Notes From the SEDA Conference: Encouraging Student Motivation (8/4—10/4/97), University of Plymouth

Keynote 1: Prof P Pintrich

Prof Pintrich reviewed some of the work he had been pursuing at the University of Michigan on motivation and its connection with learning strategies. The work explores a ‘social cognitive/constructivist’ model, involving certain beliefs, strategies, perceptions of learning and motivational/cognitive components. Such components are not fixed but are open to change. Motivated behaviour involves a number of cognitive options (including the ability to think deeply, ask questions and take risks – ‘deep’ approaches), and an ability to develop persistence and the regulation of behaviour (such as is involved in the maintaining of effort even where the task is boring). Motivational components include certain ‘self-efficacy beliefs’ (about the ability to do tasks), ‘task value beliefs’ (perceptions of the worth of the task), goal orientations (a drive to mastery, extrinsic motivations and a ‘relative ability’ goal orientation – wanting to be better than classmates). Cognitive components include conceptual and metacognitive elements, cognitive strategies (‘surface and deep’ approaches, or their equivalents – rehearsal and elaborational). Students can develop self-regulating strategies – to plan, monitor and regulate.  These elements can be connected directly and indirectly

 The work involves a large sample from two populations (junior high school and college students). A self-report questionnaire was used to gain data on learning strategies (at course level),and standard performance measures were gathered. Path analysis was pursued on the links.
 The findings:

1. Self-efficacy was strongly related to cognitive components (esp deep processing) and to attainments
2. Task-value beliefs (including liking and interest) were internally interconnected and again revealed a positive correlation to deep strategies (and thence to performance gains –not a strong direct link)
3. Goal orientations showed a positive relation ( a smaller one than either 2 or 3). Relations with extrinsic goals were weaker and even negatively related. Relative ability goals did seem significant in terms of (indirect) connections with strategies – although this may be a particular US feature (and there is not data for University students as yet)
Certain design principles might follow, even where actual research to tease out concrete interconnections might show complexity (and even contradictions – eg between making tasks interesting and making them central to syllabi). Some contextual variables especially can be altered – types of assessment and tutor behaviour, grouping practices and reward structures. There are clearly some institutional pressures on matters like class size, though. Nevertheless, 5 final suggestions emerged:
1. Go for optimal challenge in tasks – tutors should model task-relevant behaviour and demonstrate it
2. Support autonomy and choice in tasks (especially lessen time constraints with exams)
3. Provide meaningful and relevant content and tasks (linking to personal interests, ‘real world’ tasks and so on – but keeping to the disciplinary core too)
4. Use collaborative groups (as in the piece in New Academic) – although there are problems with keeping groups on task, providing individual grades and so on.
5. Feedback and grading should be informal – but fair and accurate, avoiding Californian ‘self worth’ approaches which only provide positive comments. Mistakes should be seen as opportunities for learning, and problems should be seen as changeable, learnable etc.
It was interesting to hear of a large study like this confirming much of what practice suggests. The emphasis on ‘relative ability goals’ is new to me. The connections with ‘deep/surface’ approaches is interesting too.

My negative comments turned largely on the idealism of this approach, though – eg Prof Pintrich disapproved of norm-referenced marking, but failed to explain its persistence or to offer any discussion of the sorting and grading functions of university assessment and how to regulate it – in these circumstances, it seems likely that such sorting will still proceed semi-illicitly and in an unexamined way, somehow alongside more ‘cognitive’ uses of assessment. 

In questions afterwards, Prof Pintrich himself suggested that we need some more subject-specific  work on actually teaching core concepts in different subject specialisms, to round out this more general work of his.

Keynote 2: S. Mason

This session was devoted to a presentation of results of a study of student motivation in a broader sense (including motivation to participate in student union (SU) activities). 18 students were interviewed (very) informally at Middlesex University. Results were to be compared with a similar sample from Warwick University in a workshop session on Wednesday (which I did not attend). The work followed a kind of ‘life history’ approach letting students talk about their ‘motivation factors’ and how they fitted various activities –participants were invited to fill in such a grid as well.

