The Impact of the NCEA on the Student Motivation

Publication Details

This research project investigated the relationship between New Zealand’s National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) and student motivation to learn.

Author(s): Luanna Meyer, John McClure, Frank Walkey, Lynanne McKenzie & Kirsty Weir, Victoria University of Wellington. Report prepared for the Ministry of Education.

Date Published: June 2006

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Executive Summary

The Impact of NCEA on Student Motivation project was funded by a Ministry of Education research contract awarded to researchers at Victoria University in the College of Education and the School of Psychology.  This multi-method research project investigated the relationship between New Zealand's National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) and student motivation to learn based on survey and interview data with a large sample of students from 20 demographically representative secondary schools from throughout the country.  Students in these schools attending Years 10, 11, 12 and 13 in 2005 participated in the research from late 2005 to early 2006, completing a self-report survey and allowing access to official achievement records where available.  Student input was also obtained through focus group and individual interviews. Focus groups with parents and teachers provided additional input regarding issues raised from the student voices.

These data were analysed both quantitatively and qualitatively as appropriate, providing evidence of interrelationships among how students think about study choices, their school learning and various aspects of NCEA and other assessments. For students in Years 11-13, these self-reports were correlated with actual student achievement and other self-reports regarding future plans and what they liked or disliked about NCEA and the Record of Learning (ROL).  The results provide a substantive source of information regarding student perspectives on motivation and NCEA and the relationship of those attitudes and predispositions to their actual academic achievement and learning patterns.

Key findings are consistent with existing motivation theory and research but also reveal issues specific to NCEA of relevance to school efforts to maximise student motivation and academic performance.  Our key findings include information regarding strengths associated with features of NCEA as well as concerns regarding some qualifications design aspects that might require modification to enhance the likelihood of achieving the original goals set for implementation of NCEA as a standards-based qualification.

Key Findings

In this section, we present key findings organised into four areas: influences on subject choices, the relationship of achievement and motivation orientation, qualification design issues, and understandings about NCEA.  We also provide an overall summary of areas of major agreement regarding positive perceptions about certain features of NCEA and concerns regarding the impact of some aspects of NCEA that might be modified or adapted to better support student learning and motivation. 

Influences on Subject Choice 

  • Students predominantly chose subjects because they were of interest to them and, secondly, because the subject was related to a future job or career goal.  They were less influenced by advice from parents, friends, or school personnel such as teachers, deans or careers advisors. 
  • However, students achieving fewer credits and with the lowest grade averages were more likely to choose subjects because of external factors such as what their friends were doing, or chose options that fitted into their schedule or part-time work commitments.
  • Girls were more likely than boys to make subject choices based on future career goals and personal interests, but there were no gender differences for the influence of external factors.
  • As students progressed in the senior school, influences on subject choice shifted towards selecting what interested them and what they need for future career or job goals.  However, this finding could be affected by changes in the student population as well as maturation. Students more influenced by external factors at Year 11 may be those leaving school early, thus affecting findings for Year 13.
  • Students in the senior school who were motivated by Doing My Best were most likely to select subjects based on interest and career goals, while students motivated by Doing Just Enough chose subjects because of external factors and not because of interest or career goals.
  • Different motives for subject choice had significant relationships to what students like and dislike about NCEA.  Students who chose subjects because of interest and importance for future goals were high on the Getting Feedback and Excellence and low on the Work Avoidance factors.  Students who based subject choice on external factors were high on Work Avoidance and also somewhat high on Getting Feedback. 
  • Asian students attributed their subject choices to utility or importance more than European and Māori students, and Pasifika students attributed subject choices to this factor more than did European or Māori students.  Māori and Pasifika students attributed subject choices to external influences more than European and Asian students; they were also less likely to attribute subject choices to interest than European and Asian students.
  • Receiving a fee rebate was not related to subject choices based on interest, but was associated with being influenced by external factors and by the utility or importance of the subject more than for students not receiving a fee rebate.

