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The Self-Worth Theory of Achievement Motivation: Findings and Implications Author(s): Martin V.

Covington Reviewed work(s): Source: The Elementary School Journal, Vol. 85, No. 1, Special Issue: Motivation (Sep., 1984), pp. 4-20 Published by: The University of Chicago Press Stable URL: . Accessed: 06/02/2012 00:26
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The Self-Worth Theory of Achievement Motivation: Findings and Implications

Martin V. Covington
University California, of Berkeley

The purpose of this article is to describe the self-worth theory of achievement motivation, to summarize the research generated under this model, and to consider the implicationsof research for classroom teaching and learning. The self-worththeory assumesthat a central part of all classroom achievement is the need for students to protect their sense of worth or personal value. Perceptions of ability are critical to this self-protectiveprocess, since for many students the mere possession of high ability signifies worthiness. Moreover, ability is widely perceived as a majorcause of success, and success in turn reflects well on the individual. For these reasons, I will focus on the topic of ability perceptions and on developmental changes in these perceptions. A second main theme of this article concerns the various strategies that students employ to maintain a sense of worthiness in the face of failure, an outcome that would otherwise lead to suspicions of inability. A third theme concerns a potential conflict of values between teachers and students. Specifically, the failure-avoiding strategies that students often use to maintain a sense of competency involve various subterfuge such as procrastination, not trying, and excuses. These tactics come in direct conflict with the prevailing work-ethic value of teachers. Finally, I shall consider what research suggests for resolving this conflict of classroom values, one value involvingthe maintenance of ability, and the other espousing effort.
Theories of achievement motivation

Volume 85, Number 1 o 1984 by The Universityof Chicago.All rights reserved. 0013-5984/85/850 1-0001$0 1.00

The ElementarySchoolJournal

The paper begins with a brief summaryof several contemporary views of achieve-


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ment motivation and their relationship to self-worth theory. Learned-drivetheories All contemporary theories of achievement motivation have evolved from earlier drive theories that emphasized the satisfaction of basic tissue needs such as hunger and thirst as among the most powerful organizers of behavior. However, because of the obvious limitations of a strictly physiological approach to a general theory of human behavior, researchers eventually broadened their focus to include learned drives or psychological motives such as the need for approval, belongingness, and achievement. The most sophisticated of these early theories of achievement motivation as a learned drive is still influential today and was developed in the 1950s and early 1960s by David McClelland (1965) and John Atkinson (1957, 1964; Atkinson & Raynor 1977). According to this model, the need for achievement results from a conflict between striving for success, on the one hand, and a disposition to avoid failure, on the other. Atkinson argued that individuals show marked differences in the ways they resolve this conflict and that the choice and quality of resolution depend in large part on one's childhood experiences. Thus, a major focus of the research inspired by this model has been to demonstrate the critical importance of childrearing practices in cultivating or inhibiting the positive self-regard necessary to the pursuit of success (e.g., Rosen & D'Andrade 1959; Winterbottom 1953). This research generally indicates that a positive achievement orientation (i.e., a willingness to attempt success) is associated with parental efforts to accept their children in their own right, to establish clear and enforcible rules of conduct, and to permit the children a wide latitude of exploration within these boundaries (Coopersmith 1967). The pattern ofparental-and by exand punishtension, teacher-rewards ments is critical to this process. The par-

ents of success-oriented youngsters tend to reward performance that is praiseworthy yet ignore or at least remain neutral toward the performance that falls short of adult expectations. The opposite pattern appears characteristic of the parents of failure-avoiding children: punishing their children's failures while being noncommittal in the event of success (Teevan & Fischer 1967). It is primarily because these antecedents are established so early in life that researchers often view the need for achievement (and its two antagonistic components) as a stable, personality characteristic. However, immediate situational factors also play an important part in determining whether or not, and to what degree, one achievement tendency will transcend the other. For example, at times even the most reluctant and self-doubting child will strive for success if the task is important enough or if the chances of succeeding are judged high. Moreover, success-oriented individuals appear especially adept at selecting achievement strategies to fit prevailing circumstances. For instance, these persons prefer to work on tasks for which the probability of success is approximately equal to the likelihood of failure. This assures them of sufficient successes to sustain further effort and to maintain interest, yet without cheapening the rewards of success by too easy a victory. In contrast, failure-avoiding persons often select achievement tasks that are either too easy or too difficult, thereby creating the very failures and poor record of achievement that they are attempting to avoid. The question of why these individuals act in such self-defeating ways is complex and is a special province of selfworth theory. In summary, the learned-drive theory of achievement motivation emphasizes a fundamental conflict between attempting success and avoiding failure, and the ways that individuals of different achievement orientations resolve this conflict. Research in this tradition demonstrates a clear asSEPTEMBER 1984


