Longitudinal Research on NCEA and Student Motivation

Publication Details

The Longitudinal Research on the Relationship between the NCEA and Student Motivation and Achievement was funded by a Ministry of Education research contract awarded to researchers at Victoria University.

Author(s): Luanna Meyer, Kirsty Weir, John McClure, Frank Walkey & Lynanne McKenzie

Date Published: 15 July 2007

Executive Summary

Longitudinal Research on the Relationships between NCEA and Student Motivation and Achievement was funded as a series of studies by a Ministry of Education research contract awarded to researchers at Victoria University in the Jessie Hetherington Centre for Educational Research and the School of Psychology.  This multi-method project is the second phase of longitudinal research planned across multiple years to investigate the relationship between New Zealand's National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) and student motivation to learn. 

Survey, interview and achievement data are reported for a large sample of students from 20 demographically representative secondary schools across the country.  Students attending Years 10, 11 and 12 who participated in the previous study in 2005 were followed in Years 11, 12 and 13 in 2006 in order to examine relationships between 2005 motivation orientations, 2005 achievement results and 2006 achievement data.  A follow-up of school leavers who had completed Year 13 in 2005 explores attitudes towards the NCEA in relationship to tertiary study in 2006-2007.  A new student screening tool based on previous survey results was administered in 2006 to students in Years 10 and 11 at 18 schools; results for students in Year 11 were compared with previous Year 10 survey results and Year 11 achievement data in 2006.  The influences of part-time work were examined in relationship to reported motivation orientations and achievement.  Finally, parents, teachers, and students were interviewed from a range of schools located across the country, including wharekura and Auckland region schools. 

Data from interviews, survey results, achievement records, and relationships between motivation orientations and achievement were analysed separately using the appropriate quantitative and qualitative methods.  These were then reviewed collectively so that triangulated data sources informed one another prior to final interpretation.  Of particular interest to this research is the longitudinal development of motivation orientations as a predictor of subsequent achievement and the extent to which knowledge of these student motivation orientations could be used to inform educational practice to enhance achievement.

This report extends our earlier findings regarding the relationship of key aspects of NCEA with student motivation orientations and achievement (Meyer, McClure, Walkey, McKenzie & Weir, 2006). Issues specific to NCEA that are of relevance to school efforts to maximise student motivation and academic performance are summarised, and strengths and concerns associated with design features of NCEA highlighted. Findings are generally consistent with motivation theory and research and add significant new evidence regarding the potential impact of school practice and student outcomes. Our longitudinal data also reveal areas for further investigation of motivation towards learning including continued development of a motivation screening tool reflective of New Zealand's cultural context.

Key Research Findings

In this section, we summarise key findings from our research on influences of aspects of the NCEA on student motivation and achievement. The first part highlights findings according to the original research questions, and the second part organises these findings by study.

Influences on Subject Choice

Students who reported they selected subjects based on their Interest in the subject or perceived Utility/Importance of the subject demonstrated significantly higher academic achievement at follow-up compared to those students selecting subjects for External reasons. During instruction from their teachers, students valued direct information regarding how subjects and tasks related to the real world, including possible future jobs and tertiary study.  Students were more likely to note the relevance of subjects to tertiary study and University Entrance; they seemed less informed about the relevance of subjects to jobs and career pathways.  Similarly, teachers were most likely to mention subjects relevant to future tertiary study and less likely to relate subjects and tasks to jobs and career pathways.

Influences of Part-Time Work 

Relatively high percentages of students in Year 10 (32%) and Year 11 (41%) reported working part time.  Of students working part time, those working 1-10 hours per week on average showed the most positive pattern of achievement.  Those working more than 15 hours per week attained the highest number of unit standard credits overall but otherwise showed the least positive achievement pattern. Students reporting no part-time work showed fewer positive patterns of achievement than those who worked 1-15 hours weekly.  Our findings are consistent with international research findings regarding a "threshold." That is, students working up to a certain number of hours show increasingly positive achievement results, while those working beyond the threshold number (e.g., 10 hours weekly) show increasingly negative achievement outcomes.

Relationship between Motivation Orientations and School Achievement 

In 2006, we identified two motivation orientations to learning and learning tasks that were related to achievement as measured by the NCEA, which we labelled Doing My Best and Doing Just Enough. These two orientations were the strongest predictors of subsequent school achievement on the NCEA a year later and were also stable across a two-year period. Our follow-up analysis for the items identified to measure these two motivation orientations supports the predictive validity and utility of the screening tool. Students with a Doing My Best orientation recorded more total credits overall, more achievement standard credits, and more credits achieved with Merit and with Excellence.  Students with a Doing Just Enough orientation recorded fewer credits overall, fewer achievement standards credits, fewer credits with Merit and with Excellence, more unit standard credits and more Not Attempted standards.

Attitudes towards Motivation and Achievement

Our focus group data suggest that teachers and parents at high decile schools were inclined to accept categorisation of students as poorly-motivated versus well-motivated as well as high, middle or low achieving groups. In contrast, preliminary focus group data from teachers and students at wharekura and low decile schools rejected categorizations and instead considered that all students can be motivated to do their best to achieve. These results suggest that teacher, parent and student attitudes about whether motivations can be changed are crucial to interventions to promote positive student achievement.

Relationships of Attributions to Achievement 

Students who attributed their best work to internal factors of ability and effort showed the most positive achievement pattern overall and were most likely to report the Doing My Best orientation.  Students reporting a Doing Just Enough orientation were more likely to attribute best marks to luck and worst marks to a lack of ability.  They were more likely to attain credits with Achieved rather than Merit or Excellence.  These findings for attributions are consistent with the self-serving bias said to be common in Western cultures whereby one takes credit for successes and attributes failure more to external causes.  However, students showing the Doing Just Enough motivation orientation credit both success and failure to external causes.  This suggests that they will have little motivation to exert more effort in future tasks and opportunities unless strategies are identified to change these motivations and attributions.

