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Resources dealing with motivation

Factors in Student Motivation

Authored by: Steven C. Howey

Educators across the country are frustrated with the challenge of how to motivate the ever increasing number of freshmen students entering college who are psychologically, socially, and academically unprepared for the demands of college life. Such students often exhibit maladaptive behavior such as tardiness, hostility towards authority, and unrealistic aspirations.

The standard approach is to address the problem as an academic issue through remedial or developmental instruction. Developmental education programs however do not address the whole problem. Lack of motivation is not limited to the academically weak student. Successful remedial and study strategies courses aimed at the underprepared student have demonstrated that students who really want to improve their skills can do so when motivated. However, even the best remedial instruction programs have failed to positively impact the student who is both underprepared academically and unmotivated. When students have both a lack of academic skills and lack motivation, the greater problem is motivation (Kelly, 1988). Faculty often have neither the time or inclination to address difficult motivational issues in the classroom, consequently, the task of trying to effectively motivate such students often falls to academic advisors.

Opinions about the role of motivation in academic achievement and what can be done about it vary widely among college faculty, administrators, and student services professionals. Consideration about unmotivated students opens a Pandora’s box of questions: Can anything be done about these students? Can motivation be taught? What kind of strategies can be used to influence motivation? Is this time wasted that might better be used on those students who are already motivated?

The problem of devising effective strategies that influence motivation relies initially on the identification of specific motivational factors. The histories of psychology and education are abundant with research on motivation and its effect on behavior. The study of motivation in education has undergone many changes over the years, moving away from reinforcement contingencies to the more current social-cognitive perspective emphasizing learners’ constructive interpretations of events and the role that their beliefs, cognitions, affects, and values play in achievement (Pintrich and Schunk, 1996).

Factors, definitions, and theory
Several specific motivational factors have come to light in recent educational research from the social cognitive approach including: Intrinsic Goal Orientation, Extrinsic Goal Orientation, Task Value, Control of Learning Beliefs, and Self-Efficacy for Learning and Performance. These factors are defined as:

  • Intrinsic Goal Orientation is having a goal orientation toward an academic task that indicates the students' participation in the task is an end all to itself rather than participation being a means to an end. Also included here is the degree to which students perceive themselves to be participating in a task for reasons such as challenge, curiosity, and mastery (Garcia, McKeachie, Pintrich, & Smith, 1991).
  • Extrinsic Goal Orientation concerns the degree to which students perceive themselves to be participating in a task for reasons such as grades, rewards, performance evaluation of others and competition. Students with high in extrinsic goal orientation engage in learning tasks as the means to an end. The main concern here is the students with high Extrinsic Goal Orientation relate to issues rather than those directly related to participating in the task itself (Garcia et al., 1991).
  • Task Value refers to students' evaluation of how interesting, how important, and how useful the task is. High task should lead to more involvement in learning. Task value refers to the students' perceptions of the course material in terms of interest, importance, and utility (Garcia et al., 1991)
  • Self-Efficacy for Learning and Performance comprises two aspects of expectancy: expectancy for success and self-efficacy. Expectancy for success refers to performance expectations, and relates specifically to task performance. Self-efficacy is a self appraisal of one's ability to accomplish a task and one's confidence in possessing the skills needed to perform that task (Garcia et al., 1991).
  • Test Anxiety has been found to be negatively related to expectancies as well as to academic performance. Test anxiety is thought to have two components: a worry, or cognitive component, and an emotional component. The worry component refers to students' negative thoughts that disrupt performance, whereas the emotionality component refers to affective and physiological arousal aspects of anxiety. Cognitive component and preoccupation with performance have been found to be the greatest sources of performance decrement. Training in the use of effective learning strategies and test-taking skills should help reduce the degree of anxiety (Garcia et al., 1991).