sociation between one's early childhood experiences and the quality of subsequent achievements, thus raising the question of whether or not changes in achievement motivation are possible through relearning and instruction. Cognitive attribution theories In the early 1970s, cognitive theorists, led by Bernard Weiner and his colleagues, posed a radical reinterpretation of Atkinson's learned-drive theory (Weiner 1972, 1974; Weiner, Frieze, Kukla, Reed, Rest, & Rosenbaum 1971). These formulations were guided by the principles of attribution theory, which assume that people's perceptionsof the causes of their successes and failures influence the quality of their future achievement. The basic emotional anticipation of hope for success and fear of failure (stressed in drive-theory formulations) was subordinated to cognitive attributions as the major determinants of achievement behavior. Weiner proposed ability, effort, luck, and task ease/difficulty as the major perceived causes of achievement performance. Research in the cognitive tradition indicates that successoriented and failure-avoiding individuals harbor different explanations about the causes of their successes and failures (Weiner et al. 1971; Weiner & Kukla 1970). It is precisely these different perceptions that are considered the essence of individual differences in achievement motivation. Generally, people motivated to approach success tend to attribute their successes to ability and their failures to a lack of effort. In contrast, failure-avoiding people tend to ascribe success to external factors such as luck and to attribute failure to inability. Thus, individuals who ascribe their successes to sufficient ability will undertake similar tasks in the future because they anticipate doing well. On the other hand, individuals will be less likely to strive if they believe their successes are caused by external factors or if they believe that they

are powerless to succeed again owing to insufficient ability. Cognitive theory and research have focused primarily on the role of effort in achievement dynamics. This theory postulates that perception of one's effort is the most important cause of future achievement behavior. This emphasis on effort perceptions is not misplaced. For example, research indicates that the degree of effort expended on a task influences a person's subjective estimates of succeeding in the future (Fontaine 1974; Valle & Frieze 1976). If individuals do not try hard and fail, they are more likely to remain optimistic about succeeding later. Moreover, high effort increases pride in success (Brown & Weiner 1984; Covington & Omelich 1979c, 1981a; Weiner et al. 1971) and mitigates feelings of guilt that otherwise accompany not trying (Brown & Weiner 1984; Covington & Omelich 1984). But perhaps most important, student effort is considered central because of the widespread belief that it is modifiable through the actions of teachers. Whether this premise is true or not, at least teachers act on it: students whom teachers perceive as having tried hard are rewarded more in success and punished less in failure than are students who do not try hard (Omelich & Covington 1979; Rest, Nierenberg, Weiner, & Heckhausen 1973; Weiner & Kukla 1970). Moreover, these teacher reactions are the same whether the student is seen as bright or not so bright. From these teacher reinforcement patterns, cognitive theorists have concluded that students should value effort as a main source of personal worth, and, to the extent that students do not comply with this work-ethic value, they will experience guilt and remorse. Self-worththeory The self-worth theory of achievement motivation (Covington & Beery 1976) derives from the basic cognitive position and shares with it the view that achievement


behavior can be most meaningfully conceptualized in terms of self-perceptionsof causality.However, unlike attribution theory, it also incorporates a motivational component, and for this reason it forms the basis for a conceptual rapprochement between cognitive and learned-drive theories. Specifically, self-worth theory focuses attention on the pervasive need implied in the drive-theorymodel to approach success and to avoid failure, which causes a sense of worthlessness and social disapproval. It is widely recognized in our society that personal worth depends largely on one's accomplishments. Moreover, because ability is seen as a critical component of success, and inability a prime cause of failure, self-perceptions of ability become a significant part of one's self-definition. Thus, self-worth theory stresses ability perceptions as a primary activator of achievement behavior. Individualsare driven to succeed not only to reap the personal and social benefits of success,but also because success aggrandizes a reputation for one's ability to achieve; and if success becomes unlikely, one's first priority is to act in ways that minimize the implications of failure-namely, that one lacks ability. Assuming the validity of this position, several questions are relevant. The first concerns the nature of the various sources of threat to one's sense of worth. As we have seen, the cognitive model stresses those aspects of worthlessness that occur primarilythrough noncompliance to a cultural work ethic (guilt and remorse), while the self-worth model emphasizes feelings of worthlessness arising out of the disclosure of incompetency (shame and humiliation). Naturally, both effort-linked and ability-linkedaspects of worth are likely to operate simultaneouslyin a given achievement situation. Thus, the most important questions are, Under what circumstances does one source of worth dominate over the other? and Do effort and ability cognitions interact in establishing a sense of