Relationship of Motivation and School Achievement 

  • The strongest predictors of high academic achievement and higher grades were a high motivation orientation towards Doing My Best and a low motivation orientation towards Doing Just Enough.  Longitudinal research with the Year 10 students could investigate whether early self-ratings on these motivation orientations predict student achievement.
  • Self-reports of being motivated by Doing Just Enough predicted fewer credits achieved, and students who scored high on Work Avoidance were less likely to gain achievement standard credits overall or with Merit or Excellence, had a lower grade average, and were more likely to gain unit standards. The grade average finding is likely to be affected by disproportionately lower opportunity to demonstrate Merit on unit standards.
  • The statistics on the relationship between motives and numbers of achieved standards show that there was a negative relationship between the motive to do just enough and the number of credits achieved.  This means that those students who reported this motive were acquiring fewer credits. This may mean that many of them will not obtain enough credits to actually get by, because people do not always achieve exactly what they aim for. So students aiming to do just enough may actually fail to achieve their goal, not because they lack the required ability but because their motivation orientation leads them to achieve less than they are capable of.  If these same students are motivated to do their best, they are more likely to pass the required number of credits, and also obtain Merit and Excellence grades.
  • Students scoring high on wanting to demonstrate Excellence were likely to have a higher grade average on achievement standards, more likely to achieve credits with a grade of Merit or Excellence, and accumulated achievement standards rather than unit standards. 
  • Students who chose subjects based on future goals or personal interest in or enjoyment of the subject were more likely to enrol in achievement standards and showed higher academic achievement. They were less likely to take unit standards, more likely to achieve a grade of Merit or Excellence on achievement standards, and had higher grade point averages (GPAs) overall (results likely to be affected by increased opportunities associated with achievement standards in comparison with unit standards).
  • Students who gained unit standard credits were likely to gain fewer achievement standard credits, and they were more likely to select subjects based on external influences than because of either future goals or interest.
  • Ethnicity was related to the numbers of unit standard credits attained, with Māori and Pasifika students achieving more unit standard credits than European and Asian students, and Asian students achieving fewer unit standards than European students.
  • Getting feedback on their academic achievement was an issue for a diverse group of students and not only those who are either high or low achieving.  Students from low decile schools were more interested in getting feedback than those from middle and high decile schools.

Qualification Design Issues 

  • There is evidence that the 80-credit requirement encourages a minimalist approach by students.  Many students agreed that it was hard to be motivated to do more than the minimum 80 credits and many indicated there is little motivation to aim for Merit or Excellence when these credits carried no extra value. 
  • Students who commented on opportunities to attain Merit and Excellence generally expressed perceptions that the system did not adequately recognise achievement at the level of Merit and Excellence.
  • Students commented that the current grade bands of Achieved, Not Achieved, Merit and Excellence were too broad and do not provide enough information on their learning and performance.  Many students added suggestions for letter grades, options to score each achieved band as high/middle/low, and a system of percentage points.
  • Some students wanted to be able to compare themselves with others, and many students wanted more feedback regarding their own performance.  Students wanting comparison information were most likely to ask for percentage grades.
  • Students were extremely positive about the mix of internal and external assessment, which they saw as an opportunity to guide their learning as they mastered learning goals and to spread their workload across the year. 
  • Students were more positive about internal assessment than external examinations, but many students felt strongly that external examinations were important as evidence of quality and consistency across schools and in order to have information that will be respected for University Entrance, by employers, and internationally.
  • There was evidence that certain design features about the assessment of achievement standards were disincentives to maximising student motivation and achievement, for both high achievers and all students. These include the ability to not do parts of a course that the student didn't like, not completing assessments where the student expected to do poorly, being able to avoid subjects and standards seen as challenging to one's learning, and not sitting external examinations, particularly once the student has achieved the minimum number of credits needed. Such features could have a negative long-term impact on persistence and endeavour factors seen as necessary for being successful in the future.
  • The students who commented were adamant about what they saw was an illogical and unfair system where it is possible to fail certain achievement standards despite passing Merit or Excellence questions.  
  • Those students who attained primarily unit standards showed less positive motivation orientations and more limited achievement outcomes than students who attain primarily achievement standards, where Merit and Excellence are available options.  Some students commented on feeling disadvantaged by the lack of opportunity to demonstrate Merit or Excellence for unit standards generally.
  • Students expressed concerns about uneven opportunities for subject choices and access to study at the next level of NCEA across schools, with students at some schools reporting that they felt disadvantaged in comparison with students at other schools where more choices and opportunities seemed to be available.
  • Students expressed perceptions that standards differed in level of difficulty and time required for assessment across subjects.

Understandings about NCEA

  • Students interviewed late in Year 10 reported that their knowledge of NCEA was limited, but those interviewed again early in Year 11 reported that their schools and subject teachers had already provided them with information about NCEA generally, achievement standards, choosing subjects and accumulating credits towards the certificates.
  • Students saw a number of positive features in NCEA, particularly with regard to its flexibility and choice options.  However, there were also concerns expressed by some students, teachers and parents regarding whether all students were mature enough to make decisions that could have an important impact on future opportunities.
  • Students and parents reported having read and seen media reports about NCEA that were primarily negative, and those who commented that things still needed to be "fixed" were also likely to state that they felt the system appeared to be getting better.
  • Where students expressed personal concerns about NCEA, these focused primarily on issues important to them individually rather than on the system overall, such as getting feedback or more information from grade bands. Students were also most likely to express interest in the international reputation of NCEA and what employers or overseas universities think about NCEA.
  • Students and parents interviewed early in 2006 reported that they had seen television advertisements about the Team-Up website, and they indicated they intended to visit the website though had not yet done so.   
  • Students reported that their parents did not understand NCEA unless they had an older sibling already involved in NCEA. During our interviews early in 2006, students and parents often mentioned that they had recently received information from school about NCEA.
  • Parents indicated their strong support for NCEA in principle while showing a willingness to critique aspects that, from their perspective, require modification and improvement based on their judgement of impact on students.

