Motivation and engagement are vital to students’ enjoyment of school and study.

They are also critical in students’ academic achievement (Martin, 2003, 2010).

Many factors shape a student’s motivation and engagement, including teachers, parents, peers - along with factors such as socio-economic background, cultural background, and even one’s personality. In this article, the role of gender is explored.

Research has shown that girls are more engaged and motivated than boys; girls tend to outperform boys in a number of academic areas; suspension rates are higher for boys than girls; and teachers report that boys are less able to concentrate, less determined to solve problems, and less productive (see Martin, 2003 for a summary).

However, most of this research has tended to focus on individual aspects of motivation and engagement - for example, only on self-efficacy, or on persistence, or on anxiety. To best understand the role of gender, it is important to look at a wide range of motivation and engagement factors.

This is where the Motivation and Engagement Wheel (Martin, 2010) has been helpful. 


The Motivation and Engagement Wheel

The Wheel (below) identifies positive and negative aspects of motivation and engagement. 

(Reproduced with permission from A.J. Martin and Lifelong Achievement Group (download Wheel from lifelongachievement.com)


Self-belief: Self-belief is students’ belief and confidence in their ability to understand or to do well in schoolwork, to meet challenges they face, and to perform to the best of their ability. 
    
Valuing school: Valuing school is how much students believe what they learn at school is useful, relevant, meaningful, and important.

Learning focus: Students who are learning focused are interested in learning, developing new skills, improving, understanding new things, and doing a good job for its own sake and not just for rewards or the marks they will get for their efforts.

Persistence: Persistence is how much students keep trying to work out an answer or to understand a problem, even if that problem is difficult or challenging. 
    
Planning (and monitoring): Planning refers to how much students plan assignments, homework and study. Monitoring refers to the strategies used to keep track of their progress.

Task management: Task management refers to how students use their study or homework time, organise a study or homework timetable, and choose and arrange where they study or do homework.
    
Anxiety: Anxiety has two parts: feeling nervous and worrying. Feeling nervous is the uneasy or sick feeling students get when they think about or do their schoolwork, assignments, or tests. Worrying is their fear about not doing very well in schoolwork, assignments, or tests. 

Uncertain control: Students have an uncertain or low sense of control when they are unsure how to do well or how to avoid doing poorly. 

Failure avoidance: Students are failure avoidant when the main reason they do their schoolwork is to avoid doing poorly or letting others down.

Self-sabotage: Students self-sabotage when they do things that reduce their success at school. Examples are putting off doing an assignment or wasting time while they are meant to be doing homework or studying for a test. 

Disengagement: Disengagement refers to thoughts and feelings of giving up, trying less each week, detachment from school and schoolwork, feelings of helplessness, and little or no involvement in class or school activities. 

Assessing Students Using the Motivation and Engagement Scale

The Motivation and Engagement Scale (Martin, 2015) is used in schools (e.g., by teachers, counsellors, psychologists) to assess students on each part of the Wheel. There is a primary school version (Motivation and Engagement Scale - Junior School) and a high school version (Motivation and Engagement Scale - High School).

Students answer a set of questions for each part of the Wheel and receive a score that can be compared against Australian norms. It takes about 15 minutes to complete. There are 11 parts of the Wheel and thus students receive 11 scores.

Students’ scores can be used to provide educational assistance, information to teachers and parents, or to benchmark year groups or the entire school. This article describes findings of the most up-to-date and largest Australian datasets using the Motivation and Engagement Scale. 

Students in the Study: Primary and High School

The primary school sample comprised 1911 students from 19 government and non-government primary schools. The average age of students was 11 years. In total, 54 per cent of primary school students were boys and 46 per cent girls. The high school sample comprised 37,157 students from 100 government and non-government high schools. The average age of students was 14 years. In total, 54 per cent of high school students were boys and 46 per cent girls. 

Students were asked to complete the Motivation and Engagement Scale in class online or in hard copy. The primary school students completed the Motivation and Engagement Scale - Junior School (MES-JS) and the high school students completed the Motivation and Engagement Scale - High School (MES-HS). 

What Was Found?

Primary school: In the table below are the scores (out of 100) for girls and boys in primary school. Here we see that on all of the positive motivation and engagement factors (self-belief, valuing, learning focus, planning, task management, persistence), girls score higher than boys. Girls are lower than boys in negative engagement (self-sabotage and disengagement). However, girls are higher than boys on two of the negative motivation dimensions (anxiety and uncertain control).


 
Primary School
High School
 
Girls (/100)
Boys (/100)
Girls (/100)
Boys (/100)

Positive Motivation (higher scores are better)

Self-belief
86
85
81
81
Valuing school
90
88
81
80
Learning focus
87
84
84
81

Positive Engagement (higher scores are better)

Planning and monitoring
75
71
62
60
Task management
81
76
71
68
Persistence
79
76
71
69

Negative Motivation (lower scores are better)

Anxiety
64
59
64
58
Failure avoidance
53
53
46
46
Uncertain control
51
49
50
49

Negative Engagement (lower scores are better)

Self-sabotage
39
42
39
40
Disengagement
33
37
35
35

High school: The table below also shows the average scores (out of 100) for high school students. Girls score higher than boys on most of the positive motivation and engagement factors (valuing, learning focus, planning, task management, persistence). As with the primary school students, high school girls are lower than boys in negative engagement (self-sabotage and disengagement). However, girls are higher than boys on two of the negative motivation dimensions (anxiety and uncertain control). 


What is interesting about these results is that the gender differences in motivation and engagement tend to be larger in primary school than in high school - especially for positive motivation and engagement. This is because in high school the effects of gender are different for each stage of adolescent development.

Take positive motivation and engagement as an example. In the graph below, the overall average scores (/100) are shown for boys and girls at three stages of adolescence: 11-13 years, 14-15 years, and 16+ years. We see that between 11-13 years (early high school) and 14-15 years (middle high school), there is a decline for both girls and boys in positive motivation and engagement (though, girls are always at a higher point). However, by 16+ years (senior high school), girls’ positive motivation and engagement improves whereas boys’ positive motivation and engagement does not.



Conclusion

There are gender trends on key facets of motivation and engagement. In primary school, the differences are reasonably clear, with girls generally more motivated and engaged than boys. In high school, gender differences are more complex, depending on the stage of adolescence: boys and girls decline in motivation and engagement from the start to the middle of high school, but girls improve in senior high school whereas boys do not. Although girls are generally more motivated than boys, there are some motivation factors (e.g., anxiety) on which they are not travelling so well. 

Although most of the gender differences are not large, given the sample sizes involved, they can be considered reliable differences. To the extent that this is the case, practitioners are to be mindful of them as they teach and counsel students. These results provide further information to practitioners as they aim to address girls’ and boys’ motivational pathways through primary and high school - and beyond.

References

Martin, A.J. (2003). How to motivate your child for school and beyond. Sydney: Random House/Bantam.
Martin, A.J. (2010). Building classroom success: Eliminating academic fear and failure. New York: Continuum.
Martin, A.J. (2015). The Motivation and Engagement Scale. Sydney, Australia: Lifelong Achievement Group lifelongachievement.com.