The purpose of this paper is to discuss research into the complex dynamics of motivation in students; examine the underlying assumptions, orientations, theoretical frameworks and contributing factors that may affect academic motivation such as cultural predictors, discrimination, socio-economic background, as well as other variables. Academic motivation can create confidence in one's ability, along with an increased value of education and desire to learn (Deci, Vallerand, Pelletier, & Ryan, 1991). Motivation provides insight into why we may behave the way we do; it is an internal process that reflects the desire to achieve certain goals. Educational psychology has identified two basic classifications of motivation - intrinsic and extrinsic. If we as educators can work towards increasing the academic motivation in students, we can create a solid foundation for success in education.
Constructs on Motivation
Intrinsic motivation arises from a desire to learn a topic due to its inherent interests, for self-fulfillment, enjoyment and to achieve a mastery of the subject. On the other hand, extrinsic motivation is motivation to perform and succeed for the sake of accomplishing a specific result or outcome. Students who are very grade-oriented are extrinsically motivated, whereas students who seem to truly embrace their work and take a genuine interest in it are intrinsically motivated.
When students are motivated intrinsically, they will display increased time on task, more elaborate processing and monitoring of comprehension, selection of more difficult tasks, a deeper and more efficient performance in learning strategies, greater creativity and risk taking, and choice of an activity in the absence of an extrinsic reward (Lepper, 1988) as cited in Middleton & Spanias (1999). In this particular study by Middleton and Spanias, intrinsic motivation is more complex than the additive effects in the domains of achievement, ability, and perceived confidence in the student’s desire to learn mathematics. These findings along with results from National Assessments (Dorsey, et al, 1988) as cited in Middleton & Spanias; suggests that motivations are learned, and a decline in positive attitudes toward mathematics can be explained in part as function of lack of teacher supportiveness and classroom environment.
Deci and Ryan's (1985) self-determination theory provides a comprehensive and multidimensional outlook on motivation, accounting for regulation, energization, and social contexts. Human beings, according to the self-determination theory, are proactive, oriented toward growth, and competent. Based on this theory, motivation for a specific behavior is regulated by either internal choice or external force. Behavior is divided into two components, including behavior that is self-determined and behavior that is controlled. When behavior is self-determined, the locus of causality is perceived to be internal, and when behavior is controlled, the locus of causality is perceived to be external. The self-determination theory divides motivation into three categories, including amotivation, extrinsic motivation, and intrinsic motivation. Motivation is a continuum of self-determination with intrinsic motivation being the most self-determined and amotivation the least.
Self-determination theory addresses why individuals are motivated by goals; Deci et al (1991) claimed motivation corresponds to one's basic needs. Three needs energize motivation, including competence, relatedness and autonomy. Individuals are motivated by goals that meet their basic needs, and motivation is maximized in situations that promote those needs. In the educational setting, academic performance is influenced by teachers, peers, or family members. The specific type of motivation that is enhanced depends on the situation; lower levels of extrinsic motivation increase in controlled situations, whereas higher levels of extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation increase if autonomy is supported. When the needs of relatedness, autonomy, and competence are met, students appear better adjusted and perform better academically (Levesque, Zuehlke, Stanek, & Ryan, 2004) as cited in Young, Johnston, Hawthorne & Pugh.
Self-efficacy beliefs can play a powerful role in academic motivation; Bandura’s Social-Cognitive Theory suggests how self-efficacy can influence the choices people make, the amount of effort they expend, and their level of persistence. Of all the thoughts that affect human functioning, and standing at the very core of social cognitive theory, are self-efficacy beliefs, "people's judgments of their capabilities to organize and execute courses of action required to attain designated types of performances" (p. 391). Self-efficacy beliefs provide the foundation for human motivation, well-being, and personal accomplishment. This is because unless people believe that their actions can produce the outcomes they desire, they have little incentive to act or to persevere in the face of difficulties.
Much empirical evidence now supports Bandura's contention that self-efficacy beliefs touch virtually every aspect of people's lives—whether they think productively, self-debilitatingly, pessimistically or optimistically; how well they motivate themselves and persevere in the face of adversities; their vulnerability to stress and depression, and the life choices they make. Self-efficacy is also a critical determinant of self-regulation.