I found the results rather banal, despite the claims that this would put us in touch with what students were really thinking. The sample was far too small and far too open to distortion in its selection to be of much use, despite a number of forms of ‘soft quantification’ employed by the speaker – ‘the majority of students felt that…’, ‘most rated personal factors..’ etc. There was some limited discussion of the problems with more ‘objective’ measures of motivation – which were discussed as American and as merely ‘lists that academics had come up with’. Letting students choose to describe their experiences simply in their own words (citing ‘family’ or ‘money’ as a motivation factor, for example) leaves the work open to substantial misinterpretations (as a questioner pointed out – the answer promised skilled interpretation by the interviewer there and then as the main safeguard). 

The presenter delivered her own views on matters like the need to have less boring lectures, or on the importance of ‘real’ social interactions (‘not just going out for a few beers’ was how she described this). She felt that modular courses were breaking up important peer groups among students. None of this seemed to be grounded on the actual research findings, however: a rather sixties feel  to the presentation persisted –‘students were at last being allowed to speak’ (through an articulate self-appointed spokesperson).

The rhetorical value of presenting ‘surprising’ findings like this might work on very unperceptive lecturers who had never talked to any students recently – I’m not at all sure many of us were, though. When we listed our own ‘motivational factors’, they didn’t seem very different.

Questioners raised the issue of the problems with the sample (were any of the 18 drop-outs? were any unsure why they were there?) and with the data (were the factors weightable or just to be listed? were they to be explained or grouped?).

Keynote 3: S Newstead

This session reviewed some of Prof Newstead’s work on student motivation. A printed paper is available:

The famous work on student cheating was one of the first UK studies on cheating (although by no means the first on ‘strategic’ or ‘instrumental’ behaviour which had been researched in distance education for quite a while – not the least in Harris 1987!). Newstead’s work involves students in self-rating their behaviours against a list of agreed ‘cheating ‘behaviours. Overall, there is a ‘surprising’ amount of it, and males, the young, the less committed, and the less successful cheat more. My comments here would relate to my own work, suggesting a link between this sort of behaviour and the ‘rational/instrumental’ approach to course design, and, generally, to draw attention to the links between student  ‘deviance’ and Faculty ‘normal’ practices (such as staff coping strategies). I also think Becker’s insight tends to be lost in work like this – that instrumentalism is learned behaviour, a collective response to the impossible contradictions and strains of academic work. One questioner also asked whether and how students explained away or ‘neutralised’ this sort of behaviour (see the Iphofen seminar below).

A longitudinal study on motivation, and the effects of h.e. on demotivation. Entwistle’s work on types of motivation was used to generate a baseline questionnaire, given to all students at the start of session (although the longitudinal effects were to be grasped by surveying all years, rather than by proper cohort analysis). Age, gender and type of course seemed to be  linked with types of motivation (e.g. older and female students seemed more intrinsically motivated, as did students on certain courses, such as graphic design and psychology). Effects of study were still to be processed – but even if any were found, it was not clear to me exactly what there was about h.e. that was supposed to be effective here.

More general views (based on a ‘lightweight study’) on the negative effects of semesterisation, especially where semesters were assessed immediately afterwards. Newstead had apparently administered an Entwistle ASI to a small groups and noted an increase in ‘surface’ approaches after a few weeks. He linked this to some unpublished work by Conway on how students remember (they apparently ‘remember’ in the short term, but ‘just  know’ in the longer term). Newstead was predicting that the effects of shorter blocks of work, and more frequent exams, would increase surface approaches and ‘remembering’ – but again the causals were not clear enough for me. Will the mere alteration of timetables affect student responses, or is it being suggested that semesterisation is the vehicle for some deeper changes in knowledge toward more ‘rational’, ‘surface’ forms, and an overall increase in strain (my preferred view at present)?