These factors identified in the social-cognitive model of motivation can be narrowed to three motivational constructs: expectancy, value, and affect. The expectancy construct assesses perceptions of self-efficacy and control beliefs of learning. The self-efficacy construct postulated by Bandura in his social learning theory has guided extensive motivational research. The second construct of expectancy is a refined construct based on Rotter’s locus of control. Rotter’s locus of control construct, first presented in 1966, is perhaps one of the most highly researched concepts in modern psychological study.

The value construct includes intrinsic and extrinsic goal orientation as well as task value beliefs. Ryan, Connell, and Deci (1985) who researched the role of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in their “Cognitive Evaluation Theory” argue that perceptions of autonomy and competence are fundamental to intrinsic motivation. Commitment to educational attainment and learning are necessary to sustain motivation. Commitment to learning is a syndrome of variables such as belief in the value of learning.

The third motivational construct is affect and can be measured in terms of test-anxiety. A meta-analysis of 562 studies that related test anxiety and academic achievement found that test anxiety does cause poor performance, is negatively related to self-esteem, and is directly related to students’ fear of negative evaluation (Hembree, 1988).

Using theory in successful institutional practice
How then can educational institutions use these identified motivational constructs to help students be more successful? Colleges must move beyond developmental instruction alone and address motivation issues in a more comprehensive manner. One important consideration is early identification of and attention to at-risk student problems. It is well documented that addressing retention issues early in the student’s first year of college is critical. Historically, at least half of all students who drop out of college do so during their freshmen year (Noel, 1985; Terenzini, 1986). Many of these students leave during the first six to eight weeks of their initial semester according to Blanc, Debuhr, and Martin (1983). These statistics have remained relatively unchanged in recent years.

Colleges nationwide do a good job identifying new freshmen students who are academically at-risk. Institutions use a number of academic assessment instruments e.g., ACT, ASSET, COMPASS, SAT, and ACCUPLACER. Since assessing motivation is less standardized and less common at educational institutions, another option may be to consider already identified motivational differences between academically prepared and unprepared students. Use of informal observations or tools such as the Motivated Strategies for Learning Questionnaire (MSLQ) can help identify these students. (Find more information regarding the MSLQ see Additionally, a portion of the MSLQ can be seen via Indiana University .

In a study of academically prepared and underprepared freshmen orientation students, Howey (1999) found clear motivational differences between academically prepared and underprepared community college freshmen orientation students. Specifically, underprepared students are more extrinsically motivated, see more value in study strategies offered in the course, have low self-efficacy beliefs, and suffer more from test anxiety. Academically prepared students, on the other hand, have more internalized locus of control beliefs, greater self-efficacy, and are less affected by test anxiety. Academically prepared students may be better served by emphasizing goal orientation (major selection) and related career information, critical thinking, leadership training, or service learning opportunities. Implications are that due to identified differences in the motivational constructs of expectancy, value, and affect, college administrators may want to consider more homogeneous grouping, based on academic readiness, of freshmen orientation students in order to better address individual motivational differences.

As discussed previously, early intervention is critical to improving the success rate and retention of at-risk students. In addition to providing an opportunity for timely intervention, freshmen orientation course material and textbooks are typically designed specifically to address motivation and study strategies. Clearly one venue with high potential to positively impact student motivation to succeed in college is through a customized and targeted freshman seminar course.

What advisors can do
In addition to a systematic approach through a freshmen seminar course there are also strategies advisors can use to influence motivational changes when meeting with their advisees individually. The mere act of meeting with advisees on a regular basis and expressing interest and concern beyond just their class schedule and program requirements is critical in itself. Carl Roger’s Person Centered Therapy, including the concepts of unconditional positive regard and reflection, influenced those of us in graduate counseling programs in the 70s and is still relevant to our understanding of how important relational issues are to advisees. Habley (2003) states “Advising is the only opportunity on campus in which students have the opportunity for on-going, one on one interaction with a concerned representative of the institution.”

Warm and fuzzy relations, however, may not be enough to create significant changes of behavior in the unmotivated student. Unfortunately, a detailed explanation of specific techniques for changing behavior is an article or perhaps a course all by itself. We know that major and career exploration is helpful for students who lack goal orientation.

