Social Aspects of Motivation:
Goal structure


Human beings do not act in isolation; their behavior is often strongly influenced by their associations with other people. The dynamics of classroom interactions is often an important feature in student motivation. One important example of the importance of social interactions is classroom goal structure - the reward structure prevalent in a learning situation.


Each of these reward structures has both advantages and disadvantages. It is reasonable to assume that any given classroom should emphasize or combine different structures at different times.


Competitve Environments

Competitive environments take advantage of the apparently natural inclination of human beings to develop and enhance their own self-esteem by comparing their own performance to that of others. There is considerable evidence that especially for extremely high-performing students competitive environments stimulate higher levels of learning and performance than would be likely to occur in non-competitive environments. In the field of sports, it is a truism that teams are likely to improve when their competition improves. The role of competition is likewise obvious in business: competitors encourage businesses to provide their best products and services. Competition plays a comparable role in education: many students thrive on favorable comparisons to other students. Schools that introduce academic competitions (e.g., science bowls) that are similar to athletic events often find that students benefit tremendously from the motivation and recognition that accompany the competition.

The problem with competition is that we often tend to ignore the downside. When everyone is forced to compete, losers often lose more than the winners gain. In sports, the losers often simply quit the team or give up the sport; in business, the losers go out of business. In school, on the other hand, the losers are often required to keep on losing. Constant exposure to failure in competitions is likely to lead to learned helplessness - an extremely debilitating form of failure avoidance (discussed earlier). Therefore, it is important to be selective in the use of competition.

In spite of its downside, competition has advantages which make it desirable for at least occasional use in instructional settings. The following guidelines are useful:

  1. Use competition only with those students who are likely to benefit from it. In general, this means to use competition only with students who have a chance to win. However, people vary in their attitudes toward winning and losing. I know of one person who became a state racquetball champion after losing nearly all his games for two years - he simply wanted to win and felt that the best way to become good was to play good competition. Likewise, many readers know people who were willing to be last in a "good" school because they knew that this would make them more successful "in the real world. The important point is that it is improper to use competition as a motivational tool when it is likely to backfire - and consistent losses at competitions usually do weaken motivation.

  2. Structure the competition so that all participants have a good chance of winning. There are many ways to do this: ask different questions to people of different abilities; arrange the students in teams so that abilities even out; or introduce an element of chance into the competition.

  3. Have students compete against themselves rather than against other students. By evaluating students on the basis of their own personal gains, we can give everyone an opportunity to succeed. In fact, since the weakest students have the most room for improvement, this procedure can even give an advantage to the very students who are usually at a disadvantage.

  4. Combine competitive environments with cooperative environments in order to derive the benefits of both. Have students work together on a team to compete against other teams. If a competition will reward combined group scores on a test, then a weak student who raises his score from 60% to 80% can contribute more to a team than a strong student who raises her score from 90% to 100%. (Cite Slavin, 19xx)

  5. Reward effort and improvement as well as pure performance. This does not mean to reward effort and improvement instead of performance - reward effort and improvement as well as performance.


Rather than rejecting competition completely, it is desirable to use it in accordance with the preceding guidelines in order to maximize its benefits while avoiding its shortcomings.



Spelling Bees

Do students learn to spell from competitive spelling bees? The answer is that students who think they have a chance to do well in them are often motivated by spelling bees. Students who think they have no chance, on the other hand, probably derive no benefit whatsoever. If the teacher announces that there will be a spelling bee Monday, Johnny will not study hard over the weekend if he knows perfectly well that Maria has a lock on first place. Here are some possibly better ways to use competition to motivate spellers:


  1. Assign the students to evenly matched teams (with strong and weak spellers on each team), and have a team spelling competition.

  2. Instead of having all the students spell the same words, have them spell words suited to their own level of difficulty. (Choosing words that the individual students have missed is one way to do this.)

  3. Instead of giving the award to just the one student who wins, give the award to everyone who meets a designated high standard. (Giving an award to any student scoring above 90% on a test of 50 words from a list of 1000 common "spelling demons" would be one way to do this.)

  4. Most importantly, use methods other than competition to motivate the students who are not likely to win at the competition.


Individualistic Environments

Individualistic learning environments avoid most of the major pitfalls of competitive environments. However, since individualistic environments also lack the interpersonal incentives that accompany competitive environments, other strategies discussed in Table 5.1 and throughout this chapter must be employed to stimulate learning. When working individualistically, learners pursue their own objectives without comparing their own performance to anyone else's (as would be the case in a competitive goal structure) and without depending on other learners (as would be the case in a cooperative goal structure). Almost all readers of this book have reached significant goals individualistically. For example, you may have

  • reached a desired weight because you thought it was good for you;

  • read a good book because you thought you would enjoy it;

  • learned to use a computer to help you write term papers or to enable you to do your job better;

  • mastered all the words on a spelling list, because you knew that by doing so you would get an A on the test.


Teachers often turn to individualistic environments to avoid the shortcomings of competition. One simple way to do this is to switch from grading on the curve (which requires that some students fail while others succeed) to criterion-referenced grading (where students receive designated grades based on their personal comparison to a standard). This change may be effective if other motivational factors described in Table 5.1 and discussed throughout this chapter be integrated with instruction.


Cooperative Environments

Finally, a cooperative environment is one in which the success of one learner depends on or interacts with the success of other learners. Effective cooperative learning has two major components: positive interdependence and individual responsibility (Johnson & Johnson, 1992; Slavin, 1992). That is, the members of the group must depend on one another to the extent that each member has responsibilities, each wants the others to succeed, and no one feels that his own success or failure will hurt the others in the group. In addition, since effective cooperative learning is likely to include considerable amounts of small group activity and face-to-face interaction among learners (Johnson & Johnson, 1992), effective social skills are necessary to enable learners to interact effectively with peers.

