Achievement values are “the incentives or purposes that individuals have for succeeding on a given task” (Wigfield, 1994, p. 102). According to expectancy-value theory, the value that a person places on either the task or the outcome and his perceived probability of success determine the amount of effort that he will exert attempting to successfully complete the task. The motivating potential of anticipating outcomes is largely determined by the subjective value that the person places on the attainment (Bandura, 1997). Two people may hold the same belief that their behavior will result in a particular outcome, but they may evaluate the attractiveness of that outcome quite differently (Bandura, 1997). The person who values the outcome or finds the outcome more attractive will be more motivated to attain the outcome. Value may compensate for low probabilities of success. People may put forth effort when they value the outcome, even when they believe that their probability of success is quite low. For example, people who enter sweepstakes or buy lottery tickets are motivated to engage in an activity with an extremely low probability of success due to the extremely high value attached to the outcome. As the jackpot becomes larger, more people engage in lottery ticket buying behavior, even though the probability of winning the lottery remains extremely low. This example demonstrates the power of value in determining people’s behavior.

Children’s achievement values affect their self-regulation and motivation (Wigfield, 1994) because goals influence how children approach, engage in, and respond to academic tasks (Hidi & Harackiewicz, 2000). “When students value a task, they will be more likely to engage in it, expend more effort on it, and do better on it” (Wigfield, 1994, p. 102). Research indicates that children’s subjective task values are strong predictors of children’s intentions and decisions to continue taking coursework in both Math and English (Wigfield, 1994; Wigfield & Eccles, 2000). Eccles and Wigfield, two leading researchers in the field of motivation, expanded Atkinson’s expectancy value model to include a variety of achievement related influences that impact individuals’ expectancies and values (Wigfield, 1994). In particular, they hypothesized that students’ motivation to complete tasks stems from the attainment value, utility value, and intrinsic value associated with the task (Wigfield, 1994), as well as with the costs associated with engaging in the task.

Intrinsic Value
Intrinsic value often results from the enjoyment an activity produces for the participant (Wigfield, 1994). When students enjoy scholastic tasks, they are intrinsically motivated to do well. Both interests and personal relevance produce intrinsic value for a student. Generally, students are intrinsically motivated to pursue activities that are moderately novel, interesting, enjoyable, exciting, and optimally challenging. When schoolwork is too easy, students become bored. When tasks are too difficult, students become frustrated and anxious (Deci & Ryan, 1985). Teachers should try to create classroom environments that foster intrinsic motivation by providing students with opportunities to engage in interesting, personally relevant, challenging activities.

Students bring a variety of experiences and interests to the classroom, and learning becomes personally meaningful when students’ prior knowledge and diverse experiences are connected with their present learning experiences. Educators can do this by creating an enriching environment and providing opportunities for students to explore their interests. In a recent study, researchers used self-selected enrichment projects based on students’ interests as a systematic intervention for underachieving gifted students. This approach specifically targeted student strengths and interests and helped reverse academic underachievement in over half of the sample (Baum, Renzulli, & Hebert, 1995). Emerick (1992) also found underachievers responded well to “interventions incorporating educational modifications which focus on individual strengths and interests” (p. 140).

Attainment Value
Attainment value is the importance students attach to the task as it relates to their conception of their identity and ideals or their competence in a given domain (Wigfield, 1994). For example, students who identify themselves as athletes set goals related to their sport. Students who pride themselves on being good students seek affirmation in the form of grades or test scores. These students are motivated to attain the goals because they are associated with the students’ perceptions of who they are. Providing students with models who value academic achievement may be one way to increase attainment value. Rimm (1995) suggested that same sex models who resemble the student in some way are the most effective models. In addition, educators can personalize the school experience by helping students to integrate academic goals into their ideals. Educators can help students to become more personally invested in their educational experience by making it meaningful for them.

Utility Value
Utility value is how the task relates to future goals. While students may not enjoy an activity, they may value a later reward or outcome it produces (Wigfield, 1994). The activity must be integral to their vision of their future, or it must be instrumental to their pursuit of other goals. Because goals can play a key role in attaining later outcomes, educators and parents should help students see beyond the immediate activity to the long-term benefits it produces. Teachers need to be able to answer the common query, “Why do we have to study this stuff?” Research on gifted underachievers has demonstrated the importance of valuing academic and career goals on students’ eventual reversal of their underachievement. Peterson (2000) followed achieving and underachieving gifted high school students into college. She found gifted achievers developed early career direction and focus, suggesting that having aspirations and future goals may encourage academic achievement. Emerick (1992) reported that former underachievers were able to reverse their underachievement through the development of attainable goals that were both personally motivating and directly related to academic success.

One way to increase the value of the task is to positively reinforce students for completing the task. Extrinsic motivation is the motive to complete an activity to receive an external reward or positive reinforcement that is external to the activity itself. Extrinsic motivators include rewards such as stickers, praise, grades, special privileges, prizes, money, material rewards, adult attention, or peer admiration. Teachers should use extrinsic motivators carefully, as Lepper’s overjustification hypothesis suggests that providing extrinsic rewards for an intrinsically motivating activity can decrease a person’s subsequent intrinsic motivation for that activity (Pintrich & Schunk, 1996).

Finally, Eccles and Wigfield stress the importance of “cost” in an individual’s decision to engage in an activity. “Cost refers to how the decision to engage in one activity (e.g., doing schoolwork) limits access to other activities (e.g., calling friends), assessments of how much effort will be taken to accomplish the activity, and its emotional cost” (Wigfield & Eccles, 2000). When the cost of an activity is too high, individuals may choose not to engage in that activity, even if they enjoy the activity or value the outcome of the activity. Therefore, we must assess the hidden costs of academic achievement when working with underachievers. Conversely, the high cost of failure can also impel someone toward achievement.

We have explored four different components of students’ value structure:

  • intrinsic value (interest)
  • attainment value (personal importance and meaningfulness)
  • utility value (usefulness)
  • cost

Each of these four components contributes in an additive fashion to students’ overall incentive to engage in a particular achievement. For example, students who find a task both interesting and useful should display greater motivation than students who find the activity either useful but not interesting or interesting but not useful. Students who experience high utility value, high interest value, high attainment value, and low cost for a given task should be highly motivated to complete the task. While strengthening value in one area (i.e.- interest) can compensate for low task value in another area (i.e.- utility), ideally we want to try to maximize all three components of task value and minimize the cost of engaging in the activity.

In the remainder of this handbook, we will provide strategies and interventions designed to increase the task value associated with scholastic tasks. You can implement the suggested classroom strategies with the entire class. They should have a positive impact on any student’s motivation. The individual conferences are designed specifically for use with academic underachievers.


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