Keynote 4:  Prof N Entwistle

This session produced some summaries of recent work.  Entwistle also added some points:

1. There are still dangers in using ‘small opportunity samples’, especially when generalising about an increasingly diverse h.e.sector. (The Entwistle opus represents classic approaches to isolating factors both theoretically and via factor analysis). Discussion of the factors implied that course choice was also important – but this had not been clarified.
2. There have been some revisions to the ASI, which are now best represented in the new ASSIST and the other devices mentioned (many of which are to be published in forthcoming copies of Higher Education). In particular, the ‘surface’ approach is now redefined – there had always been conceptual problems with it as the mere opposite of ‘deep’ approaches, and the statistical analysis seemed to lead to a new factor (‘instrumentalism’).
3. ‘Syllabus boundedness’ seemed to involve a notion rather like Bernstein on ‘framing’, and was particularly well-displayed in what many colleagues took to be ‘well-structured’ courses (‘closed’ course in my terminology – this point, and  the later connection with the use of behavioural objectives and the ‘information transmission’ model would surely be seen as contradicting so many recent course design procedures, including HEFCE’s!)
The Newstead study (see above) used ASSIST to classify students, and found that about 50% of the sample used an ‘instrumental’ approach – if this is typical, there are serious implications for teaching! A survey at Portsmouth University (Bradbury?) had found a large number of students  wanting to be told what to learn (not how to learn), wanting briefing on assessment and how to get high marks, model answers and short reading lists.

However, teachers can motivate (and demotivate!), and encourage intrinsic motivation. The emphasis is worth placing on teaching style – and Prosser’s and Trigwell’s work is cited (in the handout) on typologies of style (a questioner asked if there were ‘strategic’ teachers too!). However, Prosser and Trigwell had used a very small sample (24) – but had found only one or two ‘student-focused’ teachers.

There was a clear need for staff development to demonstrate the student-focused approach, to encourage an emphasis on self-regulation and metacognitive skills among teachers, to break the hold of ‘deep-rooted’ conceptions of teaching and learning among tutors. We have a good idea (from Van Dreil) how to support quality learning – but financing it is another matter.

In response to questions, Entwistle admitted that a preference for ‘deep’ approaches must involve a value judgement. This could be supported by a wide agreement among staff in h.e. that such an approach led to genuine cognitive gains (and by common-sense appeals to our own incredulity at ‘surface’ approaches – would we want to use a bridge built by a ‘surface-approach’ engineer?). He also agreed that gender might be an important factor (but in a context of a general discussion of genetic and cultural elements of motivation). These are interesting admissions – now we need to investigate the social underpinnings of such professional and general value positions (including the impact of university organisation – especially if it seems that many new staff do not have a student-focused approach?). As with all entrenched value positions, there is a need to investigate the interplay of genuine cognitive power and mere ‘style’ in their connections with academic success.

Seminar presentation – France and Beaty ‘Contextual layers of motivation – case studies of first year experience’

This is another small-scale intensive piece setting out to try and compare students in the 1990s with the results of a study undertaken by Beaty in the 1970s. The piece had ‘practical’ aims in mind for the University of Brighton [rather as with the Marjon Student Audit – where there were close parallels at times!]

The early study had identified different types of orientation to learning (an orientation consists of ‘all the attitudes and aims which express the student’s individual relationship with a course of study and with the university’ – a far wider interest than just the cognitive encounters here). The study used self-report, and showed that actual students offered mixed orientations.

The 1970s typology

ACADEMIC  intrinsic: intellectual interest.......... extrinsic: progression

VOCATIONAL intrinsic: training........... extrinsic: qualification

PERSONAL  intrinsic: personal development................ extrinsic: proof of capability