worth? I shall now discuss some tentative answers to these questions. The main elements of the self-worth model are presented in figure 1. The basic assumptionis that severalfactorsinfluence one's sense of worth and adequacy, including performance level, self-estimates of ability, and degree of effort expenditure. In all cases the arrows in figure 1 imply causality. First, the fundamental premise that a sense of worth depends heavily on one's accomplishmentsis replinkage. This direct, and presumablypowerful, causal relationship implies that unless people can become successfulat some valued activity, they will be cut off from a major source of self-esteem. Indeed, the fact that the model portrays this linkage as not necessarilyinfluenced by the causes of one's achievement, either through diligence or brilliance, suggests that human beings tend to embrace success no matter how it occurs. Naturally,there are important exceptions to this general observation. We have already noted that some individuals reject credit for their successes because they feel inadequate to repeat them. Moreover,successesperceived as resulting primarilyfrom remedial assistance are sometimes less valued than successes achieved solely by one's own efforts (Covington & Omelich 1981a). Nonetheless, despite these exceptions, humans do typicallydiscount factors that might qualify or discredittheir successesand cast their failures in the best possible light (Baumeister & Jones 1978; Covington & Omelich 1979c; Sigall & Gould 1977).
resented by the performance --, worth




FIG. 1.-Schematic SEPTEMBER 1984

diagram of the self-worth model


Second, figure 1 portrays self-perceptions of ability as influencing worth in two ways: directly and indirectly. The direct ability --- worth linkage demonstrates that the mere perception of high ability can sometimes come to imply worthiness,even in the absence of solid accomplishments. Self-perceptions of ability can also influence worth indirectly via the perceived value of abilityfor enhancing performance (ability --- performance --- worth). It is within this instrumental linkage that the value of ability ultimately resides, since typically an individual's sense of worth cannot long rest solely on a reputation for intelligence. In effect, achievement is what counts, and ability is valued as its chief causal agent. Third, most individuals, especially younger children, view trying hard as a key factor in successful performance. Moreover, effort is highly valued in its own right as a source of worth (effort--, worth),given the teacher reinforcement patterns described earlier. Some recent research conducted by my colleague, Carol Omelich, and me explores the relative effects of effort and ability attributions on feelings of self-worth, through the pathways shown in figure 1 (Covington & Omelich 1982c). We asked college freshmen to analyzeany one of the several lower-division courses they had completed the term before. Studentsrated their abilityto deal with the subject matter and the degree of effort they expended in the course. They also recorded the grade they received and rated how much selfregard (worth) they experienced as students in the course. These data were analyzed by means of path analysis(Anderson & Evans 1974; Duncan 1966), which permits an estimate of the relative contributions (both direct and indirect) of each antecedent factor to the predicted outcomes of interest, which in this case were feelings of worth. The grades that students received (performance --, worth) accounted

for approximately one-fourth of the vari-

ation in feelings of worthiness.This result confirms the self-worth expectation, that feelings of self-regard depend on one's achievements,irrespectiveof how they are attained. Second, perceived ability, independent of its effect on grades, accounted for approximatelyhalf of the variation in feelings of worth (ability -- worth). This suggests that by the time individuals (especially college students) reach young adulthood, they base concepts of their worth on self-perceptionsof competency. The indirect effect of perceived ability on worth via its valuefor attaininghigh grades (ability - performance -- worth) accounted for an additional 6% of the variation in feelings of worth. Trying hard per se, irrespective of the grade attained (effort -- worth), accounted for the remaining variance(approximately20%).Finally, the effect of effort on worth via grades (effort -- performance -- worth) was negligible. Thus it seems clear that ability, at least as college students perceive it, is central to the process of self-definition. The mere perception of high ability is tantamountto positive a self-identity in school. Moreover, the perceived value of ability as a majorcause of successfurther enhances its importance. The centrality of ability perceptions is corroborated in a number of other studies using a variety of methodological approaches. For example, after reviewing the relevant literature,Brownand Weiner (1984) conclude that college students prefer to achieve because of ability rather than effort. Moreover, among roleplaying studies that permit separate estimates of ability and effort contributions, ability cognitions account for most of the variation in shame (Covington & Omelich 1984; Weiner & Kukla1970). Finally,path analyses of actual college test-taking experiences indicate that ability cognitions are the dominantfactoraffectingpride and shame reactions as well as actual achievement (Covington& Omelich 1979a, 1981b, 1982a).



