A developmental examination of children's understanding of effort and ability in the physical and academic domains

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Colleges, School and Institutes


The purpose of this study was to test one aspect of the developmental component of Nicholls' theory of achievement motivation. Specifically, we examined and contrasted children's levels of understanding of effort and ability in the physical and academic domains. Students (N = 144; 8 boys and 8 girls for each age group from the ages of 5-13 years) participated in two sessions; in each they viewed two films and responded to questions posed in a subsequent structured interview. The films showed two children applying unequal effort which resulted in two possible outcomes: (1) the children achieved the same score; or (2) the lazier child outscored the hard-working child. A developmental-structural analysis of the children's responses was conducted, and the same four levels of understanding of effort and ability identified by Nicholls (1978) emerged. In addition, a fifth level (i.e., Level 0) was included which represented children who were unable to identify the hard-working student in the films or whose responses did not address the effort-ability issue. A nonparametric test of association between ordinal variables revealed a positive and significant relationship between children's ages and their levels of understanding of ability in both contexts. Children's conceptions of ability were significantly correlated across domains. No gender differences were evident in children's understanding of effort and ability in either the physical or academic contexts.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)331-344
JournalResearch Quarterly for Exercise and Sport
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Dec 1997


  • developmental stages, motivation, cognitive development, achievement-motivation, performance impairment, ego orientation, sport, task, differentiation, conceptions, difficulty, failure, anxiety