Motivation, Motivation, Motivation

The last few weeks I have been reading papers on motivation. Frustratingly there aren’t that many papers on motivation for non-formal study (not for credit), but there are plenty on formal study (for credit). So I have been reflecting on how to reframe the themes, theories, and issues from the papers that I have been reading on formal study and deliberating how they would apply to non-formal study.

What has come to the forefront in the researching of reasons for lack of motivation and withdrawal from studies, is that there is not one common issue. If that were so, then the issue would be focused upon and resolved, and motivation and retention related papers would not be required. A number of papers also focus on reoccurring ‘what went right’ themes in motivated and successful students, instead of focusing on ‘what went wrong’ in demotivated students.

A number of results have been researched based on the self-perception of the students, but what is crucial is the lack of discourse around the skills required to be successful in education. A reoccurring pattern is that the students see that the marker of the education (e.g. grades achieved) is the success criteria for obtaining gainful employment in the future, and seem to be blindsided by the knowledge gained, or the transferability of the skills obtained whilst studying into employment and daily life.

What is clear is that there are ‘long term’ motivations to studying at higher education level (such as employment and career opportunities) and and there are ‘short term’ motivations (such as daily study schedules). The ‘short term’ motivations, could be, for all intents and purposes, in a state of flux. Dependent on grades, feedback, subject material covered, etc. a students motivations in the short term could vary due to these factors. Because of this flux, there has been an emergence of what is considered the ‘strategic student’ or a term coined by OU students ‘the 40% rule’. These particular students lack short term motivations, and instead study at the minimal level required to obtain a pass score. The concern with such students is that a high level of resource may be required to maneuver them beyond this mindset, that the students would need to be able to respond to feedback to increase their scores, become immersed in the subject material instead of skim reading it, and understanding the skills developed (personal and academic) whilst studying are just as important as a pass grade.

What became clear from the literature read, is that there is very little on identifying the expectations of a student upon dropping out from higher education. There was a repeating pattern of ‘the course isn’t what I expected’ though there is little follow up questioning as to what the student did expect from the course. This is a key criteria in understanding not only the student’s expectations, but also the academic’s expectations upon authoring and presenting the course. Who is at fault here? Is it the student’s for not understanding the requirements of the course? The academic’s for not delivering what the course stipulated? Or the marketing and recruitment of students in possible misrepresenting the course?

What is important to remember is that the student and learner population is exceptionally diverse so the understanding of the reasons for drop out from learning may not be homogeneous in nature, though if patterns can be detected then intervention scenarios can be planned and actioned. Christie et al (2004) discovered from their research that there was no single ‘tipping point’ reason for students to withdraw from their studies, with the course not being what the student expected as a common denominator in responses provided. Though as stated previously, that this response without further investigation is almost meaningless. What was important from Christie el al’s study was that students continually misunderstood or misrepresented their own academic difficulties with the course.

Thomas (2002) identified a number of external pressures that could have an impact on the decision to withdraw from study, such as balancing studying with a job to assist in educational expenses which is related to another cited pressure of financial hardship.

The other reoccurring factor is more intangible, not only in the ability to identify and quantify it, but also in the ability to counter it – the feeling of belonging and fitting in.

‘…the extent to which the decision to continue in the face of financial (and other) difficulties is intrinsically related to the quality of relationships with other students, tutors, and support staff, and to the extent to which students feel they ‘belong’ to the university.’ 

Christie et al (2004)

Breen (1999) identified three further dimensions in addition to ‘levels of inclusiveness’ to aid the quality of learning and teaching, they are; curricula coherence and sequencing, connecting learning and understanding to other areas of study, and development of critical perspective in students. Braxton et al (2000) believed that the social integration for students to feel part of a university, must begin the classrooms of schools as a ‘gateway’ to acquiring such skills in preparation for further education.

But as discussed, the concept of fitting in, isn’t an isolated one, consideration to the expectations of the course must be given the same level of attention.

‘It is plausible that many students enter Higher Education with ill conceived ideas of what it really means to study their discipline in their chosen university. If this is taken to be true, then a discrepancy exists between expectations (and motivations) and experiences, this will undoubtedly lead to withdrawal, failure or the development of inappropriate approaches to learning.’

