Published May 11, 2020
This article is part of our “Determinants and the pandemic” series, which examines certain determinants of school perseverance in light of the current crisis and its attendant measures.
Numerous studies demonstrate a strong connection between motivation and staying in school. Bouffard, for instance, posits that a sense of self-efficacy, one of the dimensions of motivation, is among the most important determinants of performance and perseverance at school.
↑ sense of self-efficacy = ↑ motivation = ↑ performance and perseverance at school
A sense of self-efficacy is defined as a student’s “perception of an activity’s value, their ability to carry it out, and their control over how it is carried out.”
Data from the 2017 TOPO and 2016–2017 QHSHSS surveys suggest that among grade 6 students in Montréal who have a low sense of self-efficacy, 14% are at a high risk of dropping out, while for those with a high sense of self-efficacy, this percentage falls to 1%.
Many studies show that the factors contributing to a sense of self-efficacy include:
- “As students get older, their sense of self-efficacy declines.”
- The transition to high school is a key moment that marks a significant decline in students’ motivation.
- Parental practices, such as having high but realistic expectations, also play an important role in maintaining a student’s sense of self-efficacy and, thus, their motivation.
The specialist in education during crisis situations Olivier Arvisais,* has observed various impacts on students’ schooling when educational services are interrupted during humanitarian crises, and he has made certain parallels with the situation currently being experienced in Québec:
- “We know, for example, that prolonged pauses in school are a problem for some students with learning disabilities or who have limited resources.”
- “We have observed lower grades and less motivation and interest. This has been well documented.”
- “We have also observed that this affects student’s perseverance at school, with more absenteeism and dropping out for at-risk students.”
Research by Jean-Michel Robichaud also provides a lens through which to better understand the relationship between environmental pressures (such as stresses associated with COVID-19), the practices of so-called “controlling” parents, and children’s motivation to learn at school.
- For instance, a certain proportion of parents tested in a stressful situation had a tendency to develop stricter education-related behaviours (imposing working methods, giving judgemental feedback, showing less empathy).
- Moreover, children in this group reported having sub-optimal motivation (such as taking the test out fear of being punished).
The research posits that “it is reasonable to think that the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, combined with the lockdown, puts pressure on parents that could undermine their patience and inadvertently lead them to adopt less-than-optimal practices.”
Motivation is related to anticipation. “Motivation and behaviour regulation thus stem from a perception of the future; in other words, you are more likely to succeed if you believe you can succeed.” In the current ever-changing situation, in which students do not know whether or not school will resume or under what conditions, it is highly likely that the general sense of anticipation will affect their school motivation and, by the same token, their sense of self-efficacy.
Sense of self-efficacy
The sense of self-efficacy so vital to motivation could be affected for some people. The current situation could affect the value placed on schoolwork; children’s, teens’, and young adults’ sense of their ability to do it; and the amount of control they feel in doing it.
Chief among the concerns raised are:
- Since elementary school students no longer have to follow a curriculum or meet specific requirements such as doing assignments or presenting in class to complete the school year, what value will they subsequently place on schoolwork at the start of next year?
- For teens whose schools will not reopen until September and who will receive schooling outside of the classroom for many months, will this have a greater effect on the value placed on schoolwork? Will the motivation to complete an online curriculum be affected? What impact will distance schooling have on students with low grades—students whose difficulty in self-motivating has frequently been observed.
- After a school year truncated by almost one-third and with no final exams, passing the year will be at teachers’ discretion. “[I]t is vital that parents and people working with youth believe that students can succeed…” Some young people may also be discouraged and feel that a teacher’s final decision is unfair. Others may be pleasantly surprised at passing to the next grade. It is quite possible that this has a short-term effect on a student’s sense of control over their final grades and on their feeling of self-efficacy.
- Many young adults must do assignments remotely to complete general education programs for adults or vocational training. This completely different learning environment limits the benchmarks they might gain in the classroom and in discussions with classmates and teachers, which could reduce their sense of self-efficacy and motivation.
THE ROLE OF PARENTS
Parental behaviour can have a significant effect on students’ motivation and engagement toward school. Maintaining a positive climate of support in this equation is not always easy for parents when they are themselves grappling with a wide range of emotions and uncertainty.
Children currently need greater support from parents to carry out schoolwork assigned remotely during the lockdown. Parents who find this transition more difficult may not be in a position to fully assume this new role, which could have the effect of reducing the value placed on education from the child’s perspective and, ultimately, reduce their motivation to study.
Sooner or later, all parents will have to deal with their children’s return to school. Schools and teachers will have to make important decisions to orchestrate this process, and they will be working in a complex situation in which they must adhere to numerous health constraints to comply with government requirements. This could generate fear and dissatisfaction among parents, whose perception of school and teachers plays a key role in young people’s motivation.
THE CHALLENGES OF MOTIVATION
Many of the strategies used by schools to motivate children, teens, and young adults and to get them involved may be difficult to implement once school resumes.
Regarding the specific situation of students transitioning from elementary to high school, many positive anticipations may not materialize as expected. How does one make new friends while social distancing? How does one develop greater autonomy while having to comply with the many health rules? How can students be encouraged to take part in extracurricular activities in such a situation?
Additionally, the diversity of significant adults in a student’s life, and the variety of extracurricular activities available to them, may be reduced, especially given that when daycares and elementary schools do reopen, current rules do not allow visitors to enter. In this context, how will community organizations be able to offer their usual programming and services?
Partners are discussing certain possible positive effects of the pandemic on students sense of self-efficacy and motivation, in particular:
- Parents who are more involved in the schoolwork of their children and teens (value placed on assignments)
- Children, teens, and young adults who have gained autonomy (sense of accomplishment)
- Young people who discover new skills and develop personal creative initiatives (sense of control)
Studies on student motivation during the lockdown are expected shortly. This article may therefore be updated in the weeks ahead.
*Olivier Arvisais is a specialist in education during crisis situations and Scientific Committee co-president of the UNESCO Chair in Curriculum Development at Université du Québec à Montréal.
Our thanks to Isabelle Archambault, associate professor at Université de Montréal, Canada Research Chair on School, Child Well-Being, and Educational Success; and co-holder of the Myriagone – McConnell-Université de Montréal Research Chair in Knowledge Mobilization Among Youth for her assistance in reviewing the article on motivation and engagement.
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 Direction régionale de santé publique (2018) Portrait of Young Montrealers in Grade 6 – results of the TOPO 2017 survey.
 Marie-Ève Lacroix and Pierre Potvin, 2014, “La motivation scolaire,” http://rire.ctreq.qc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/La-motivation-scolaire.pdf
 Marie-Ève Morasse, “La crise risque d’exacerber les différences entre les élèves,” La Presse, April 10, 2020, https://www.lapresse.ca/covid-19/202004/09/01-5268806-la-crise-risque-dexacerber-les-differences-entre-les-eleves.php
 Martin Lasalle, “Vous avez moins de patience que d’habitude avec vos enfants? C’est normal !” Forum En 5 secondes, May 4, 2020, https://nouvelles.umontreal.ca/article/2020/05/04/vous-avez-moins-de-patience-que-d-habitude-avec-vos-enfants-c-est-normal/
 Gouvernement du Québec, Questions and answers on education and families during the COVID-19 pandemic, update of May 7, 2020, https://www.quebec.ca/en/health/health-issues/a-z/2019-coronavirus/answers-questions-coronavirus-covid19/questions-answers-education-families-covid-19/