But why should students value ability at all, considering the pervasiveness of teacher reinforcement patterns that favor a work ethic? The answer is that these teacher values seem to result largely from the instructional process itself; that is, when students' primary task is to learn, teachers recognize hard work and reward persistence, presumably because effort is under the learner's control. However, when the emphasis shifts to predicting who will learn the most-and most effectively-teachers view ability as the central factor. For example, teachers' selections of students who are suited for highly prestigious jobs depend mainly on perceived ability (Kaplan & Swant 1973). This distinction between effort as a valued agent in school learning and ability as a predictor of future occupational success is not lost on students. The relative importance of ability and effort also depends on the age of the learner. For a variety of reasons, younger students perceive effort as the supreme virtue. It is only after students enter junior high that effort is progressively devalued and becomes a source of threat to one's worth. We will shortly consider the complex set of events that causes this developmental shift in values and its consequences for learning. Meanwhile, it is now clear why I started this presentation at the end, so to speak, with an exposition of achievement dynamics among older students coming first. It was to establish the longer perspective that all too often eludes us as educators. By the adult years, competency is the transcendant condition that determines a sense of worth, and it is this value system toward which all young students move as they grow older. Teachers must keep this in mind if they are to teach effectively at any grade level. But before turning to a description of the protracted developmental history of ability and effort valuation, it is important to consider why effort is a threat to older students. Effort: the double-edged sword As we have seen, effort is an important source of worthiness as well as an impor-

tant perceived causal factor in achievement. Ironically, however, trying hard also puts the student at risk. Specifically, although effort reduces the guilt associated with noncompliance to a work ethic (Covington & Omelich 1984), a combination of high effort and failure also leads to suspicions of low ability (Kun & Weiner 1973). It is this self-revelation of incompetency that triggers humiliation and shame (Covington & Omelich 1979b). Thus, effort becomes a double-edged sword; students must exert some effort to avoid teacher punishment and personal feelings of guilt, but not so much effort as to risk incompetencylinked humiliation should they try hard and fail anyway. This set of relationships between effort and ability cognitions and their role in causing various kinds of failure affect is presented in figure 2. A recent experiment from my laboratory confirms these linkages. Covington and Omelich (1982b) asked college students to infer their ability levels and to rate the degree of humiliation (an ability-linked affect) and guilt (an effort-linked affect) that they would experience at failing a test, depending on whether they studied a lot or very little. The results indicated that degree of effort, either high or low, accounted for all the variation in guilt reactions (effort -- guilt), with guilt being reduced by trying hard. In contrast, perceptions of inability accounted for most of the variation in humiliation (inability -- humiliation). Moreover, as expected, trying hard led to







FIG. 2.-Causal relations between effort and ability cognitions and various failure affect. SEPTEMBER 1984



increased of whichin perceptions inability, even more(high turnelevatedhumiliation effort-- inability humiliation). Thuswe --, concludedthat, althoughhigh effort reduces guilt, it simultaneously causes huvia in miliation decreases perceived ability. of Because the perceived of importance both to achievement to one's and ability, self-definition figure 1), studentsare (see likelyto choose-if choose they must-to endurethe pangsof guilt ratherthan the humiliationof incompetency. This intraconflictis documented a study in personal and by Covington, Spratt, Omelich(1980). College students made a series of selfand characteristics ratingson personality judged the kinds of emotionalreactions they would experiencefollowingvarious after typesof failure.Not surprisingly, failure resultingfrom low effort,students described themselves as beinglazy negatively andunmotivated. thesesamestudents Yet, felt less anxiousand dissatisfied their with of failures,becausetheir self-perceptions remainedrelativelyintact.Considability of a eringthe importance maintaining positive imageof self (e.g., Schlenker1975), the willingnessof individualsto endure these negativeself-labels indicates imthe of abilityperceptions the exand portance tent of the conflictcausedby the dualnature of effort. Not onlydoeseffortrepresent potena tial threat to self-worth it is also the but meansfor deflectingthis threat, at least temporarily. expendinglittle or no efBy fort, estimatesof one's abilitytend to remainuncertain, sincelow effortalone is a sufficientexplanationfor failure (Kelley 1971) and therefore should minimize shame. Several additionalstudies using role-playingproceduressimilarto those described abovetest this supposition. College students who reported their affective reactions to hypothetical test failures experienced the greatest shame after having studied hard and the least shame after studying very little (Covington & Omelich 1979b). In the same experiment, students