Research on Academic Motivation
Shunk (1989) reported on the predictive utility of self-efficacy beliefs in regard to academic performance noting that significant and positive correlations were found between self-efficacy beliefs and the number of arithmetic problems that students completed during a lesson. Such correlations were also found between self-efficacy and the proportion of problems solved correctly. Similar research also discovered a strong correlation between self-efficacy beliefs and skill in reading and writing tasks among college students (Shell, Murphy & Bruning, 1989).
In a study by Eccles, et al (1993) declines in academic performance after a transition to middle school were a reliable predictor of low self-concept, intrinsic motivation, and confidence in intellectual abilities. It was proposed by these researchers that such declines resulted from a developmental mismatch between the early adolescents and their classroom environment, which in turn resulted in negative motivational outcomes especially for struggling students.
Academic motivation and cultural differences have been examined in relation to numerous constructs, including persistence, procrastination, and academic self-concept, and adjustment, locus of control, stress, and socioeconomic status. Researchers have evaluated these various aspects of academic motivation. Vallerand and Bissonnette (1992) explored academic motivation in relation to persistence of freshman students enrolled in a required French class at a junior college. Researchers found higher levels of motivation predicted persistence and lower levels of motivation predicted dropping the class.
Self-determination theory proposes factors associated with extrinsic motivation weaken intrinsic motivation, therefore, students focused on external factors, such as earning grades and gaining approval, weaken their internal interest in education, while intrinsically motivated students exhibit greater perseverance (Deci, 1975). Even though the quality of learning is superior in intrinsic motivation, both are important (Deci & Ryan, 1985; Deci et al., 1991).
In the study by Young, Johnson, Hawthorne, and Pugh to determine predictor models of academic motivation and achievement for European Americans, African Americans, and Hispanic Americans, findings concluded that academic motivation among African Americans is predicted significantly by perceived social support, but generation with college experience and socio-economic status are contributing factors. Significant correlations were found between total perceived social support and both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Thus, total perceived social support accounted for a significant amount of variance in both intrinsic (35%) and extrinsic motivation (50%). The correlations revealed that total perceived social support is more of an external variable than an internal variable. Significant correlations also existed between the two types of motivation.
Importance on education of the socio-economic mobility of Latino youth and the increasing size of the Latino population in the United States has interested policy makers in understanding and reversing their low educational attainment. In a comparison study of Latino youth living in North Carolina and Los Angeles by Perreira, Fuligni & Potochnick (2010), results suggested that youth living in both communities had high academic motivations, but showed the motivations of the youth in North Carolina to be higher. According to this research, the youth in North Carolina reported experiencing high levels of discrimination and worried more about the discrimination in their everyday lives. Regardless of this, the youth in North Carolina proved to be resilient and used their fears to motivate for academic achievement. It was hypothesized by others (Foley, 1990) as cited in Perreira, Fuligni & Potochnick that having an understanding of how discrimination could potentially constrain their economic opportunities, students chose to focus more on positive achievement by proving their potential. Also, higher academic motivation and achievement in North Carolina is a result of first generation children of immigrants who are optimistic of the opportunities of building a better life in the United States and do not want to fall victim to their relatively low socio-economic status in the United States and their parents lack of education.
According to the theories, students are most adaptive when they focus on the feelings that come from gaining competence and control in the moment; these models have helped to focus students and researchers more on the process of learning rather than the product. With these perspectives in mind, teachers are provided with the message that “Educators must support and develop students’ natural curiosity or intrinsic motivation to learn. …” (American Psychological Association: Presidential Task Force on Psychology in Education, 1993, p. 7). This can mean facilitating students’ love of learning for many teachers and administrators, but given the practical constrains of many schools, teachers may not be in the position to manipulate or provide the environment where students only engage in intrinsically activities.
In the current school structure, opportunities for autonomous choice are few. Within the current educational environment—where students’ grades are used for promotion, students have a restricted choice about what they learn, even the choice of whether to attend school is taken away—it is important for teachers to consider types of motivation other than intrinsic interest and ﬂow.
Research has provided rich empirical support for the idea that student perceptions of the utility of what they are learning for their futures can have a positive effect on their motivation (e.g., Simons et al., 2000), as cited in Kauffman & Huffman (2004). Most people have experienced the powerful motivational inﬂuences of perceived utility (e.g., I get out of bed to go to the gym because I want to be healthy in the future). However, because perceived utility is linked to external sources of motivation, there is a belief among many educators that emphasizing the “you must do this because it is good for you” aspects of learning will take away from students’ intrinsic joy of learning (2004).