Breen (1999)

The real conundrum for The Open University, is how can an purely online environment be created that allows non-formal learners to feel that they fit in or belong to? Is this possible? Where a non-formal learner becomes a formal student, they are presented with their allocated tutor group forum of approximately 20 students and a dedicated tutor.

‘the basis for the development of a common set of student dispositions, or something like a ‘student habitus’…the unique residential tradition of the British university, although decreasing in importance, is a framework which nurtures and perpetuates these specific student dispositions. This framework, extending to shared student housing, halls, the library, the laboratory and the lecture theatre creates, a ‘special time and place’ with its atmosphere of deference and inquiry which, temporarily, sets students apart from the non-student world…’

Chatterton (1999)

In the instance of non-formal learning, the learner does not have these online social benefits, and with OpenLearn attracting circa 5 million learners a year, how could this community be created and maintained?

‘those students who do not live in ‘student’ accommodation…are more likely to feel marginalised from their peers, and thus that they occupy a lower position’

Thomas (2002)

There is also a distinct gap between the level of understanding and learning required at A’level to that of at Higher Education level. For the required outcome to be achieved students would need to understand ‘what needs to be learnt, and why’ (Chan 2001). This would require the development of active learning skills, which according to Braxton et al (2000) ‘enhances student knowledge and understanding’. Chan (2001) states that this level of active learning can only be achieved from an ongoing dialogue;

‘…autonomous learning experiences do not automatically turn dependent learners into autonomous ones. Frequent consultations with the students over the approach to their autonomous study are thus necessary….[and]…regular student-teacher dialogue.’

Chan (2001)

The difficulty in appreciating this viewpoint is that in the paradigm of non-formal learning, the student-teacher dialogue is at best uni-directional and based almost entirely on automated feedback structured upon predicted learner scenarios. In this situation, it is perceived that more groundwork would have to be given in the preparation of developing the skill set of autonomy in learners;

‘Learners autonomy is essentially concerned with decision making on the learner’s part…the locus of control and responsibility lies in the hands of the individual learner…the autonomous learner excepts responsibility for his/her own learning and is able to take charge of the learning, determine objectives, select methods and techniques and evaluate what has been acquired. He/she is expected to be able to make significant decisions about what is to be learnt, how and when…assuming greater responsibility for his/her learning…the autonomous learner establishes a personal agenda for learning…He/she (with or without the teacher’s help) is expected to be actively involved in the setting of goals, defining of content and working out evaluation mechanisms for assessing achievement and progress.’

Chan (2001)

Formative feedback can be very beneficial in developing an autonomous learner, but as stated above this would be automated in nature in the situation of non-formal learners as to opposed to formal students. Research by Yorke (LS1, 114-5) indicated that not only is formative feedback a valuable learning tool, but it can also aid student retention. It may be possible though to achieve formative feedback in this manner as Ridley (2004) demonstrates students ability to ‘access, interpret and evaluate information from electronic sources.’. Such formative dialogue is crucial for learners to see beyond just achieving the required marks as a matter of priority, and to develop and understanding that feedback and the ability to analyse it is just as much a part of the learning process.

One of the reoccurring themes of literature related to student motivation is that of ‘student centred’ learning, the theory being that if a student is at the centre they are more likely to enjoy the experience and continue with it. Johnson (LS1, 17) counters this by stating that such approaches are only valid to those students with the confidence of being at the centre, and those with little confidence would find such an approach as isolating and demotivating.

It is entirely plausible from the use of the theories and issues above that a student may strategically choose to develop what is known as ‘surface approaches’ (Prosser et al 2003) in that;

‘students who reported adopting surface approaches…perceive the teaching to be poorer, the goals and standards to be less clear, the workload to be too high and the assessment to be testing reproduction’

Prosser et al (2003)

What is difficult to address is that students are adopting ‘strategic student’ and ‘surface approaches’ even when the courses that they are studying are for credit and at a cost. Non-formal learners are not studying for credit and at little or no cost – does this mean that this pattern of behaviour is higher in its prevalence or re-occurrence, or that it is more or less easy to readdress?