were also asked to adopt the role of teachers and to administer punishment (negative feedback) to hypothetical other students under the same failure conditions. Results showed that conditions of failure that held the least implication for inability (low effort), and thereby evoked less shame, were the circumstances most punished by the "teachers." Conversely, the most positive circumstance from the teacher's viewpoint (high effort) led to the greatest student shame and distress because of the implications for low ability. These data clearly indicate the dual yet incompatible nature of effort expenditure and the conflict of values between ability and effort as sources of worth. They also suggest that simply not trying is a poor selfprotective strategy because of the severe teacher censorship that accompanies low effort. In this connection, excuses are an important factor in minimizing both teacher punishment for low effort and the shame that results from trying and failing anyway. More specifically, as part of this same study (Covington & Omelich 1979b), we provided half of the students in both the high-effort and low-effort conditions with excuses. The excuse for low effort was that the individual had been ill, a reason likely to deflect teacher ire yet maintain uncertainty about the student's ability. The excuse in the high-effort condition involved a mismatch between what the student had studied and what was stressed on the test, thereby avoiding teacher punishment and forestalling ability demotion despite having tried hard. As expected, these excuses moderated the extremes of both self-derogation and teacher negativity. In fact, not trying by reason of illness proved to be the optimal circumstance for minimizing both teacher disapproval and student shame. In summary, self-worth theory assumes that much of student achievement behavior is best understood in terms of attempts to sustain a reputation of competency, and hence worth. A variety of such self-



protective techniques are available and represent degrees of subtleness that go far beyond the rather crude tactic of simply not trying.

Failure-avoiding tactics
Self-serving strategies such as the use of excuses work primarily by shifting the presumed causes of failure from personal, internal (ability) factors to external causes beyond the individual's control or responsibility. For example, one tactic is to set unrealistically high achievement goals for oneself. When failure occurs, as it inevitably will, it cannot be for lack of trying nor for eschewing socially valued goals. Yet, the fact that so few students could have succeeded against such long odds creates an ambiguity about one's ability. The same self-protective goal is served by procrastination. By studying only belatedly, procrastinators neatly create an excuse should they fail. Moreover, if they should succeed despite little effort, they will appear highly able (Beery 1975). Ironically, such strategies lead to the very failures that these students are attempting to avoid, but at least they are "failures with honor" since they can now blame factors other than themselves and, in effect, argue that failure does not necessarily imply low academic potential and hence is not a true measure of their worth. Students use other related strategies in an attempt to avoid failure by assuring success. For example, a person may set standards for success at such a modest level that the likelihood of falling below these aspirations is low (Birney, Burdick, & Teevan 1969). Obviously, however, these easily won successes involve so little challenge that there cannot be much pride in achievement. A variation on this theme, avoiding failure by succeeding, is sometimes favored by bright students who set high personal goals and actually achieve them through a combination of brilliance and hard work. But, because this is basically a defensive strategy, these students

often remain doubtful of their abilities despite an enviable record of accomplishments. Moreover, when failure does occur-as it will eventually-it can be particularly devastating since it occurs despite high effort. These "overstrivers," as we call them (Beery 1975; Covington & Beery 1976), appear to share much in common with those students identified by Phillips (1981) as high achievers with low academic self-concepts. The temporary relief afforded by these failure-avoiding tactics is illusory, since their repeated use will finally destroy the will to learn. This self-defeating process involves a shift from being failure avoiding to becoming failure accepting. When used frequently, self-serving excuses become less and less plausible and, as a consequence, eventually the evidence for low ability becomes undeniable. This painful process and the progressive sense of demoralization that results are illustrated in a study by Covington and Omelich (1981a). College students had several opportunities to improve their test performance by taking parallel forms of the same examination, with additional study time interspersed between the tests. Students who repeatedly failed to attain their grade goals slowly lost confidence in their ability ever to succeed, and hence experienced increasing shame. This negative process was hastened by the increasing implausibility of students' excuses, such as not having enough time to study. The degree of certaintyabout one's abilstatus, as well as level of ability percepity tions, appears to be a critical factor in resiliency to failure. For example, individuals who remain uncertain about their ability often seek out successes in order to resolve conflicting information about their competency in a positive direction (Coopersmith 1967; Maracek & Mettee 1972; Swann 1982). By contrast, individuals who are convinced of their incompetency give up the struggle for self-regard and public approval via high achievement and beSEPTEMBER 1984



come failure accepting; that is, they blame failure on a lack of ability and dismiss their occasional successes as due to an easy task, to luck, or to the humanitarian impulses of the teacher. These students must search for alternative ways to preserve a sense of worth, such as becoming very diligent, punctual, and hard-working (e.g., effort -, worth). In this connection, low-ability people appear to value effort more than do high-ability people (Nicholls 1976). Also, Weiner and his colleagues have conducted studies that illustrate the importance of effort in reducing shame when ability is presumed to be low (Brown & Weiner 1984; Weiner & Kukla 1970).

