Intellectual curiosity is a fundamental goal of a liberal arts education. So it’s no surprise that we included it as one of Augustana’s nine learning outcomes. In our own words we chose to call this outcome “Wonder,” describing it as “a life-long engagement in intellectual growth,” and describing the students who exhibit this attribute as individuals who “take responsibility for learning.” It seems pretty clearly implied in these descriptions that we believe the graduates who exemplify intellectual curiosity would have developed a motivational orientation toward learning that is:
- optimistic about the potential that additional learning provides,
- continually seeking to grow and develop,
- and intrinsically driven to pursue deeper knowledge.
As an aspirational goal, all of that sounds bright and shiny and downright wonderful. But the realities of dealing with our students’ motivations aren’t always quite so dreamy. We are often keenly aware of our students’ tendency toward external rewards such as high grades, acceptance to a prestigious grad school, or the allure of a high-paying job. Most of us have seen the blank look on a student’s face when we extoll the benefits of learning just because it’s interesting and even exciting to learn. Moreover, we all understand how much more difficult it is to shift a student’s motivational tendencies when they come to college after twelve years (or more) of high-stakes testing. In short, although we each might have had some flash of brilliance about how to stoke a student’s intrinsic motivation (or maybe in some cases just get a single flame to flicker), we know less about how to reliably team up with students to build that fire and keep it burning. If that weren’t enough, we’re not even sure about the degree to which we can influence a student’s motivational orientations at all. Maybe those orientations are mostly hard-wired by earlier life experience and aren’t really malleable again until well into adulthood.
Four and a half years ago, we decided to tackle this question in more depth by studying if, and how, our students’ motivational orientations change during their college career. As a part of our rolling outcomes assessment plan (our way of utilizing each incoming cohort to study how students change on a particular aspect of our learning outcomes), the 2011 cohort took a survey instrument assessing orientations toward three different types of motivation during Welcome Week. These three orientations approximate intrinsic, extrinsic, and impersonal (i.e., when one is motivated to avoid something) motivation. You can learn more about the instrument we used here. Last spring, those same students took the same survey as a part of the senior survey, allowing us to test how their responses changed over four years. In addition, we will be able to use their responses to the senior survey questions to explore which experiences might statistically predict change on any of these three motivational orientations.
The consensus understanding of how motivational orientations change suggests that as people age, they develop a stronger orientation toward intrinsic motivation and a weaker orientation toward both extrinsic motivation and impersonal orientation. These findings seem to match up with what we know about the maturation process as well as other research findings that suggest the way that people’s values shift over time. With these prior findings in mind, we tested our freshman and senior year data, hypothesizing that our students’ orientation toward intrinsic motivation would go up and their orientations toward extrinsic and impersonal motivation would go down.
Well, we were partially right. We had complete data from 397 students and only included those cases in the analysis presented below. The range for each orientation scale is 1-5. The three asterisks (***) indicate that the change between freshman year and senior year is statistically significant (for the stats junkies, that p-value is <.001).
|Freshman year – Intrinsic Orientation||2.88||5.00||4.1243||.37228|
|Senior year – Intrinsic Orientation||1.00||5.00||4.0783||.51475|
|Freshman year – Extrinsic Orientation||1.94||4.24||3.1235||.38384|
|Senior year – Extrinsic Orientation ***||1.00||4.06||2.9623||.46230|
|Freshman year – Impersonal Orientation||1.69||4.00||2.8638||.40125|
|Senior year – Impersonal Orientation ***||1.29||4.12||2.7108||.50168|
Our data suggests an interesting, and potentially troubling, possibility. Although both orientations toward extrinsic and impersonal motivation dropped over four years, the orientation toward intrinsic motivation did not change significantly. This doesn’t reflect what we hypothesized and what prior research findings would have predicted. Furthermore, the notion that our students’ orientation toward intrinsic motivation hasn’t changed doesn’t match well with our goal of developing a more robust sense of intellectual curiosity.
There are numerous ways to explain this finding as an anomaly. Maybe our students’ relatively high scores on the intrinsic motivation scale as freshmen made it harder for them to score much higher. But that doesn’t seem to comport with many faculty opinions on campus regarding an absence of intrinsic motivation in most students. Maybe the 2011 cohort of students was just an unusual group and that changes in other cohorts would parallel other research findings. Yet our analysis of Augustana’s Wabash National Study data from our 2008 cohort revealed an even more troubling pattern where markers of intrinsic motivation dropped precipitously between the freshman and senior year. Or maybe the measurement instrument we used doesn’t really capture the construct we are trying to measure. However, this is an instrument that seems to have been validated repeatedly by a variety of researchers to reasonably capture these three aspects of motivation.
Cultivating intrinsic motivation is certainly not an easy thing. But if one of our core goals as a liberal arts college is developing young people who possess a more substantial orientation toward intrinsic motivation at the end of their senior year than they had at the beginning of their freshman year, then it seems to me that this finding should give us pause. In future posts I’ll share the experiences that we find statistically predict an increase in intrinsic motivational orientation. If you can think of something that we should test, by all means shoot me an email and we’ll see what happen!
Make it a good day,