James Middleton, Joan Littlefield, and Rich Lehrer have proposed the following model of intrinsic academic motivation:
- First, given the opportunity to engage in a learning activity, a student determines if the activity is one that is known to be interesting. If so, the student engages in the activity.
- If not, then the student evaluates the activity on two factors—the stimulation (e.g. challenge, curiosity, fantasy) it provides and the personal control (e.g. free choice, not too difficult) it affords.
- If the student perceives the activity as stimulating and controllable, then the student tentatively labels the activity as interesting and engages in it. If either condition becomes insufficient, then the student disengages from the activity—unless some extrinsic motivator influences the student to continue.
- If the activity is repeatedly deemed stimulating and controllable, then the student may deem the activity interesting. Then the student will be more likely to engage in the activity in the future.
- If over time activities that are deemed interesting provide little stimulation or control, then the student will remove the activity from his or her mental list of interesting activities.
The challenge, then, is to provide teaching and learning activities that are both stimulating and offer students a degree of personal control.
Some disadvantages at fostering intrinsic motivation can be slow to affect behavior and can require special and lengthy preparation. Students are individuals, so a variety of approaches may be needed to motivate different students. It is often helpful to know what interests the students in order to connect these interests with the subject matter. This requires getting to know one’s students. It can also help if the instructor is interested in the subject to begin with.
Strategies for Motivating Students
The following are some research-based strategies for motivating students to learn.
- Become a role model for student interest. Deliver your presentations with energy and enthusiasm. As a display of your motivation, your passion motivates your students. Make the course personal, showing why you are interested in the material.
- Get to know your students. You will be able to better tailor your instruction to the students’ concerns and backgrounds, and your personal interest in them will inspire their personal loyalty to you. Display a strong interest in students’ learning and a faith in their abilities.
- Use examples freely. Many students want to be shown why a concept or technique is useful before they want to study it further. Inform students about how your course prepares students for future opportunities.
- Use a variety of student-active teaching activities. These activities directly engage students in the material and give them opportunities to achieve a level of mastery.
- Teach by discovery. Students find as satisfying as reasoning through a problem and discovering the underlying principle on their own.
- Cooperative learning activities are particularly effective as they also provide positive social pressure.
- Set realistic performance goals and help students achieve them by encouraging them to set their own reasonable goals. Design assignments that are appropriately challenging in view of the experience and aptitude of the class.
- Place appropriate emphasis on testing and grading. Tests should be a means of showing what students have mastered, not what they have not. Avoid grading on the curve and give everyone the opportunity to achieve the highest standard and grades.
- Be free with praise and constructive in criticism. Negative comments should pertain to particular performances, not the performer. Offer nonjudgmental feedback on students’ work, stress opportunities to improve, look for ways to stimulate advancement, and avoid dividing students into sheep and goats.
- Give students as much control over their own education as possible. Let students choose paper and project topics that interest them. Assess them in a variety of ways (tests, papers, projects, presentations, etc.) to give students more control over how they show their understanding to you. Give students options for how these assignments are weighted.
Establish a sense of belonging, as people have a fundamental need to feel connected or related to other people. In an academic environment, research shows that students who feel they 'belong' have a higher degree of intrinsic motivation and academic confidence. According to students, their sense of belonging is fostered by an instructor that demonstrates warmth and openness, encourages student participation, is enthusiastic, friendly and helpful, and is organized and prepared for class.
Ken Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do, Harvard University Press, 2004, pages 32-42.
Linda Nilson, Teaching At Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors, 2nd edition, Anker Publishing, 2003, pages 41-44.
Matt DeLong and Dale Winter, Learning to Teaching and Teaching to Learn Mathematics: Resources for Professional Development, Mathematical Association of America, 2002, pages 159-168.
There is significant theory and research on academic motivation, although this paper barely touches the surface, it is a start in the hopes positive change can occur.
It is necessary to expand and deepen our theorizing about the potential benefits that students can derive from their achievements in school; powerful ideas can expand and enrich the quality of the students’ subjective lives. They provide lenses through which to construe their observations and experiences, and schemas into which they can assimilate novel approaches and elements, connections they can make and draw inferences from, potential for recognizing and appreciating the aesthetic qualities of the objects or events they encounter. If students are not in an environment that fosters creative ideas and intellectual skills they can be empowered with tools for processing information, problem solving and making efficient decisions. These empowering and aesthetic educational outcomes are applicable to a broad range of situations experienced throughout life, and can balance the field of education by increasing academic motivation.
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