Understanding Student Motivation (Part 2)

Understanding Student Motivation for More Effective Teaching: A Mini-Series

Adapted from:
Mayer, Richard E., and Susan A. Ambrose. How learning works: seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010. Print.

In Part 1 of this mini-series, we explored the first of three interacting variables affecting student motivation: subjective value. We discussed the importance of teaching under the assumption that the value of a course to students may not be evident to them, and how instructors can help students make connections between the course content and real-life applicability. In Part 2, we will look at the second variable affecting student motivation: expectancies.

Part 2 – Managing Student Expectations

Outcome and Efficacy Expectancies

High subjective value alone is not enough to motivate behavior. Students must also believe that they can successfully attain a goal to be motivated to pursue it. Positive outcome expectancies refer to the expectation that taking specific actions will result in attaining a goal: “If I complete all of the assigned readings and assignments, I will be able to get a good grade in the class”. Furthermore, students must believe that they are capable of performing the necessary actions (efficacy expectancies).

When forming beliefs about their chances of success in a course, students may be heavily influenced by past experiences in similar contexts. For example, if a student has performed poorly in writing assignments in past courses, he probably believes that the same will happen in the current course. Even more important than outcomes from past experiences are the reasons students attribute to their successes or failures. Ambrose et. al explain that when students attribute their success to internal causes, such as their abilities, or to controllable causes, such as the effort that they put toward attaining a goal, they are more likely to have positive outcome expectancies. On the other hand, if they usually attribute success to external causes, such as easy assignments, or to uncontrollable causes, such as good luck, they are less likely to have positive outcome expectancies.

Instructors are in a unique position to influence students’ beliefs about success and failure. Well-designed instruction can help students focus on controllable factors of success, such as effective study strategies, time management, and hard work, as opposed to uncontrollable factors.

A good place to begin to help students form positive expectancies is to clearly state expectations for performance. The professor in the introductory scenario in Part 1 said that he does not like to spoon-feed students with too many instructions. This could mean that he is underestimating the level of guidance his students need to attain the learning goals. Stating expectations for performance is especially important for novice learners, who need more guidance in the beginning stages as they work toward proficiency.

Strategies to Help Students Build Positive Expectancies

  • Ensure Alignment of Objectives, Assessments, and Instructional Strategies. When students are explicitly and clearly told what they are expected to learn (learning objectives) and how the instructional strategies and activities will help them achieve those goals, they begin with a better understanding of how the different course elements fit together and tend to feel more confident and in control of their learning.
  • Create Assignments that Provide the Appropriate Level of Challenge. It is important to strike the right balance in creating learning activities that are not difficult to the point where they create negative outcome expectancies in students, and not easy to the point where students don’t see value in engaging with them (e.g., may see activities as “busy work”). In the case of first and second-year college courses, it is often a good idea to administer diagnostic assessments or surveys early on to get a sense of proficiency.
  • Provide Early Opportunities for Success. This strategy can be especially helpful in influencing students’ beliefs about success and failure in a course. Providing shorter, low-risk assignments in the beginning which count for a small percentage of the final grade can help establish experiences of success that increase students’ sense of efficacy before progressing through more difficult learning activities.
  • Provide Grading Rubrics. A rubric can help to break a complex assignment into more manageable parts, clearly communicate to students where they should focus their energy, and provide a more concrete idea of what different levels of proficiency look like.
  • Provide Targeted Feedback. Constructive and timely feedback is essential in helping students gauge their progress toward attaining a learning goal. It can help to identify and address weaknesses early on and give them the opportunity to apply the feedback to future assignments.

Further Reading


Coming Up: How the Learning Environment Interacts with Value and Expectancies

Liliana is an Instructional Designer at FIU Online. She has over 5 years of experience in higher education. Previously, she was the Training Manager for the department's recruitment team. Her interests include working with instructors to create quality online courses.

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