Still Motivated to Learn?

This fortnight I have continued with my reading on motivation of students, again my frustration has continued with the limited papers available on the motivation of learners in a non/informal learning environment, so with the previous blog post I have been reading about motivation in formal teaching for students and applied it to non/informal learning

What is important to understand about motivation and students, is that there are many types of motivation and many types of student. The difficulty in applying such principles to informal learners is that the consideration to scale and scope must be given. It is not possible to individually support learners, such as within a formal setting with students, so instead more automated needs are called upon which may not be relevant to some learning styles.

Makinen et al (2004) state that there are three groups of students based on their approaches to day-to-day study:

  • Study orientated students – ‘place genuine importance on the contents of studying…[and]…also appreciate the social elements of studying, such as student parties and peer interaction’.
  • Work-life orientated students – ‘have already taken a mental step toward their future work career…they belittle the meaning of student life ad highlight the importance of careful planning of studying in order to graduate fast’.
  • Non-committed students – ‘unclear study orientation. High anxiety also distinguishes these students who are still clarifying the personal meaning of study’.

Miller et al (1999) make links between the value of study and motivation:

‘learning goal scores were positively related to intrinsic valuing scores…individuals interested in increasing competence and knowledge tended to experience enjoyment and satisfaction in their learning. However…experiencing enjoyment and satisfaction from school tasks was also related to perceiving those school tasks as instrumental to personally valued future goals, despite the substantial amount of shared variance between learning goals and perceived instrumentality…experiencing intrinsic satisfaction depends in part on perceiving the activity as instrumental to attaining personally valued future goals.’

Miller et al (1999)

What is demonstrated here is that the creation of a link between the long term aims and the short term tasks has a positive impact on the value of the task and therefore any subsequent motivations. It is possible to consider that a lack or absence of a link between the two could diminish or remove any form of motivation.

‘future goals represent important incentives for present action, but only when current tasks are perceived as instrumental to attainment of those future goals’

Miller et al (1999)

Rhodes and Nevill (2004) take this concept one step further and instead of the identification of an ‘end goal’ they instead state that the presence and absence of ‘satisfiers’ and ‘disatisfiers’ will have an impact on motivation. Satisfiers include; the achievement of academic success, securing career prospects, intellectually challenging, ability to cope, high level of control. Disatisfiers include; study/life balance, ability to cope, assessment techniques, other student’s views, society’s views of students.

Rhodes and Nevill (2004) discovered that students were equally motivated by ‘knowledge acquisition’ and ’empowerment in the job market’ which draw once again upon the earlier discussion by Miller that there needs to be a link between long term aims and short term tasks.

Siefert (2004) identifies four psychological theories of motivation which could be applied to a learning context:

  • Self-efficacy theory states that motivation is located within individuals confidence levels, in that if the belief is there to achieve a task or challenge then engagement with the task is more likely. Students who are more efficacious and essentially capable are more likely to be self-regulating in nature, and participative in nature when addressing study activities, including those thought to be beyond their skill set, believing that they are able to successfully undertake the challenge.
  • Attribution theory inquires into the ways in which individuals perceived causes to outcomes, or create explanations on an individual basis as to why events result in certain outcomes. The attributions created may have positive or negative emotions attached to it, which can in turn determine future behaviours and calls to action when addressing further challenges. The attributions to scenarios made are individual to a learner and can be influenced by a number of factors including the learner’s level of self-efficacy, with highly efficacious people more likely to internalise explanations and those less confidence opting for more ‘external’ causes to their explanations. Siefart states that there are three elements to attribution; the locus of causality, stability of the cause, and controllability of the cause.
  • Self worth theory has a clear link to motivation in the learner’s ability to enhance and maintain self-worth. The framework assumes that self worth is required for basic every day functionality, and defined as ‘judgement one makes about one’s sense of worth and dignity as a person’ which is often connected to performance. In the field of learning, self worth is associated with the ability to perform tasks which results in pride and self esteem. Failure due to low effort can result in guilt, whilst failure due to high effort can result in humiliation and shame. This links back to the theory of the ‘strategic student’ as a balance is required to become ‘failure avoidant’ whilst maintaining self worth, though may be ill conceived as ‘failure avoidant’ students are more likely to strive to look competent but without investing the motivation into their own abilities and motivation above that of strategic worth.
  • Achievement goal theory is similar to the research by Makinen in that it states that academic motivation is the attempt to achieve goals, whilst behaviours used are those that are required to achieve the relevant goals. Such learners would have high levels of self regulation and self determination and are more likely to achieve cognitive development with the understanding that effort is strongly linked to success and/or failure and enjoy the challenge that learning brings whilst accepting responsibility for their efforts. If confidence in their abilities is high then they are more likely to demonstrate adaptive behaviours than those with low confidence who demonstrate maladaptive behaviours.

Seifert goes on to suggest that these four theories are by no means exclusive and it fact it may be possible for the four theories to interact with perceptions of a learner’s self worth impacting on their motivations regarding performance goals, and those motivated by performance goals may demonstrate failure avoidant tendencies. What links all four theories together is the understanding or sense of self, but what effects all four theories is the learner’s willingness to take responsibility for their own actions with regards to learning, which though results in confidence also requires it to achieve the challenges to generate it.

‘For students to develop into healthy, adaptive and constructive individuals, it is imperative to foster feelings of competence and control. Previous research has suggested that the teacher-student interaction is the critical factor in fostering a sense of competence and autonomy’

Seifert (2004)

It is important to draw from the theories discussed above that there is a link between that of the role of an individual’s own goals with their of their awareness or capability to achieve them. The strand that connects these two elements together is that of meaning. Miller et all (1999) state that only if students perceive such links then they will be truly motivated to achieve long term goals.

