FULT ePortfolio Blog posts #6 part 2: motivation and resilience

The second thing I had noted down from the face to face session that I want to write about is “typical” vs “ideal” students and intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation. The conventional wisdom is that intrinsic motivation leads to deep learning approaches, while extrinsic leads to shallow approaches.

For the last year I’ve been surveying my first year engineers about their emotions about their studies, and their motivation. In the first survey of the year I asked them why they decided to study engineering at ADFA. I categorised their answers as reflecting extrinsic (to engineering) or intrinsic motivation. For example, “I want a job” was classified as extrinsic and “I like designing things and solving problems” was intrinsic. When I looked at how the motivation levels of the two groups compared I found that they started with the same high levels of motivation, but the extrinsically motivated (those who wanted a job) maintained higher levels of motivation towards their studies and towards becoming an engineer throughout the year.

We generally assume that more motivated students study more and are more successful. Because the surveys are anonymous (but trackable week by week using unique student codes) I can’t correlate marks with respondents. So I can’t check this assumption. But it’s generally accepted that motivation leads to success.

So what does this mean? I think it means that those who are focussed on a future goal, rather than present enjoyment, are more resilient in the face of pressure. That pressure includes the stuff we do to them – a firehose of content, lots of assessment tasks, exams – and external pressures such as military training, family etc. Those who were intrinsically motivated were less able to maintain their motivation.

So, oddly enough, those who decided to do engineering because they thought they’d enjoy it, didn’t fare as well (at least in terms of motivation) as those who just wanted a secure job.

What does this mean for us as teachers and course developers?

First – respect the importance of extrinsic motivation, and help those who are intrinsically motivated find an extrinsic motivation too. It may well get them through when the going gets tough. This is completely counter to the conventional wisdom which says that we should be helping students find intrinsic motivation by inspiring them with how exciting our subjects are. (Kissing don’t last, cooking does…?)

Second – recognise the pressures that tend to push students to lose their intrinsic motivation, and don’t add to them. Syllabi that are overfull and give no time to think and explore will tend to work against intrinsic motivation.

There’s so much talk about respecting diversity – and we talk about race, religion, gender and culture. I think we need to respect and embrace diversity of purpose amongst our students as well. What’s wrong with wanting a secure job anyway?


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