SOCIAL  extrinsic: having a good time

On applying the work to the 1990s, there were several changes:
1. New combinations of orientations –e.g. vocational extrinsic and intrinsic AND social. There were lots of ‘unsures’ [and many seemed to have rather drifted into h.e. – NB n = 10 case studies].
2. Some responses seemed not really to fit the orientations – e.g. going to university also seemed to be about gaining confidence, growing up, gaining independence, developing as a person, gaining experience, making friends, learning to rely on oneself, making a new beginning, trying to break out [and be more cosmopolitan]. These terms seemed to be tapping more than orientations specifically to study. There was more volatility too – one respondent changed in the course of the interview!
3. The learning milieu seemed important ( a reference to some 1977 work by Parlett here – the ethos, network, the assumptions and expectations placed upon students – like the expectation that they will do more reading after lectures.
4. Academic/university subcultures seemed effective too (after Clark and Trow) – vocational, collegiate, academic and non-conformist subcultures (were their groups). France and Beaty found almost no no-conformists, and that patterns of residence were also important – such as living in halls.
5. The political context had an effect – the massification of education, credentialism, the need to fight for jobs and to get p/t work as a student
Overall, student motivation was individually variable, involved perceptions of the whole of h.e. and its worth. Following disconnections with the job market, the ‘learning community’ was now harder to specify. Students were talking about themselves in terms of matters like ‘transferable skills’ etc. ‘Independence’ etc seemed a high priority. There were complex layerings. There were genuine differences between the 1970s and the 1990s.

Some of my criticisms were raised in questions – the study focused on ‘practical’ outcomes (for recruitment and PR?) rather than links to motivation, cognitive strategies or attainments per se, for example. Other variables were possible – the insecure status of new subjects, for example (and my interests in social class and cultural capital). I wondered whether the apparent changes simply reflect new interests of researchers or subjects – both now use the language of independence etc whereas before no-one thought to ask students about these effects (and students changing their mind in the course of an interview must be worth methodological investigation). 

The paradoxes of such independence also need exploring in my view. It seems to be interconnected with a strategic orientation F and B admitted, and the penetration of the language of ‘transferable skills’ (and the absence of any non-conformity) must be worthy of comment. Self-report studies of this kind, limiting themselves to outlining (or at most classifying) ‘student views’ as if they were unproblematic can find themselves unable to penetrate such paradoxes.

Paper – Barker ‘Interactivity as an Extrinsic Motivating Force in Learning'

This paper follows a rather basic approach to learning and the importance of interaction (as mastery and as corrective feedback respectively),and echoes many of the early points in the ‘telling’ models in use at the OU in the 1970s. What is new, however, is the use of HTML-based text (electronically delivered), and an account of how to gradually develop such texts in  a way which less experieced colleagues will find very useful (eg. in CPD). 

The case study is useful in discussing precisely what I have in mind for my own experiments with disk-based HTML courses using hyperlinks, with a conveniently abridged list of advantages available only to electronic texts. Barker has made his available via a university network. Barker says that formal evaluation is still to come – but he predicts a mixed response and a certain ‘reticence and scepticism’ even among his (Computing Studies) students!

The paper will be an excellent introduction to the pros and cons for colleagues contemplating this sort of course design and should focus nicely the key questions – can hypertext of this kind be used to generate richer interactions and conceptions of learning than the paper itself operates with at present?

Seminar presentation --  Catchpole ‘Learning skills development and student motivation’
This session argued that students would be better able to pursue a deep approach if they learned to be more flexible in their use of basic study skills. A handout illustrated some basic techniques on offer at the University of Plymouth. It was stressed that these techniques were designed to encourage flexibility in approaches (say to reading), and not meant to serve as simple right answers.

Questioners asked about implications following on from a programme of provision of basic foundational skills – were there questioning or verbal discussion skills? What were the implications for course design? Catchpole’s replies were interesting and sensible here, seeing study skills in two stages (one to summarise, and only then to go on to take risks and impose more of the students own agendas – in ‘Stage 2 notes’ as on the handout). He was also engaged in trying gently to persuade tutors to add in study skills  asides during lectures, say, indicating to students that they could speculate at some points, re-order concepts, ask students to compare their views, or add materials to handouts and so on.

I remain interested in trying to locate study skills in two wider contexts, though:

1. The whole massification of education, and the perceived problems and solutions of expansion – study skills provision as a technical fix or as a token of concern for ‘non-traditional’ students
2. Bourdieu’s work on the different ‘aesthetics’ and their connections with academic life. Study skills would fit in here as a ‘simple accumulation’ strategy to accumulate cultural capital, meshing with a petit bourgeois conception of knowledge. Foucault on the body would also be relevant here. The noticeable ‘work ethic’ of the study skills approach would fit this conytext – the constant self-monitoring, rational control of effort, endless re-processing (e.g remapping) of knowledge, search for efficiency and so on.
Seminar presentation – Iphofen ‘Understanding motives and learning. Mature students and learner responsibility’

This session drew on a sociolinguistic theoretical base ( a version of discourse theory known as the ‘accounts’ tradition), and featured case studies of student learning in Welsh adult residential colleges. Iphofen recognised that the approach might be unorthodox for delegates and invited them to engage in more detailed discussion if they wished via email.