Developmentof ability and efort perceptions

As already mentioned, advocates of the cognitive theory of achievement motivation originally presumed that, because teachers value and encourage effort, students should come to internalize a work ethic and punish themselves for not trying (Weiner 1972, 1974). From a strictly reinforcement point of view, this prediction makes sense. However, we now know that, at least among older students, self-esteem factors can interfere with and override this otherwise straightforward reinforcement mechanism. These motivational processes have an important developmental history that has profound implications for classroom practice. It is now clear that cognitive predictions regarding the internalizing of work-ethic values is essentially correct for young children. Evidence suggests that a direct effort --, affect (worth) linkage dominates the self-esteem of preschool and primary-grade children. These children equate trying hard and being diligent with worthiness. This work-ethic value encompasses a number of related behaviors, including good conduct, complying with authority, and generally staying out of trouble. In short, young children perceive well-behaved pupils as worthy of praise and admiration. At the same time,

young children also value ability (e.g., Nicholls 1975, 1976), and in some research the evidence even suggests this valuation is equal to that accorded ability by adults (Harari & Covington 1981). This occurs largely because even the youngest students perceive ability as a major source of prestige and an important basis for classroom privilege. For example, less-able readers are known to defer to the judgments of good readers, whether or not the issues under discussion are related to competency in reading (Morris 1977; Stulac 1975). Initially, such a joint valuation of effort and ability is puzzling. It seems that if young students value ability so highly, then they should, like their adult counterparts, experience conflict regarding the threatening nature of effort. However, young children do not necessarily experience this conflict, because they view ability, effort, and the achievement outcomes that follow as indistinguishable. This psychological equivalency occurs for several reasons. First, kindergartners and preschoolers typically believe that children who try hard are smarter than those who do not try (Nicholls 1978; Stipek 1981), or, as one first grader stated, "Smart students try, dumb ones don't" (Harari & Covington 1981). Here, young students perceive ability as synonymous with effort. Thus, although children's subjective estimates of ability depend on effort cues, as do adults' estimates, the direction of this relationship is reversed: children view high rather than low effort as an indicator of ability. Second, in addition to perceiving effort as synonymous with ability, young children also believe that increases in effort can actually cause increases in ability! In effect, these pupils hold an "incremental" theory of intelligence (Dweck 1983), in which they perceive ability as a process that is infinitely expandable through instruction and experience. As a result, they view ability as subject to personal control in the same sense as is effort or one's intentions to be-



have properly. By trying hard, then, young students perceive themselves as both able because of effort and virtuous in the eyes of others. For this reason, there is no conflict of values between students and teachers in the early years of school. One of the major reasons for these youthful perceptions of the causes of success and failure is the immaturity of children's information-processing skills. Research conducted by Blumenfeld and her colleagues provides information about the nature of the developmental course of these cognitive factors (Blumenfeld, Pintrich, Meece, & Wessels 1981). Their study shows that it is not clear that children actually search spontaneously for the causal implications of their behavior. As Blumenfeld points out, such self-awareness requires the concept of personal control as a prerequisite, and research indicates that the child's sense of control over events is slow to develop (Bialer 1961; Crandall, Katkovsky, & Crandall 1965; Veroff 1969) and is likely a far more complex process than once supposed (see Weisz & Stipek 1982). Nor is it likely that children will make such causal attributions with much accuracy, even if they are directed to do so. Accuracy and reliability of judgments require perceiving ability as a stable, traitlike disposition, a view that does not evolve until at least late childhood (Bromley 1979; Livesley & Bromley 1973). Another cognitive limitation involves the difficulty that children experience in weighing the multiple causes of their past successes and failures in order to predict future performance (Parsons & Ruble 1977; Shaklee 1976). Moreover, research in science education suggests that children have difficulty understanding the relationship between two independent factors-for and the distance from a example, weight fulcrum as they may covary to influence the movement of a balance beam (Karplus 1977). A parallel limitation likely exists in the case of perceptions of effort and ability as independent, yet interactive, contribu-

