Plugging in to the process of learning

To those of you who were able to take some time away last week – welcome back!  And to those of you who never left – thanks for sticking around!

Although we are well into the conversation about improving student learning through curricular reform, the other half of the educational effectiveness equation remains a bit of a conundrum.  This “other half” to which I refer is our students’ motivation to plug in to the process of learning and growing.  We all know some students who don’t seem to care much at all about their education.  In addition, we all know of students who are tremendously motivated to get good grades but seem to care very little about learning.  So what do we know about our students’ motivation to learn and succeed in college?

Augustana has not traditionally collected much data that fully addresses student motivation.  Sometimes we have presumed that increased student satisfaction will lead to increased motivation.  Yet we know that motivation is more complicated – that there are different types of motivation that can produce vastly different results.  As a liberal arts college, we actually want our students to develop an intrinsic motivation to learn and be less concerned about extrinsically measured achievement.

Although the Wabash National Study didn’t really flesh out the idea of motivation, it did include two items that we can use to dig into the way that student motivation might change in college.  Both items are presented as agree/disagree statements with a response scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree).  The first item states, “Getting the best grades I can is very important to me.”  The second item states, “I am willing to work hard in a course to learn the material even if it won’t lead to a higher grade.”

Our current seniors participated in the Wabash National Study as freshmen in 2008 and 2009.  So the data we have comes from the beginning and the end of their first year at Augustana.  Here are their average responses to both questions.


Fall of 2008

Spring of 2009

Importance of Grades



Willingness to Work Hard Regardless of Grades *




There are two observations I would like you to consider.  First, in both the fall and spring our students appear to rate getting the best grades they can as more important than working hard to learn regardless of that effort’s effect on grades.  Second, between fall and spring the change in the importance of getting the best possible grades is not large enough to be significant, suggesting that this value does not change on average.  However, the change in willingness to work hard regardless of grades between fall and spring is significant – suggesting that intrinsic motivation to learn may have actually dropped during the first year.

I am going to revisit this topic in a couple of weeks because it cuts to the core of our efforts to effectively prepare students to succeed in their personal and professional lives.  Moreover, it appears that there are certain types of educational experiences that may increase intrinsic motivation.   How is that for a teaser?!

Make it a good day,


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