There is another approach that may be helpful in working with students with other motivational factors; a technique relevant to self-regulated learning and as a problem solving approach. This technique specifically is to get the advisee more involved in the process of coming up with their own strategies for addressing a problem. For example, rather than focusing on how unfair or boring a particular instructor may be, students should be asked to generate their own ideas on what they could do to improve the situation. If students can’t come up with any ideas on their own, advisors can ask them to pick what might work best from a list of suggestions generated by the advisor. Follow-up meetings to refine strategies will be needed.

In summary, advisors may find it helpful when working with unmotivated students to approach the problem from a motivational constructs framework.  The identification of motivational issues based on the constructs of expectancy (self-efficacy and locus of control beliefs), value (goal orientation or task value concerns), or affect (test anxiety), may be helpful in developing specific strategies toward greater success in college. 

Authored by:
Steven C. Howey
Coordinator of Advising, Counseling, and Career Development (Retired)
Hutchinson Community College (KS)


Blanc, R. A., Debuhr, L. E., & Martin, D. C. (1983). Breaking the attrition cycle: the effects of supplemental instruction on undergraduate performance and attrition. Journal of Higher Education, 54 (1), 80-90.

Garcia, T., McKeachie, W. J., Pintrich, P. R., & Smith, D. A. (1991). A manual for the use of the Motivated Strategies for Learning Questionnaire (Tech. Rep. No. 91-B-004). Ann Arbor, MI : The University of Michigan, School of Education.

Habley, Wes. (2003). NACADA Summer Institute, quoting 'Academic Advising: Critical Link in Student Retention.' (1981). NASPA Journal, 28(4): 45-50.

Hembree, R. (1988). Correlates, causes, effects, and treatment of test anxiety. Review of Educational Research, 58, 47-77.

Howey, S. C. (1999). The relationship between motivation and academic success of community college freshmen orientation students. Doctoral Dissertation. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 465391).

Kelly, D.K. (1988). Motivating the underprepared unmotivated community college student. Viewpoints (120) – Information analyes (070). (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 299 009)

Noel, L. (1985). Increasing student retention: New challenges and potential. In L. Noel, R. Levitz, & Associates (Eds.), Increasing student retention (pp. 1-27). San Francisco : Jossey-Bass.

Pintrich, P.R. (1988a). A process-oriented view of student motivation and cognition. In J. Stark and L. Mets (Eds.), Improving teaching and learning through research: New directions for institutional research (Vol. 57, pp. 65-79).

Pintrich, P.R. (1988b). Student learning and college teaching. In R. E. Young and K. E. Eble (Eds), College teaching and learning: Preparing for new commitments. New directions for teaching and learning ( Vol. 33, pp. 71-86). San Francisco : Jossey-Bass.

Pintrich, P. R. (1989). The dynamic interplay of student motivation and cognition in the college classroom. In C. Ames and M. Maehr (Eds.) Advances in motivation and achievement: Motivation enhancing environments (Vol. 6, pp. 117-160).Greenwich , CT : JAI Press.

Pintrich, P. R., & Schunk, D. H. (1996). Motivation in education.Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Pintrich P., Smith D., Garcia T., McKeachie W. (1991). A Manual for the Use of the Motivated Strategies for Learning Questionnaire. Technical Report 91-B-004. The Regents of The University of Michigan.

Ryan, R. M., Connell, J. P., & Deci, E. L. (1985). A motivational analysis of self-determination and self-regulation in education. In C. Ames & R. Ames (Eds.), Research on motivation in education: Vol. 2. The classroom milieu (pp. 13-51). Orlando , FL : Academic Press.

Terenzini, P.T. (1986). Retention research: Academic and social fit. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Southern Regional Office of the College of Entrance Examination Board, New Orleans , LA.


Cite using APA style as:

Howey, S.C. (2008). Factors in student motivation. Retrieved from the NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources Web site:

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