tors to achievement outcomes. These deficiencies manifest themselves in the inability of young students to recognize that the harder the task, the more effort required (Karabenick & Heller 1976; Kun, Parsons, & Ruble 1974) and that smarter individuals need not try as hard as less bright people to achieve the same outcome (Harari & Covington 1981). With this developmental perspective, I can now return to the earlier discussion of adult achievement values and perceived causes of worth (figure 1). The evidence just reviewed suggests that children accord a far greater role to effort as a direct cause of feelings of worth than do adults. Moreover, the causal perceptions that children use to link ability and effort cast the entire task of maintaining a sense of approval in a far more positive light than for adults, since children believe that they can improve their performance (and by implication, their ability) through diligence. Thus, young children do not necessarily view poor performance as threatening or indicative of their future promise. By contrast, older children and adults are increasingly influenced by an "entity" theory of intelligence (Dweck 1983) that involves perceptions of intelligence as a stable, unchanging factor. As a result, they view ability as the dominant, necessary condition for success. Moreover, without ability, they perceive the benefits of effort as minimal. As one high school student expressed it, "If someone is not smart, they can do only so well" (Harari & Covington 1981). Having established developmental anchor points among young children and among adults, we can now consider the processes that account for the progressive shift from an early effort/ability equivalency to a value system that emphasizes ability. Two general factors are likely involved in this progression: a rapidly developing capacity for adultlike reasoning among early adolescents, and the introduction of competition into classroom life. I shall briefly consider each factor.



Informationprocessing By the junior high school years, students are able to entertain compensatory, interactive relationships among several variables reasonably well. Using a roleplaying paradigm, Schnur (1981) confirms this point. Junior high school students judged the likelihood of success on an upcoming test under differing circumstances, including degree of test difficulty, ability level of the student, and amount of time spent studying. Schnur found that these students recognized that low ability can be offset in part by additional effort and that increased effort is needed to preserve a constant performance level as task difficulty increases. Also, junior high school students understand well the reciprocal nature of ability and effort (Harari & Covington 1981). As the amount of effort needed to attain a given achievement increases, the less able the individual is perceived to be. The capacity to recognize effort level as a major cue for judging inability is an important turning point in the quality of achieving for many children. Effort no longer represents an unambiguous positive source of worth. Effort can also lead to perceptions of inability in the case of having failed after trying hard. The deceptively simple reasoning behind this inverse effort/ability linkage presumes that the child has differentiated sufficiently between effort and ability as independent factors in order to exercise the logic implied in Kelley's (1971, 1973) notion of "multiple-sufficient schema." Simply put, this means that a person's performance can be explained by any one of several factors, each of which alone is sufficient to produce the outcome. Thus, high effort that precedes failure leaves low ability as a sufficient explanation.

Younger students tend to judge themselves and their performances against their own records of progress (Ruble, Parsons, 8&Ross 1976). If children's achievement

improves over time, then they are likely to be pleased with the results. This tendency is congruent with the view of ability as a changing, expandable process in which one becomes smarter by trying and by progressing through school. However, as children mature, self-comparisons begin to give way to the use of normative and group standards for judging the adequacy of one's performance. As a result, one's sense of worth comes to depend on doing better than someone else. Although the emergence of this social-comparison dynamic appears to be part of the normal developmental process, its negative effect on many students' self-concepts is undoubtedly accelerated and intensified by competitive school environments. This occurs because competitive evaluation systems reduce the number of psychological rewards available to students in a class. Such practices as grading on a curve or singling out a winner based on the best performance create a condition of fewer rewards than there are players and establishes what Alschuler (1973) calls a "zero-sum game." In effect, for every winner there must be one or more losers. This condition forces many students to abandon the positive, coping strategies associated with striving for success and to adopt tactics designed to avoid failure. A series of studies by Ames and Ames (1981) provides important insights about the motivational outcomes associated with competitive learning structures. These investigators induced competition among pairs of upper elementary school children ("Let's see which one of you can solve the most puzzles") and then compared the reactions of these children to those of other children operating in either a cooperative mode or working alone. These researchers found that students perceived ability as a more salient cause of their successes and failures under competitive conditions, and also that failing students were more selfpunishing and perceived themselves as less capable in competition (Ames 1978, 1981;



Ames, Ames, & Felker 1977). Competition also contributed to unrealistic goal setting in which children often overestimated what they could do in an apparent bid to outdo their peers. Such a tactic simply ensured the likelihood of further failure. These goal-setting deficiencies appeared to be caused in part by students' disregard for information about their past performance (Ames & Ames 1981). Finally, competition tended to magnify the positive affect associated with success (pride) and the negative affect associated with failure (shame, guilt) (Ames & Felker 1979; Crockenberg, Bryant, & Wilce 1976). This causes the reinforcement of a false linkage between pride and ability-not pride in one's accomplishments-so that a willingness to try will continue only so long as the individual is successful.

