Positive vs Negative Feedback: What's Better for Motivation?


Motivation is an important factor in students’ willingness to apply mental effort, particularly during self-regulated learning. Researchers at Utrecht University reveal the added value of considering the biopsychosocial model of challenge and threat to help explain how students regulate effort and why some students are and remain motivated when others are not. In their research published in Educational Psychology Review, the researcher propose that this theoretical model provides a new way to look at the different factors that determine how individual students are motivated by positive and negative feedback.

Motivational Influences on Mental Effort

Self-efficacy, or confidence in one's ability to learn to perform a task, is considered to be one of the main motivational influences on effort however challenges and threats can be highly motivating too. Challenge and threat result from one's unconscious evaluation of the demands of a situation in relation to one's own resources to deal with it. For instance, according to the researchers, "how much pressure a student feels to perform well on that particular task in that particular situation, or to what extent they feel they have to live up to their own or other people’s expectations, may also play a role. According to the biopsychosocial model of challenge and threat, such intra-individual and inter-individual factors together give rise to challenge or threat motivational states." 

The researchers proposed that next to self-efficacy, these challenge/threat motivational states might help explain individual differences in anticipated mental effort and willingness to invest mental effort. They conducted four experiments where they manipulated the feedback that was given to students after performing problem-solving tasks. They then analyzed how much effort participants expected they would have to invest and were willing to invest in another round of the same problems.

Positive vs Negative Feedback

The results showed that negative feedback led participants to expect that they will have to invest significantly more effort in future problems than positive feedback or no feedback. They also found significant indirect effects: "positive feedback evoked higher levels of challenge and negative feedback higher levels of threat, but because both challenge and threat led to higher willingness to invest effort, this may explain why there was no significant direct effect of condition." However while the results may be identical, it's important to understand the factors leading to a willingness to invest more effort. In the long term, effort that arises from a place of challenge rather than a threat may prove more sustainable. The researchers note that understanding why some students are motivated to invest effort while others are not "opens up possibilities for designing interventions to reduce threat experiences, or to adapt instructional conditions or contexts to individual learners." 

StepUp Note

In our StepUp to Learn, we like to keep children in the “challenge zone” (not too easy, not too hard). This research shows how managing the “challenge zone” to balance challenge vs. threat (fear of failure) helps students choose to do their best work.

Note by Nancy W Rowe, MS, CCC/A 



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