Does Failure Motivate Students?

By Roxio Roman


student motivationAs a college student I have always been interested in the inner workings of education. As a Psychology major I developed a special interest in why it works, or doesn’t. What are the aspects of education that we as students, parents and teachers should look out for, protect, defend, or sometimes rethink, challenge and change?

What keeps students motivated? Some would argue for intrinsic motivators like student attitudes, or extrinsic motivators like teachers, parents and the classroom environment. What if a student fails? How could failure affect these motivators and thus preventing future success; what if failure can somehow be a motivator as well? After taking a course on equity, democracy and schooling in the US, and discussing failure and motivation in school, I decided to do some research on the topic. I came across some findings that would not only be useful to apply in the classroom, but also helpful for students, teachers and parents to keep in mind outside the classroom.

A study with 2nd graders and the effect of controlling limits during an art activity revealed a decrease in the creativity, enjoyment and overall motivation to perform when teachers used controlling limits rather than informative limits or no limits at all. As for how failure affects motivation, another study on self-esteem and motivation showed that failure affects people’s motivation according to their perception of self. The experiments tested the belief that high self-esteem individuals want to develop their strengths to excel, whereas low self-esteem individuals desire to change deficiencies to become “good enough.” According to their results, high-self esteem individuals became discouraged at initial failure because it suggests they simply are not good at that particular task. Low self-esteem individuals were more motivated after initial failure, because they wanted to improve their skills for those tasks. Initial success did not motivate them to repeat the task.

What does this all mean? And how can we use this be used by parents, students and teachers alike?  Teachers: allow your students to have creative freedom, coloring within the lines can be a suggestion, but children will lose their motivation to be creative if they are faced with limitations. I feel this also can be applied to other aspects of lesson planning. Having a choice would increase motivation thus the quality of a student’s work. Also, both parents and teachers should be aware of these individual differences in motivation, and understand that continuation or discontinuation of something does not mean someone is not motivated, it means they are motivated by various factors and in different ways.

So when it comes to the question of what affects motivation, I think that it is safe to say “all of the above.” These studies show that intrinsic and extrinsic factors interact with each other. In other words, there are individual differences in how students deal with failure and other outside forces. We must think actively in our homes, and classrooms to maintain high levels of motivation for all students and their different needs.



Baumeister, R. F. and Tice, D. M. (1985), Self-esteem and responses to success and    failure: Subsequent performance and intrinsic motivation. Journal of Personality, 53: 450–467. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.1985.tb00376.x

Koestner, R., Ryan, R. M., Bernieri, F. and Holt, K. (1984), Setting limits on children’s behavior: The differential effects of controlling vs. informational styles on intrinsic motivation and creativity. Journal of Personality, 52: 233–248. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.1984.tb00879.x

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