The foregoing evidence indicates that older students and young adults perceive ability as the dominant causal factor in achievement. They value ability not only because of its perceived importance to success but also because eventually they equate ability with worth, irrespective of a person's immediate record of accomplishments. Ability valuation is also important in the classroom as a major, if not the primary, predictor of who will learn the fastest and hence who will be selected to learn more. Effort supplants ability as a main source of reward and satisfaction only in contexts where learning for its own sake is the goal. Not surprisingly, then, children value ability highly beginning at an early age. Fortunately for the young student who perceives effort and ability as psychologically equivalent, effort yields a double benefit for a sense of worth; effort promotes ability, and in ways that maximize approval from adults. However, for older students the blessings of being motivated are mixed with the threat of humiliation should they try hard and still fail. All too often, students settle this conflict between two

sources of worth-one due to intelligence and the other owing to diligence-in favor of ability maintenance through the use of failure-avoiding strategies. This analysis of classroom learning dynamics suggests that the most important task facing the teacher is to instruct students in ways that keep a growing preoccupation with ability from interfering with students' willingness to learn. Although this goal is far easier expressed than accomplished, several broad recommendations may facilitate this objective. First, teachers should use noncompetitive learning structures whenever possible. Such structures increase the number of rewards available to students, thereby promoting the pursuit of success rather than forcing an avoidance of failure. Experimental and field research has tested a number of noncompetitive techniques in recent years. For example, masterylearning provides students with multiple test/study opportunities so that they can master subject-matter content to a required level of competency (Block 1977; Bloom 1976). The standard for final performance is held constant while the amount of study time is allowed to vary, a procedure that promotes judgments of adequacy based on selfcomparisons and emphasizes skilled effort. This approach also tends to diminish the causal importance of perceived ability in achievement (Covington 1984a; Covington & Omelich 1981b). Other noncompetitive strategies involve cooperativelearning, in which, for example, individual team members take responsibility for some aspect of a total assignment, master it, and then teach it to other team members (Aronson, Stephan, Sikes, Blaney, & Snapp 1978; Martin 1976). Students thus learn that the rewards of contributing to the well-being of others may surpass the dubious benefits of triumphing over them. Another popular noncompetitive achievement strategy involves individual goal setting and contractlearning, in which



students establish work agreements with teachers and jointly develop plans to overcome learning obstacles (Covington & Beery 1976). As a group, these learning strategies are likely to strengthen the perceived utility of an effort -, performance linkage (Ames & Felker 1979; Crockenberg, Bryant, & Wilce 1976), to promote realistic goal setting and to allow more constructive interpretations of failure experiences. In this latter connection, explanations of failure other than low abilityare now possible, including the likelihood that one's aspirations may have been too high or that the task was not properly analyzed (Covington 1983, 1984b). Second, of equal importanceto howone learns is whatone learns. This point is especially critical for encouraging a continuing belief among students that the ability to learn is an ever-improvingcapacity.For example, the rote learning of facts and information emphasizes speed and efficiency, which inevitably favor the traitlike aspects of ability. In contrast, teaching students broad learning-to-learnskillssuch as question-askingand problem-solvingstrategies enhances their view of acquired knowledge as a tool that provides an evergreater capacity to learn. For example, Gagn6(1983) found that, whenjunior high students discovered that they could dramatically improve their recall performance by employing various mnemonic devices, they applied these techniques spontaneouslyand enthusiasticallyoutside the classroom. Similar increases in motivational involvement among children have also been found following instruction in complex problem-solvingskillssuch as formulating old tasksin new ways(Covington, Crutchfield, Davies, & Olton 1974; Olton & Crutchfield 1969). Although the acquisition of facts is an indispensible element
of the educational process, it is what the learner does with factual knowledge that promotes the intrinsic motivation to learn more; and when one wants to learn, concerns about ability recede in importance.

In conclusion, teachers must recognize that the emergence of an ability valuation among students is an inevitable, even normal, process, and that it is to a great extent unavoidable. Because of this, these developmentally conditioned processes cannot long be denied or postponed, and to try to do so would be a mistake. The greatest disservice would be to encourage students to adopt a falsely optimistic view of their capacitiesin order to gain a short-termadvantage. From this perspective, then, the most reasonable strategy would be to encourage additional sources of worth beyond the mere possession of ability. These alternative sources of satisfaction come from a job well done or from the pride that results in self-improvement. However, teachers cannot expect to neutralize society's reliance on competitive achievement as a major criterion of successsimply by restructuringthe classroom. Nevertheless, the promotion of motivational goals does suggest something about the true missionof schools. Schoolsmustvalue ideas and the productive use of the mind, not because doing so will automaticallyguarantee social justice or eradicate competition but for the sake of enriching individual lives.

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