The urge to cooperate has always been an important factor in human endeavors, and the key elements described in the preceding paragraph have often been employed by good teachers working with groups of learners. However, only in recent years has there been careful research to document the components that make cooperative learning work most effectively. Specific strategies that incorporate the essential elements of effective cooperative learning are described in chapter 15 of this book. In addition, note that learners may vary in developmental capacities related to cooperative learning (such as peer relationships, social skills, and instrumental help seeking, which were discussed in chapter 4).

In competitive environments, the peer norms and sanctions actually make it undesirable to help others within the norm group to succeed. The traditional classroom often develops clearly anti-academic norms. As the peer group becomes increasingly important during early adolescence, peer pressures against achievement may overwhelm parental or school pressures that favor achievement. When it is effective, a cooperative goal structure often succeeds because it reverses this incentive structure and therefore results in more effective use of academic learning time. In addition to promoting academic goals, cooperative learning is highly effective at producing harmony among students where there might otherwise be disruptive tension - as when students have been integrated to achieve interracial balance or where students with special needs have been mainstreamed into regular classrooms (Johnson & Johnson, 1989).

In a cooperative environment, students have incentives to help other students meet instructional objectives. The students who master the objectives most quickly often benefit from explaining the information to students who have not yet mastered it. These slower students benefit from the help they receive. In cooperative learning, the success of the group depends on each person within the group performing up to specified standards. Sometimes this involves a group project, which will receive a group grade. In this case, each student may have to perform a role, the completion of which is integral to the overall project. In other cases, the cooperative group may compete with another group, with individuals competing against other individuals at similar levels of ability. In this case, the group can succeed only if the brighter members help the slower members. In addition, the slower members feel that they have made important contributions, even if they do not perform as well as the brightest members of the group. Excellent discussions of cooperative learning can be found in Johnson and Johnson (1987, 1989, 1992) and in Slavin (1990, 1992).




Team Sports and Cooperative Learning


Cynics may comment on what they consider to be the ultra-competitive elements of organized children's baseball; but I have seen some good examples of the benefits of cooperative learning in a baseball league for young children.

In my community's children's baseball league, there is a draft of new players every year. The players themselves are supposed to know nothing about the order of the draft; but the procedure is very much like that in professional sports. Teams that had weak records during the prior season get first choice, whereas the better teams get last choice. Through this selection process, there is a general pattern that each team gets reasonably good players in the first round of the draft and relatively weaker players in the final rounds. The league also has a rule that every player who shows up for a game has to play at least three innings of each six-inning game.

This is actually a very good, common-sense implementation of cooperative learning. Even the weakest players can perceive themselves as having a chance to help their teams win - because all the teams are equally likely to have weak players. In fact, perceptive managers in this league have realized that the best way to win the championship is to strengthen the performance of the weaker players. (If a youngster has a batting average of .000 and can improve it to .200, this has a greater impact than an improvement from .500 to .600 by a better player.) If the managers point this out to their players, the teammates often become willing to help the weaker players.

When events occur as they are described in the preceding paragraphs, the players benefit from both competition with other teams and cooperation with their own teammates.




Doing Competition Really Badly


If you want to really do competition badly, so that it will have the greatest possible negative impact on the students who need the most encouragement, try this simple strategy:

Have the students "choose up sides" to select teams for themselves. You choose the two "best" students, and then these captains select out loud the other members of their teams. As each member is chosen, that student goes over and stands in the area of the room near the captain. This enables all the other students and the lowest performing or least popular students themselves to focus their attention for as long a time as possible on the apparent weakness or unpopularity of the students chosen last.


The preceding suggestion is obviously a horrible idea; and yet it is surprising how many teachers still use this strategy. This selection strategy breaks more rules of motivation than any other strategy ever developed by human society. Teachers should not only abandon this strategy themselves, but they should also encourage their students to use other strategies for selecting teams.

As this chapter has shown, assigning students to teams can be an effective strategy. Students can be motivated both by competition with regard to other teams and by cooperation within their own teams. But when teams are to be formed, teachers themselves should usually assign the students to teams. Good ways to assign students to teams include (1) pure random assignment (e.g., drawing names out of a hat), (2) matching students into sets based roughly on ability (without disclosing these pairings to the students) and then assigning one member of each set at random to each team, and (3) deliberately designing teams in such a way as to promote interactions or to stimulate learning. Teachers should find ways to derive the benefits of team competition without the problems that accompany isolation and humiliation.



Online Links:
Social Aspects of Motivation





Putting Cooperative Learning to the Test by Laurel Shaper Walters

 This article from the Harvard Education Letter describes the key features of effective cooperative learning. An accompanying article describes in detail four specific types of cooperative learning at


Click on a topic from the following list, or use your web browser to go where you want to go:

Intrinsic Motivation
Interpersonal Motivation
Summary of Intrinsic Motivation
Motivating Through Curriculum
Reinforcement and Punishment
Affective Aspects of Motivation
Physiological Aspects of Motivation
Cognitive Aspects of Motivation
Needs and Motivation
Attribution Theory
Development and Motivation
Motivation as a Personality Characteristic
Teacher Expectancy
Social Aspects of Motivation: Classroom Structure <<You are here>>
What Teachers Can Do About Motivation
What Parents Can Do About Motivation
What Students Can Do About Motivation
Chapter Summary
Annotated Bibliography
Answers to Quizzes