Academic journal article Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport

A Developmental Examination of Children's Understanding of Effort and Ability in the Physical and Academic Domains

Academic journal article Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport

A Developmental Examination of Children's Understanding of Effort and Ability in the Physical and Academic Domains

Article excerpt

Central to Nicholls' theory of achievement motivation is the notion that people in achievement situations use two goal perspectives, or definitions of success. Task-involved individuals define success in terms of effort and mastery. They feel most successful when they have given their best effort, witnessed personal improvement, and gained a sense of accomplishment through learning and mastering tasks. According to Nicholls, task involvement reflects an undifferentiated conception of ability (i.e., effort = ability), because the individual construes high effort as the primary indicator of high ability. In contrast, individuals who are ego-involved hold a differentiated conception of ability (i.e., effort and ability covary), because their assessment of ability is based on normative information. Thus, perceived success occurs for ego-involved individuals when they demonstrate superior ability by outperforming their peers rather than displaying high effort or personal improvement (Nicholls, 1984, 1989).

Nicholls maintained that such differences in goal perspectives are important, because they predict individuals' cognitive, affective, and behavioral responses in achievement situations. Specifically, task-involved individuals, regardless of whether they have high or low perceptions of ability, should exhibit adaptive motivational patterns (e.g., choose challenging tasks, demonstrate persistence). These adaptive patterns should also be observed in individuals in a state of ego-involvement who have high perceptions of ability. In contrast, maladaptive motivational patterns (e.g., avoidance of challenging tasks) are predicted for individuals who are ego-involved and have low perceptions of ability.

According to Nicholls (1989), whether a person is task- or ego-involved at a particular point in time is a function of three factors: (1) dispositional differences (i.e., variation in task or ego orientation, or the proneness individuals display towards being task or ego-involved), (2) situational characteristics (i.e., the motivational climate reflected in the environment), and (3) developmental differences.

Research in both the academic and physical domains supports theoretical tenets concerning the motivation-related correlates of task and ego orientation (Duda, 1992, 1993). Task orientation, for example, has been linked to higher levels of enjoyment, effort, and intrinsic interest in physical activity (Duda & Nicholls, 1992; Duda, Chi, Newton, Walling, & Catley, 1995). Ego orientation has been associated with lower state confidence prior to competition and greater performance worry (Newton & Duda 1995; White & Zellner, 1996).

In terms of developmental differences, Nicholls (1978) suggests that younger children are naturally task oriented until they acquire a mature understanding of ability, because they are incapable of employing a more differentiated conception of ability. In contrast, adolescents and adults can evoke a more or less differentiated conception of ability and can be more or less task- or ego-oriented. When individuals possess a mature understanding of ability, they are able to understand three important concepts; they can (1) distinguish effort from ability, (2) differentiate chance from skill-dependent activities, and (3) comprehend that some tasks are more difficult than others based on how many people can successfully complete the task.

The work of Nicholls and colleagues (Nicholls, 1978, 1989; Nicholls & Miller, 1984; Nicholls, Patashnick, & Mettetal, 1986) has addressed these three understandings in the academic context. Nicholls identified four stages children progress through as they come to fully understand the concepts of effort and ability. For children at Level 1, the concepts of effort, ability, and outcome are tautological. It is inconsistent in their reasoning to think that an individual would try hard and not perform well or have high ability and not try hard. …

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