‘Perceived meaning is important in motivating behaviour. The mastery student is able to find meaning in the work. If students do not find the work meaningful and tend to make external attributions, then work avoidance may develop. To this point, however little attention has been paid to meaning in studies of academic motivation…If students do not understand what it is they are supposed to do, then they may not be able to discern the relevance of the topic. Likewise, if students do not feel capable of understanding the topic, they may not find the work meaningful.’

Seifert (2004)

As discussed earlier it is important that the ‘perceived meaning’ is not that only associated with grades, but instead the knowledge and skills created and developed in the engagement with academic studies required to achieve such grades. Breen (1999) discovered that motivation is linked to the desire to gain high grades and the interest in the subject matter from which the marks are gained. Breen also added that the importance of the involvement with the culture around which the subject is studied is influential in the aforementioned two factors. In the attainment of high marks Macdonald (2002) suggests that the problem with exams may not be the examinations themselves, rather the students perceptions of what is required in preparation for the examinations and the negative connotation that examinations are for testing knowledge, rather than the positive connotation that examinations can boost subject knowledge through targeted study. Upon gaining their results students will then self-evaluate (Jackson 2003) their marks against the effort invested and could in turn produce either vicious or virtuous cycles of motivation in future study.

For learners in the informal domain, they have additional external pressures not normally felt by traditional residential campus based student, such as balancing work and a family in conjunction with their learning. Such a presence of external pressures can have an additional impact on their achievements as it has a direct correlation to motivation in light of conflicting priorities and should be taken in consideration in comparison to their more tradition student counterparts:

‘Students have considerable free time to plan their own study time and they can choose whether to spend their time on study or other activities. Therefore progress in higher education depends on student’s disciplines to study regularly’

Janson (2004)

However studies by Halbesleben et al (2003) suggest that a number of tutors had the sense that many of their students do not allocate enough of their time to their academic studies.

Previously when reviewing papers on gamification Csikszentmihalyi’s (1975) concept of ‘flow’ was examined, Despaul et al (2004) suggest that with regards to motivation a ‘flow state’ can be achieved for ‘optimal experiences’ through high challenges and high skill requirements. Like with Csikzentmihalyi, Despaul also states that there needs to be a balance within the flow state otherwise boredom (low challenge/high skills) or anxiety (high challenge/low skills) can occur. Despaul also states that the flow state can be effected by contextual and external factors such as setting and social environment.

‘while activation was highest at home and alone, the optimal mental states were reached in social situations….engagement in study is not intrinsically motivating and will be minimised to maximise social activities and pursue more motivating activities’

Despaul et al (2004)

Lizzio and Wilson (2004) also argue that skills are key to aiding motivation, ‘…the value students place on capabilities is the key factor in influencing their level of motivation for further development’. They found that student beliefs about skills varied depending on gender, subject, career plans, age and life experience. However in their studies, students identified six areas of skill requirement:

  • written communication and literacy
  • communication and leadership
  • disciplinary/professional
  • problem-solving
  • conceptual thinking and organisational membership
  • personal responsibility

‘students rated all skill areas (except written communication) as more relevant to their future work than their present course of study. Students appear to perceive the ‘world of work’ as demanding a greater range of skills than academic study’

Lizzio and Wilson (2004)

What is important to draw from this is the understanding that identification and development of skills is important to career opportunities which throughout the literature is a repeating factor in respect to motivation. However, as previously encountered in the literature a strongly weighted preoccupation towards career related performance can have a negative impact in daily motivation if the links aren’t created between the development of learning and skills with that of the long term career aspirations. However, we mustn’t lose sight of those that learn without association to career progression:

‘Learning for learning’s sake is something we should criticise very warily. People want to learn simply because learning is wonderful… You get a taste for learning and then you want to learn even more’.

Kim Howells (quoted in Smithers 2004)

Breen (1999) suggests that students will often select subjects due to a sense of affinity for the academic content and its associated culture, and the access of which would greatly enhance motivation.

What has become increasing clear from the literature is that motivation is strongly tied to outcome, but the associations linked to the outcome such as knowledge developed, skills acquired and refined, student culture, etc. are not necessarily identified by students as important to the outcome. The forging of such understanding may, as the literature suggests, have a greater impact on student motivation.


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

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1975). Beyond boredom and anxiety. San Francisco, CA: Josey-Bass

Despaul, P.A.E.G., Reis, H.T., and de Vries, M.W. (2004). Ecological and motivational determinants of activation: studying compared to sports and watching TV. Social Indicators Research 67. 129-143

Halbelsleben, J.R. B., Becker, J.A.H., and Buckley, M.R. (2003). Considering the labor contributions of students: An alternative to the student-as-customer metaphor. Journal of Education for Business. 78 (5). 255-257

Jackson, C. (2003). Transitions into higher education: gendered implications for academic self-concept. Oxford Review of Education 29 (3). 331-346

Jansen, E.P.W.A. (2004). The influence of the curriculum organisation on study progress in higher education. Higher Education 47, 411-435.

Lizzio, A. and Wilson, K. (2004). First-year students’ perceptions of capability. Studies in Higher Education 29 (1), 109-128

Macdonald, J. (2002). ”Getting it together and being put on the spot”. synopsis, motivation and examination. Studies in Higher Education 27 (3). 329-337

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

Miller, R.B., DeBacker, T. and Greene, B.a. (1999). Perceived instrumentality and academics: the link to task valuing. Journal of Instructional Psychology 26 (4). 250-260

Rhodes, C. and Nevill, A. (2004). Academic and social integration in higher education: a survey of satisfaction and dissatisfaction within a first year education studies cohort at a new university. Journal of Further and Higher Education 28 (2). 179-193

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