Self-efficacy, Autonomous motivation and procrastination

This is a post by PsychologyToday and the link to the original article is here.

The bulk of the research on procrastination has been conducted on undergraduate students. This isn’t surprising, as most psychological research has been conducted on this captive group of willing volunteers who often earn grade-raising credit for their participation. However, as the authors of a recent study note, it’s important to look at procrastination early in life, because it’s a habit that starts young.

Idit Katz, Keren Eilot and Noa Nevo (Department of Education, Ben-Gurion University, Israel) published a paper in the journal Motivation and Emotion that begins to address this gap in the literature. They collected data from 171 fifth-grade students (roughly split bygender) from four elementary schools in northern Israel. The students provided self-reports related to their homework. They rated items that measured their motivation for doing homework, their self-efficacy (their beliefs about their ability to complete this homework), as well as their homework procrastination. For example, in terms of motivation, students rated how much this item described them on a 5-point scale, “I do homework because of the value and contribution of the homework to my learning.”

Of course, if either of my children endorsed the item above as a “5” or “very much like me,” I would be elated, and I wouldn’t be too concerned about their learning. This type of response reflects an autonomous motivation. They’re not doing homework because they feel threatened by punishment or shame (a controlled motivation), they do it because they want to, and they probably won’t procrastinate much.

This is certainly what these researchers found as well. The higher the autonomous motivation, the lower the procrastination. But that was only part of the story.

What Katz and her colleagues found was that self-efficacy (confidence in their ability to do their homework) is important in conjunction with the type of motivation. Statistically, Katz and her colleagues found both mediating and moderating effects that can be summarized as: 1) self-efficacy influences motivation type, and 2) autonomous motivation interacts with self-efficacy to predict procrastination.

Put more simply, if students are confident in their ability, this leads to greater autonomous (intrinsic) motivation and less procrastination, but that autonomous motivation on its own isn’t enough. Even with strong intrinsic (autonomous) motivation to do homework, a child with low self-efficacy is more likely to procrastinate as compared to an autonomously motivated child with lots of confidence that he or she can complete the homework.

This study is a contribution to the existing literature, although not surprising in many respects. In fact, their findings were as hypothesized based on the existing literature and what we know about development and learning.

What is at issue is the chicken-and-egg like nature of the dance between motivation type and self-efficacy, and their study doesn’t address this specifically. We’re left to speculate based on developmental theory and our experience with growing up.  Of course, it’s probably the case that they feed on each other, so influencing either autonomous motivation or self-efficacy in a positive way will pay off.

As the authors do explain, they think their results underscore the important role of educational environments supporting the development of both intrinsic interest (autonomous motivation) and confidence in their ability at an early age, before students begin to use procrastination as a response; before the procrastination habit can begin. I couldn’t agree more.

Based on the Self-Determination Theory framework that guided their research, we know that educational environments that support the three basic needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness are key.  What these authors fail to note, but outstanding educators do well, is harnessing the need for relatedness to bootstrap students fulfilling their other needs. Why? Because social needs loom large in our children’s lives, and a focus on relatedness needs can drive a great deal of success in meeting other needs. Although some students may easily begin with a focus on their learning to satisfy autonomy and competence needs, many, if not most, students need to come at these needs in conjunction with their powerful relatedness needs. Doing this well is the art of teaching.