Secondary music student motivation: social and contextual factors affecting perceptions of utility value according to an expectancy-value framework.

Secondary music student motivation: social and contextual factors affecting perceptions of utility value according to an expectancy-value framework.

This article (McEwan, 2013) was a case study investigation of influential factors in the decision-making of students’ secondary music elective class as a subject choice. As I work in secondary music education, the research presented begins to articulate some of the perceptions I have about the value of music education to secondary students. The reasons given for students’ decisions regarding choosing music as an elective subject resonate with me, as I have heard them often. This research paper frames these reasons within expectancy-vale theory (Wigfield & Eccles, 2000) which predicts students’ future choice behaviour and achievement, and links to motivated behaviours.

Expectancy-value theory

Expectancy-value is a theory of motivation which states that perceptions of expectancy for success and utility value of the task will influence motivation for that task (Eccles, et al., 1983). According to expectancy-value theory, the perceived value for subjects are significant predictors in future decisions regarding subject choice. The expectancy component is derived from perceptions of competence and ability beliefs pertaining to task success and is based on prior successful experiences. The value components are based on subjective perceptions and has three parts:

1. Incentive and attainment value: perceived importance of success;

2. Utility value: usefulness of the task to future endeavours;

3. Perceived cost: sacrifice of other activities and emotional resources. (Wigfield & Eccles, 2000).

The school context

McEwan outlines how contextual factors of schools are significant contributors to perceived value of subjects. The disparity between school music education and out-of-school music is highlighted as one of the reasons for students’ low perceptions of the value of music as a subject. Music is seen as a leisure activity of adolescents (Boal-Palheiros & Hargreaves, 2001; North, Hargreaves, & O’Neill, 2000) and perhaps this leisure value impacts on school music utility value. Perception of values effects student motivation (Eccles, et al., 1983).

The context of the school and school culture is presented as factor in the determination of elective music up take. A school may support sporting and academic achievements which can be viewed as activities and subjects with high utility value, however, school music is often perceived as a subject for intrinsic task value and interest (ie: own personal musical skill development and enjoyment but not as a rigorous academic subject).

McEwen argues that school culture, through social interactions and influences, are tied up in the development of student motivation. These interactions are framed within expectancy-value theory (Dweck & Leggett, 1988). Essentially, school culture can serve to diminish the value of music-related activities through peer group pressure to assimilate to dominant school culture and values. Likewise, parents may also take onboard these dominant school cultures, consequently passing on these values to their children.

Peer Group Influence

McEwen addresses the influence of peer group pressure and peer group values in reasons for elective subject choices. These social values were found to be influential though not determining factors for the choice of music as an elective subject. Although not determining factors, the point demonstrates how perceptions of the value of subjects can occur through the social interactions of adolescents.

Intrinsic Task Value

Another contributory factor for music as an elective choice in Year 9 was due to a strong intrinsic task value for music. The value of music as a subject choice was found to be due primarily to its personal interest and value to the student, and not necessarily for its utility value in future career choice or the academic rigour of music as a subject.

Parental Influences

Furthermore, results showed that parental values can influence student elective music choices. Parents often do not perceive music as a subject with high utility value subject or academic rigour. Further, negative experiences of school music by parents influenced this perception. However, parents valued music as an extra-curricular activity purely for intrinsic task value rather than utility value. This is a common view held by parents: classroom music has a high intrinsic task value but low or limited utility value and academic orientation (McPherson, 2007). As a result, parents often looked towards elective subjects which have high utility value, meaning a purpose to future career and life prospects. The co-curricular music ensemble and instrumental program were seen as an alternative means for music education and the satisfaction of the students’ intrinsic interest in music.

Conversely, where music is highly valued in a family, it was more common for students to choose music as an elective subject in Year 9. These families exhibited facilitation of musical experiences for their children from an early age. However, this was a minority finding. It was found that the majority of support from parents was for co-curricular music activities, due to the perception of music as a subject having limited utility value.

Classroom Music

Concerning the content of classroom music, the students cited that they liked the practical music-making of instrumental and ensemble programs. Students also indicated that there was less practical activity in music classes and this did not satisfy their intrinsic task value for music. This factor has implications in student decision-making. According to expectancy-value theory, the limited intrinsic task satisfaction found in classroom music affects future motivational behaviour. Predictably, this leads students not to elect music as subject in Year 9 but to continue with instrumental and ensemble programs occurring outside of the secondary classroom.


Overall, students were influenced by the ‘market value’ of the subject within the school context. This market value consisted of dominant values of the whole school and values of peers. Where the intrinsic task values held by the student do not reflect the dominant school value or the values of peers, the student was less likely to choose music as an elective subject in Year 9. In these cases, students preferred to maintain peer approval.

The results suggest that to improve understanding of motivational factors in secondary music subject choice, research which considers a range of social relationships interacting with students within the school environment is necessary.

Specifically, McEwan calls for strategies to enhance the perception of the value of music education which moves from personal interest and intrinsic value of the individual, to one of music’s value and benefits to education generally. Moving the perception of school music education as a subject of academic rigour and high utility value can assist with reducing social and contextual influences leading to perceptions of secondary music education as a subject of low utility value and limited academic rigour.


Boal-Palheiros, G. M., & Hargreaves, D. J. (2001). Listening to music at home and at school. British Journal of Music Education, 18(02).

Dweck, C. S., & Leggett, E. L. (1988). A social-cognitive approach to motivation and personality. Psychological Review, 95(2), 256-273.

Eccles, J., Adler, T. F., Futterman, R., Goff, S. B., Kaczala, C. M., & Meece, J. L. (1983). Expectancies, values, and academic behaviors. In J. T. Spence (Ed.), Achievement and achievement motivation (pp. 75-146). San Francisco: Freeman.

McEwan, R. (2013). Secondary student motivation to participate in a Year 9 Australian elective classroom music curriculum. British Journal of Music Education, 30(01), 103-124.

McPherson, G. E. (2007). Children’s motivation to study music in schools. Paper presented at the Celebrating Musical Communities: Proceedings of the 40th National Conference, Perth, Nedlands, W.A.

North, A. C., Hargreaves, D. J., & O’Neill, S. A. (2000). The importance of music to adolescents. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 70, 255-272.

Wigfield, A., & Eccles, J. S. (2000). Expectancy-Value Theory of Achievement Motivation. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25(1), 68-81.

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