Changes in the colleges were charted from a liberal/radical education to a skills provision model.

Sociological accounts of motives saw them as linguistic behaviour, arising from an interpersonal context (not some objective indices of inner states),with obvious methodological implications (e.g. seeing self-reports of cheating behaviour as containing ‘techniques of neutralisation’ in Matza’s phrase, seeing the irremovable effects of context affecting questionnaire responses and so on). Motives had aspirational and rationalising qualities. They also had a rhetoric and a grammar (a reference here to some work which I do not know – by Burke?). Particularly: (a) statements of motive never embody just single isolated goals, (b) there need be no dominant motive, (c) people need not have clear priorities in practice (before they are asked about them).

It was possible to develop a checklist to guide actual discussions with students (to work on their motivations and, less explicitly, to overcome their resistances), to bear in mind the act, the scene, the agent and the purpose of the statement while asking standard questions like what happened, where, when, who was responsible, how, why, in what setting was the account given, how and why was it given – and so on.

This was an interesting account involving some standard sociological perceptions and methodological debates, albeit in a slightly perverse manner. The particular version of discourse theory needed elaboration – I recognised some of its origins in deviancy theory and in studies of educational talk, but I was less aware of its use in medical sociology (Iphofen’s specialism). I must get the references though The idealism of the approach offered problems – at the most practical level, it was not clear if Iphofen was using his checklist to simply manipulate students, to get them to try out  new discourses to explain their own motives, or even to suggest that a new discourse would change behaviour (since discoursing is behaving in this tradition). This problem was demonstrated best in his account [sic] of attempts to achieve the rather sinisterly titled ‘motivational congruence’ between student and tutor: it was admitted that staff had far more power than students in this matter of ‘matching rhetoric’, for example. As a route into understanding and problematising the implicit culture of h.e., and in making comparisons between academic and lay rhetorics, this looks promising, though.

Seminar presentation – Jacques ‘The unwillingness to learn’

This was a well-attended session given by someone who is evidently very well-known in the field (but not to me!). It focused on describing sources and types of student resistance to learning, and on possible remedies. Yet again, Freudian theory, of a more classical type this time, seemed to inform the discussion - there were unconscious blocks (often infantile in origin), and unconscious mechanisms of transference, counter-transference, and unconscious negotiations and adaptations at work, and only a knowledge of the workings of the unconscious would help us remedy them, often by doing counter-intuitive things (such as ‘amplifying deviancy’).

The session proceeded by working through the material and prompts on the handouts. Only at the end was there any explicit mention of matters like ‘right brain dominance’, ‘accelerated learning’ or the ‘intelligence of the emotions’ – matters which have intrigued me before (see above). I must trace Goleman’s book (and Brookfield’s 1992 The Skilful Teacher) and read it up.
The usual problems suggested themselves at the end:

1. Was Freudian terminology still seen as essential to these accounts, as ‘scientific’, or as merely one way to describe the processes? 
2. To what extent did the diagnoses and the remedies follow from actual experience or from prior commitments to Freudian accounts of ‘blocks’ etc? How does an analyst actually decide, in practice, when a client is ‘resisting’ as opposed to actually ‘disagreeing’, or when critics are ‘intellectualising’ to resist the effects of emotions as opposed to genuinely disagreeing with Freudian precepts?
Seminar presentation – Greasley ‘Does gender effect students’ approaches to learning?’

I was looking forward to this paper as a rare and promising example of how the Entwistle ASI material might be linked to broader sociological concerns. Entwistle himself attended, and I was able at last to ask directly about Bourdieu (Greasley had no specific data on any possible indicators of the ‘cultural capital’ of her respondents). 