Overall Key Findings: Positive Perceptions and Concerns

There was general agreement overall across teachers, parents and students as well as across our various data sources with regard to major key findings. These included generally positive perceptions regarding the impact of internal assessment on both teaching and student learning; more opportunities for success by lower achieving students who might otherwise have failed; and increased choice and flexibility that can be exercised by students in selecting areas of study and assessment. Students generally viewed internal assessment as enhancing their study patterns and performance as well as enabling them to pace their workload better than what would otherwise occur with only end of year examinations.  They commented frequently as well about opportunities to improve their performance by repeating internal assessments. Teachers reported that internal assessment had sharpened their awareness of the effectiveness of their teaching and focused their teaching on those issues that were seen as most important and/or relating to the various achievement standards.

Areas of concern included perceptions by students and parents of inconsistencies and variability across subjects and schools, including what some saw as unclear, inconsistent and/or unfair marking and grading criteria and practices; whether aspects adequately motivate and recognise excellence; and certain patterns of credit accumulation seen as disincentives for students not already motivated to do their best. While positive about opportunities for all students to achieve different three levels of NCEA, students and teachers also expressed concern that the 80-credit requirement could be a maximum rather than minimum goal, negatively affecting motivation by some students to continue learning after attaining the credits needed. Teachers and parents were positive about the overall impact of NCEA on many students, particularly those who were low achieving, felt that high achieving students would work hard no matter what, but had concerns that some aspects of credit accumulation and assessments could motivate students to "do just enough" rather than do their best.  Teachers and students were concerned about the possibility that assessment could drive teaching and learning rather than the curriculum.  There was some concern by teachers that assessment could fragment subject understandings in some areas where integration, synthesis and/or evaluation across standards were seen as critical. There were many insightful suggestions regarding how the assessments and qualification aspects might be adapted or refined to address concerns.    

Future Research Issues

Students' school performance will be influenced by their beliefs about their own abilities as well as by existing motivation orientations and personal characteristics such as perseverance. These in turn are influenced by demographic and environmental variables such as gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, family, school characteristics, and teacher behaviours—all of which can be relevant to the design of effective interventions that will have a positive impact on learning. Our findings are consistent with existing theory and international research evidence revealing strong relationships between school performance and motivation orientations and highlighting the need to incorporate understandings of student motivational orientations and beliefs into educational practice. These student dispositions and attributions are themselves amenable to change and can be influenced by what teachers do.  In fact, there is strong support for the proposition that the design of effective interventions towards achieving a long-term impact on student learning outcomes requires consideration of student motivational orientations for anything other than short-term behaviour change.   

Longitudinal research is required to investigate variables associated with enhanced student motivation and school learning and the design of effective interventions at secondary level towards positive educational outcomes.  Findings for this large sample of students from Years 10-13 could provide a starting point for any future design alterations and modifications of teaching and assessment in our secondary schools. For example, the younger students in our sample could be followed forward to investigate the predictive validity of their responses on selected survey items to later actual achievement, providing a potentially useful tool to incorporate into the design and evaluation of interventions to better motivate student academic and school achievement.

Longitudinal research would also enable our educational system to monitor for unanticipated positive and negative side effects based on the actual evidence of student attitudes and achievement, rather than media reports or political agenda. Particularly when an educational innovation is motivated by presumed benefits to students, outcomes should be monitored to investigate those features of the innovation that are either working well or require modification. Recommendations from various stakeholder groups will be informed by perceptions of positive and negative aspects of the qualification for students and their learning, and this stakeholder input is important and relevant for determining the affordability, social acceptability and perceived utility of approaches to the assessment of learning outcomes and the award of qualifications. However, empirical evidence of patterns of impact on motivational orientations and student achievement is crucial to educational decision-making. Student voice and longitudinal data of student perceptions and educational achievements can offer compelling evidence to guide directions in educational policy and qualifications design.

Interestingly, we have only limited information about what parents know and think about various dimensions of our educational system and particular educational innovations in comparison with what we know about professional perspectives. Parents are key stakeholders in this process, were themselves part of the educational process at one time, and play a critical role in the governance of our schools.  Future research might also include more information on parent perceptions and knowledge about the qualification and aspects of assessment of learning and achievement. In particular, their understandings of student motivational orientations can play an important part in the design and evaluation of educational approaches designed to enhance outcomes for our young people.

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