning environments. Joo, Lim, and Kim (2013) reported that the perceived competence and task value of students enrolled in an online university significantly predicted learner satisfaction, persistence, and achievement.

Video 6.8.1. Expectancy-Value Theory of Achievement Motivation explains EVT and application of the theory.

Influencing Student Motivation

Ideally, both expectancies and values are high in students on any key learning task. The reality, however, is that students sometimes do not expect success, nor do they necessarily value it when success is possible. How can a teacher respond to low expectations and low valuing? We have offered a number of suggestions to meet this challenge throughout this chapter. In brief, raising low expectations depends on adjusting task difficulty so that success becomes a reasonable prospect: a teacher must make tasks neither too hard nor too easy. Reaching this general goal depends in turn on thoughtful, appropriate planning—selecting reasonable objectives, adjusting them on the basis of experience, finding supportive materials, and providing students with help when needed.

Raising the value of academic tasks is equally important, but the general strategies for doing so are different than for raising expectations. Increasing value requires linking the task to students’ personal interests and prior knowledge, showing the utility of the task to students’ future goals, and showing that the task is valuable to other people whom students respect.

Influencing Expectancy Perceptions

Students may not believe that their effort leads to high performance for a multitude of reasons. First, they may not have the skills, knowledge, or abilities to successfully perform. Supporting students in acquiring the necessary skills and knowledge can help raise expectancy. Second, low levels of expectancy may be because students feel that something other than effort predicts performance, such as fairness or favoritism. If students believe that the learning environment is not conducive to performing well (resources are lacking or teacher’s expectations are unclear), expectancy will also suffer. Therefore, clearing the path to performance and creating an environment in which students do not feel restricted will be helpful. Finally, some students may perceive little connection between their effort and performance level because they have an external locus of control, low self-esteem, or other personality traits that condition them to believe that their effort will not make a difference. In such cases, providing positive feedback and encouragement may help motivate them.

Influencing Instrumentality Perceptions

Showing students that their performance is rewarded is going to increase instrumentality perceptions. Therefore, the first step in influencing instrumentality is to connect rewards to performance. However, this is not always sufficient, because students may not be aware of some of the rewards awaiting high performers. Students may need to be made aware of the payoffs to learning. It is also important to highlight that performance, not something else, is being rewarded. A meritless reward system may actually hamper the motivation of the highest performers by eroding instrumentality. However, performance-related skill mastery and progress can be acknowledged and rewarded without a student mastering all skills or being the best performer.

Influencing Valence

Students are more likely to be motivated if they find the reward to be attractive. This process involves teachers finding what their students value. Desirable rewards tend to be fair and satisfy different students’ diverging needs. Ensuring high valence involves getting to know students and giving students various rewards to increase valence.

Figure 6.8.2. Ways to influence expectancy, instrumentality, and valence.


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