‘With regard to friends and peers…research found that these were often the first source of advice and support for students that were considering leaving university. Local students that continued to reside at home felt that they missed out on being able to access this type of advice.’

UFNE (2001)

So what type of action needs to be taken with non-formal learners to guide them through the learning process? How will the learners know when to ask for advice, or how with the platform or system know when to display such advice when learners do or don’t know when to ask for it?

‘The challenge for universities has always been to reconcile its view that of the students to ensure that both get something from the relationship’

Corcoran (2002)

Non-formal learners enter a university system such as OpenLearn via not-for-credit learning and bring with them the perceptions of their previous study. When, for example, such learners were at school, the discourse available to them was more freely accessible than that of the online, with learners expected by their academic peers to develop skills to reflect, analyse, and respond to difficulties in their learning environment. However, students and learners may associate university teaching with knowledge and not skill development, so may struggle with this change in a more autonomous environment, which would impact on their levels of motivation.

‘the nature of an individuals’s internal forces and the extent to which they define external goals and direct the individual towards them…a problem is encountered when attempting to characterise the learning environment within which the student is oriented in order to establish towards what they are oriented’

Breen (1999)

An interesting paper by Makinen et al can be applied from students directly to learners;

‘Due to the voluntary nature of higher education, one might imagine that motivational problems would not exist among university students. It is sometimes happens, however that students whose study orientation is not clear gain access to university…because of their ambiguous orientation, they are unable to follow the typical course of studying…often the first signals of these kinds of problems are very implicit and students’ intentions to drop out surprise their fellow students, family members, and even close friends.’

Makinen et al (2004)

The barriers to entry and exit of non-formal learning are as such that they are even lower and more voluntary than that of formal study. What is important to take from the literature by Makinen is that both students and learners require a clear orientation. The more pertinent question being, is in non-formal learning is that an orientation that is created by the learner or presented by the university? In creating the orientation themselves, would a learner be more or less committed to it than if it was presented to them?

‘…how students see the meaning of and how they locate themselves in relation to their university studies as a whole…i.e. what is their general study orientation’

Makinen et al (2004)

What this review of literature has demonstrated that even with the high stakes associated with formal university study, students have difficulty with their levels of motivation. What is currently unclear from literature is the spectrum of motivation that applies to non-formal learners and to whether there is an increase in motivational issues in relation to the decrease in barriers to exit.


Braxton, J.M., Milen, J.F. and Sullivan, A.S. (2000). The influence of active learning on the college student departure process: towards a revision of Tinto’s theory. Journal of Higher Education. 71 (5). 569-590

Breen, R. (1999). Student motivation and conceptions of disciplinary knowledge. Paper presented at the HERDSA Annual International Conference, Melbourne, Australia, July 1999.

Chan, V. (20001) Learning autonomously: the learner’s perspective. Journal of Further and Higher Education 25 (3). 285-300

Chatterton, P. (1999). University students and city centres – the formation of exclusive geographies. The case of Bristol, UK. Geoforum. 30. 117-133

Christie, H., Munro, M. and Fisher, T. (2004). Leaving university early: exploring the differences between continuing and non-continuing students. Studies in Higher Education 29 (5). 617-636

Corcoran, P. (2002). Students and universities: a dysfunctional relationship. Paper presented at the ATEM/AAPPA Conference, Canberra, August 2002.

Makinen, J., Olkinuora, E., and Lonka, K. (2004). Students at risk: students’ general study orientations and abandoning/prolonging the course of studies. Higher Education 48, 173-188

Prosser, M., Ramsden, P., Trigwell, K. and Martin, E. (2003). Dissonance in experience teaching and its relation to the quality of student learning. Studies in Higher Education 28 (1). 37-48

Ridley, D. (2004). Puzzling experiences in higher education: critical moments for conversation. Studies in Higher Education 29 (1). 91-107

Thomas, L. (2002). Student retention in higher education: the role of institutional habitus. Journal of Education Policy. 17 (4). 423-442

UFNE (2001). Student Retention, Support and Widening Participation in the North East of England. Universities for the North East, Newcastle.

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