Attitudes on Aspects of Qualifications Design 

Parents, teachers and students across our data sources continued to raise issues regarding grading practices, consistency, recognition of high achievement, and the nature of feedback to students. These data were collected prior to the announced changes to aspects of the qualification such as the endorsement of the Certificate for Merit and Excellence; increased moderation of internal assessment and endorsement of subjects for Merit and Excellence.  The parity and equivalence of unit and achievement standards was seen as a challenge rather than an accomplishment.  Again, the data were gathered prior to the announced review of unit standards.  As we reported in 2006, internal assessment continued to be seen as a major strength of the NCEA in providing students with ongoing feedback on their learning as well as assisting them to structure their study workload throughout the year. Although ours was a small and non-representative sample, graduates who had gone on to tertiary degree study were strongly supportive of NCEA internal assessment component as having prepared them for assessment at University level.

Understandings about NCEA

Focus groups of Year 10 students in 2006 appeared to have more information about NCEA compared to Year 10 students in 2005.  These students indicated that while their teachers and schools had made information available to them including sending materials home, most of their information came from older siblings and friends who had experienced the NCEA. They were knowledgeable about the major features of the NCEA including credit requirements, subject choice, literacy and numeracy requirements, the availability of Merit and Excellence, and the incorporation of both internal and external assessments. When concerns were expressed, these related to grading anomalies (e.g., passing Excellence questions but failing for not passing an Achieved question); wanting more grade bands; and wanting more recognition for high achievement. There was less mention of media coverage in 2006-2007 in comparison to focus groups from 2005-2006, but when media coverage was mentioned they saw it as primarily negative. 

Key Findings by Study

Study 1: Follow-Forward of Senior Students  

The longitudinal findings in Study 1 are consistent with the cross-sectional findings in our previous report (Meyer et al., 2006).  Those students demonstrating higher achievement outcomes in 2006 had, in the previous year, based their subject choices on interest, the importance of the subject and its utility for future career goals. They were also more motivated to do their best and get recognition. Those students demonstrating lower achievement outcomes in 2006 had, in the previous year, based their subject choices on external factors unrelated to usefulness or interest. They were motivated by doing just enough and work avoidance orientations. These findings suggest that students' attitudes to subject choice and motivation may have significant consequences for subsequent achievement.

Study 2: Follow-Forward of School Leavers

The sample in Study 2 is small and not representative, but it does show that students with positive motivations as Year 13 students in 2005 are mostly at University and advancing their education in 2006 and 2007.  These students also stress that the internal assessment aspects of NCEA prepared them well for university assessment practices.

Study 3: Predicting Achievement from Motivation Orientations

Study 3 shows that a brief screening tool for student motivation not only correlates with the longer motivation survey developed by Meyer et al. (2006), but has high reliability and generates highly predictive results.  The findings show that even with this short 8-item measure of motivation, the two motives of Doing My Best and Doing Just Enough are strong predictors of student achievement in NCEA, with Doing My Best predicting positive outcomes and Doing Just Enough predicting relatively negative performance.  Aspects of our findings also support the development of an additional subscale to measure social and "belongingness" dimensions of motivation.

Further, our results show that these motivations relate to students' attributions for their performance in an English exam or test.  Students who report Doing My Best attributed their best result to their own efforts and ability and discounted luck, whereas students motivated to Do Just Enough discounted the role of effort and ability and attribute their best result to luck.  Students' attributions for their own results also had a direct relation to their actual grades in NCEA.  Students who attributed their results to their own effort and ability and discounted luck were the ones who gained more Merit and Excellence grades. The reverse pattern is shown for students who obtained more unit standards and more Achieved level grades. These findings show that students' perceptions of their own motivations and the causes of their success and failure are interconnected and relate to their actual outcomes. This short measure thus shows strong potential as a screening measure for students in order to tap those motivations and attitudes that hamper performance.

Study 3 also revealed that students engaged in moderate amounts of part-time work (1-10 hours per week) show a higher level of achievement than students doing no part-time work or students doing more than 10 hours part-time work per week.

Study 4: Attitudes towards Motivation, Achievement, and the NCEA

Study 4 largely replicates the findings from our 2006 research report and offers further support to the recently announced design changes to the NCEA to be effected in 2007 and 2008.  There was widespread support for the internal assessment components of NCEA combined with external assessment, accompanied by suggestions regarding how to improve grading and feedback to students as well as the recognition of excellence.   There was also support for subject choice and being able to choose standards.  These findings can be juxtaposed with those from the graduate follow-up.  School leavers similarly valued internal assessment but also raised the issues of ensuring that choice did not mean missing out critical subject knowledge needed for future endeavours such as university study.

Parents, teachers and students alike indicated that students selected subjects based on interest and the nature of the activities during instruction.  Students additionally emphasised that better linkages between subjects and activities to future career and study goals, utility/importance issues, needed to be made directly by their teachers.  There was a tendency for the parents and the teachers from higher decile schools to categorise students as either highly motivated or poorly motivated, rather than seeing motivation as a dynamic orientation that can be changed.  Teachers and students from low decile schools and wharekura expressed a different perspective, seeing achievement as accessible to all students and motivation as a factor affected by the teaching and learning process.  Nevertheless, pathways from school to the future beyond NCEA were not clearly articulated by any group other than the non-specific goal of attaining University Entrance. How NCEA could be tailored and utilised to plan for future careers and possibilities other than attending tertiary were not raised.

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