The paper (enc) describes the study. Female students did differ from males in terms of their motivation (more intrinsic), but also in terms of their display of clear marks of the surface learner, especially ‘fear of failure’, unwillingness to take risks, inability to get involved in seminars, feelings of being overwhelmed by work.

Problems raised in discussion included:
1. The contrast between an ascribed characteristic like gender and the more ‘cultural’ and ‘contextual’ acquisition of learning styles (a serious issue for the whole learning styles approach for me – do these styles just develop on entering university or are they present already in more general cultural dispositions?)
2. The ways women seemed intrinsically motivated yet failed to develop deep approaches – could the normal gender politics  of h.e.(male dominance of seminars, low expectations by male lecturers etc) be responsible here? (No actual work was cited on these effects, though – and distance education does not seem to offer such a clear male bias, of course, raising the possibility of an interesting comparative study). ‘Gender’ needed to be investigated more closely, though, not left as a single and simple variable (shades of the OU work showing how class interacts with gender).
More technically, Entwistle felt the ASI was best used to distinguish clusters of learning styles, not individuals. So the best way to investigate the effects of gender would be to split the population by learning style first, then see if females predominated in one category (it is not clear if Greasley had done it this way round).
Exceptions might usefully be studied – females who felt no fear of failure, or males who did. Males probably under-reported their fears in these exercises? Staff perceptions might be gathered as well as students, to see if there were gender differences there.

Seminar presentation – Smith and Cooper ‘Study Guides and student motivation: principles for good practice’
This session was presented by one OU Staff Tutor, explaining the new importance of the Study Guide for the OU. It seems that a number of pressures (including commercial ones?) are affecting course design at the OU, and moving them away from the traditional design. Instead, textbooks, co-published with commercial companies, are becoming more common, T& C is being reduced, (newer types of less well-motivated) students are being admitted to any Level (2/3 are ‘direct entrants’ to her Level 2 Psychology course), and the OU is clearly under pressure from conventional universities using d.e. At the more specific level, more staff are on temporary contracts, and the pressure to publish conventionally (rather than top write more pedagogically) is great. As a result, the SG now bears the burden of what remains of ‘good teaching’ practices at the OU. In addition:
1. There are still wide variations in what goes into an SG (with residues of the old ‘supplementary’ functions). Some are large enough for students to feel they can pass without reading much more of the actual course (!)
2. There is a need to embody in writing ‘proper reflexive learning models’ even into later Levels. Such reflection should be properly programmed and planned, at the expense of more academic content if necessary. The status of the SG needs to be raised and the job given to specialists.
3. The new SGs need to be integrative, portable and visually engaging.

This was an interesting account, more for what was alluded to than what was said. The OU is in deep trouble commercially and educationally as it is being forced to address the issue of teaching ‘normal’ students without qualifications really for the first time. It is interesting to see how far cost-consciousness and a rational division of labour now affects the design – are course materials to be largely produced as textbooks plus SGs? 

The paper also shows how strong is still the original rather megalomaniac view of course design – can written documents really offer some effective mediation between diverse students and academic materials, no matter how skilfully designed? It is surprising not to find some electronic model at least – but at the end of the day, this sort of move will prove only face-to-face can really mediate (if then!)?

Seminar presentation – Wheeler ‘Reducing the technological threat and increasing motivation – a case study of students learning computing’
This piece was based on a rather thin user survey which found that people divided into computerphobes and -phils, and that age and gender seemed to affect location on the continuum. Apparently, the terms that divide phobes and phils turn on whether the computer is seen as a ‘useful tool’ or as an ‘autonomous entity’. Phobes report high levels of anxiety, feelings of loss of control, frustration and being intimidated (34%, 47%, 46% and 32% of the respondents resp.).

Recommendations for action seemed rather general and obvious, though (and not specifically gendered) – improve conditions in computer rooms, with adjustable furniture and replenished consumables, encourage collaborative problem-solving and support, provide practical attainable tasks with a tangible output after about 20 minutes.

I thought of all the work on making school subjects like physics ‘girl-friendly’ (female environments, high-status female tutors and so on), and wondered whether computer phobics were also phobic about other matters – all machines? Domestic machines? American machines?