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The impact of drive and ambition on student grades

The impact of drive and ambition on student grades

4 min read
  • Motivation, Resilience & Growth Mindset

It’s no surprise that students who have intrinsic motivation (meaning, who are motivated by future success) work harder at school and have higher school performance. Research suggests that motivation predicts academic achievement, being almost as important as intelligence. 

When motivated, students can act towards ambitions of what they hope to achieve in the future. Some students also have an underlying drive, that maintains these ambitions and keeps them determined and pushing to succeed. 

However, until now we may not have realised just how important this psychological mindset is for school performance. Recent research has revealed the power of drive and ambition to improve performance in key academic outcomes such as GCSEs…

The research

Some researchers from University College London conducted a national study with over 4,900 year 11 students who took their GCSEs in 2016. Around 6 months before taking these exams, researchers collected student responses about their ‘drive’ and ‘ambition’. 

To measure ‘drive’, researchers had students respond to statements like ‘I want top grades in most or all of my courses’ and ‘I want to be the best, whatever I do’. To measure ‘ambition’, researchers asked students how likely they thought it was that they would ever go to university, and, for those who thought this was likely, which universities they wanted to apply to. 

The researchers were then able to compare the students’ GCSE outcomes, based on their levels of drive and ambition. The most highly driven and ambitious students achieved, on average, half a grade higher per GCSE subject, compared to students with the same level of prior achievement, who lacked determination to succeed. 

That’s quite a difference. Even more impressive, this effect on GCSE grades occurred over and above any effect of family background, school, other educational input such as tutoring, and other social emotional factors.

What does this mean?

With such a meaningful effect on grades, this research suggests that schools and teachers should aim to foster their students’ motivation, to improve drive and ambition. This may lead to academic improvements, particularly for high pressure circumstances such as exams.

It’s worth noting that, since education has been disrupted by the Covid-19 crisis, it will be particularly important to nourish drive and ambition in students. Evidence from recent Ofsted inspections suggests that many students have lost focus and feel ‘disconnected’ from their learning. What’s more, it might be difficult for students to maintain motivation in the absence of exams, as may well be the case. Therefore, it’s important now more than ever to focus on raising students’ drive and ambition. 

One potential explanation for the impact of student ambition on grades, could be that students’ ambitions influence teacher expectations for them. So, students who demonstrate high ambitions raise their teachers’ expectations of them. And in turn, these high teacher expectations improve student performance.

Therefore, teachers can aim to foster ambition in their students. Modelling their own ambitions, and inspiring students, may be one good way to do this. However, teachers should also be aware of maintaining high expectations for all their students, regardless of their ambitions, as this will push students to meet those expectations.

In addition, research suggests that students with high ambitions perceive a more supportive school climate than students with low ambitions. Therefore, educators can strive to provide a supportive school environment, that mentors students and boosts their self-confidence.

Boost your students’ motivation with training that introduces them to the seven key habits of successful people.

What can students do?

Of course, there are things that schools and teachers can do to improve student drive and ambition. However, what this research really shows is that to a large extent, students’ destiny is in their own hands. With this in mind, here are a few things that students can do to develop their drive and ambition:

  • Identify your interests and passions. Find a goal you wish to pursue, that you can and will be committed to.
  • Use this to find sense of purpose in your education: how will studying now help you later?
  • Outline a process, including shorter-term goals that will help you to reach that longer-term goal. Our goal setting worksheets may help with this.
  • Reflect on how you are doing. Are you getting closer to meeting your goal? If you are, what did you do to get there? If not, what can you do to get there? Is there someone you can ask for help?
  • Celebrate both your successes and your setbacks. If you are able to overcome the latter, both will improve your learning, and help you to reach your goal in the long term.
  • Challenge negative thoughts, and channel positive ones. Believe that you can do it, and you will.

Final thoughts

If you told students that there was a magic trick that would help them achieve up to half a grade higher in each GCSE subject, this would be an offer they couldn’t ignore. In fact, this ‘trick’ is having drive and ambition. Schools and teachers can remind students that they are masters of their own destiny: being determined to succeed will improve their academic performance. What remains is to then create a school environment that allows students this opportunity to develop their drive and ambition.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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