Can Colleges Manufacture Motivation?

Nancy L. Ford

Daniel Chambliss, a sociology professor at Hamilton College, studies motivation in college students.
April 15, 2012

Motivation is often thought to be a fixed, inborn personality trait whose presence or absence helps explain why some students succeed while others fail to graduate.

Recent research, including papers presented here at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, a forthcoming book, and a well-regarded longitudinal survey of three cohorts of 17,000 students at 49 institutions, have taken a different view. Motivation, these researchers argue, is far more malleable, and colleges wield significant power in instilling—and discouraging—it in their students.

"Motivation is an outcome of college," said Daniel F. Chambliss, professor of sociology at Hamilton College, whose book How College Works will be published by Harvard University Press. "It energizes people to want to learn more and go out in the world and grab it by the throat."

Mr. Chambliss came to this conclusion after conducting nine years of longitudinal research on 100 randomly selected students who entered Hamilton in 2001. He and his co-author, Christopher G. Takacs, a doctoral student at the University of Chicago, interviewed students in person every year while they were on campus and every other year by telephone after they graduated. They also collected other data, including transcripts, and submitted the students' writing for evaluation by outside experts.

A pattern emerged, with motivation cropping up repeatedly during interviews, Mr. Chambliss said. Not every student or graduate used the word "motivation," but many described the same idea: There was an identifiable moment in which a faculty member created a spark in them; students became energized or excited by a topic, an idea, or a discipline. In those moments, he said, a faculty member conveyed to the student that he or she could perform on the collegiate level.

"What struck us was that this was the result of being at the college, not simply a given input, the way lots of people seem to treat it," Mr. Chambliss said. "Colleges and universities are like a museum. They're filled with all this beautiful art, but someone has to turn on the light. If no one turns on the light, nothing else matters."

Discomfiting Trends

The notion that motivation matters in education is not new, of course. For years, researchers have tried to quantify it through such tools as the California Critical Thinking Dispositions Inventory, a standardized measure of internal motivation, and the Academic Motivation Scale.

Much of the research, by psychologists and education researchers, has identified a discomfiting trend at all levels of education. Paul R. Pintrich, the late professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, for example, observed that motivation tends to decrease in students over time as they progress through their elementary and secondary education.

Recently, sociologists and other researchers have tried to construct a more qualitative picture of the complex web of social interactions, like those that occur in college, that can spur and sap academic motivation.

Evidence suggests that colleges have a very mixed record.

Two-thirds of fourth-year students said their motivation stayed the same or declined while they were in college, according to the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education, which surveyed in its first cohort 2,200 students who enrolled in 2006 in 17 public and private, and small and large colleges around the country. Twenty-seven percent showed moderate to high growth in academic motivation, while 7 percent exhibited low growth.

To measure motivation, students participating in the Wabash study filled out an eight-item questionnaire when they first arrived on campus, and again at the end of their freshman and senior years. Rating their responses on a scale from strongly agree to strongly disagree, they answered such questions as whether they were willing to work hard to learn material, even when it did not lead to a better grade; to read more than was required for class because it was interesting; and to talk to faculty members outside of class about ideas presented in the classroom.

The largest drop in the Wabash students' motivation occurred during the first year, though it ticked up slightly during the following three years of their college experience. Those results are disheartening, said Josipa Roksa, associate professor of sociology and education at the University of Virginia.

"It's much more disturbing than what we showed in Academically Adrift," she said in an e-mail, referring to the book she co-authored with Richard Arum, professor of sociology and education at New York University, which documented scant gains in critical-thinking skills by more than one-third of college students during their time on campus.

"It's one thing not to improve," she said, "but another to actually get worse."

Instilling Motivation

Students whose motivation does increase in college, however, enjoy a host of benefits, according to Jui-Sheng Wang, a doctoral student in higher education at the University of Iowa, who is presenting his paper "Academic Motivation Gain and Co-Curricular Involvement" here.

Mr. Wang used the data from the Wabash study, which his adviser and co-author, Ernest T. Pascarella, has described as a Hollywood spectacular because of their richness and complexity. Students who gained in academic motivation during their first year, Mr. Wang found, were more satisfied with their college experience, which also made them more likely to return for their second year. Gains in academic motivation predicted retention more strongly than whether students were involved in cocurricular activities, like student government, a fraternity or sorority, or intramural sports.

His study's findings point to the power of academic motivation, he said, and faculty and administrators should pay heed. "Motivation is determined by the characteristics of the college environment and the instructor," he wrote.

The researchers in the Wabash study attributed the differences in motivation more narrowly. Their findings suggest that motivation is a product of professors more than it is of colleges. In fact, gains and losses in student motivation varied more widely within institutions than they did between them, they noted.

In another study presented here, researchers described how varied student motivation can be, even for those in the same course.

In a study led by ChanMin Kim, assistant professor in the department of educational psychology and instructional technology at the University of Georgia, a test of motivation was administered three times in one semester to 110 students in a large introductory geography lecture at Texas State University. Students' levels of motivation varied widely, as reflected by their scores on the test, and their motivation was highly influenced by their perception of the intrinsic value of the material.

Their perception of the intrinsic value of a course, Ms. Kim said, was a function of how interesting, relevant, and useful it was, beyond its mere utility in filling a degree requirement. And it is in shaping this perception that faculty can affect students and their motivation, even if it is in a large lecture course.

She offered some tools that her research suggested were surprisingly effective. For example, faculty can give students a choice of the format and, importantly, the topics for their assignments, so they can apply material to a subject that interests them. Students should also be encouraged to revise assignments and then be graded again.

"It'll create one more layer of work," Ms. Kim said. "But it's not about performance. It's about learning."

Mr. Chambliss, of Hamilton, suggested that department heads and administrators also pay attention to which professors seem to be the best at motivating students, and to assign them to core and introductory courses, where they are more likely to reach a large number of students. Such seemingly minor decisions can have profound consequences on many students' success, he said.

Ultimately what matters, said his co-author, Mr. Takacs, is that relationships between students and faculty be created. They are not things that can be mandated or formalized, he said. And they need not be particularly deep, long-lasting, or labor intensive.

In many cases, all it takes is a faculty member to have a few well-timed interactions with a student, perhaps during office hours or in class. Such moments, he said, trigger something in students, whether it is a desire to learn or try harder, or it convinces them that they belong on campus:

"It is clear from their interviews that something changes quickly, meaningfully, and for the better."