Can we actually increase students’ intrinsic motivation in the first year?

We’d all love to believe that our students develop a love of learning “for learning’s sake.”  But more often than not we find ourselves dealing with students who seem motivated to learn only because of some combination of potential future rewards and/or the threat of penalties or punishment.  Some have lamented that the impact of extrinsic motivators in the primary and secondary educational system (NCLB, etc.) has so thoroughly turned students’ reasoning for learning into a return-on-investment equation that the die is cast long before they enter college.  Yet prior studies of changes in motivational orientation during college suggest that students’ orientation toward intrinsic motivation does increase between the freshman and senior years.  The question I’d want to know is whether there is anything we can do to influence the development of intrinsic motivation or if it is simply a function of maturity over time?

As a college committed to a liberal arts philosophy and the belief that our students are better off if their actions are spurred by intrinsic motivators, I think we’d want to know which particular experiences fuel the development of intrinsic motivation.  So in the fall of 2011 we began a four-year longitudinal study of the college experiences that impact intrinsic motivation among Augustana students.  During freshman orientation we asked students to complete a survey of motivational orientations.  In the spring of 2012, LSFY 103 instructors allowed us to survey freshmen again with the same motivational orientations measure.  In addition, we included a survey of about 25 questions taken from NSSE or the Wabash National Study that we already knew had been linked to important educational growth on a variety of outcomes.

Interestingly, we found a number of predictors of an increase in intrinsic motivation.  Some of them would be as you’d expect, particularly students’ aspirations to pursue graduate school after college.  These findings were important to account for in our analysis because we wanted to isolate the potential effect of first-year experiences . . . if we in fact found any.

Happily, we found two student experiences that appeared to increase students’ intrinsic motivational orientation.  The most prominent experience turned out to be about student-faculty interaction.  Students who said that their interactions with faculty shaped their intellectual and personal development tended to also show an increase in intrinsic motivation.  The second experience that produced a statistically significant effect was the degree to which students’ have informal interactions with people who are different from themselves.  These informal interactions primarily took the form of serious conversations outside of class.

Both of these findings are worth considering in more detail.  Based on our recent Wabash National Study data, while we excel in the quality of our student-faculty interaction during the senior year, our freshmen don’t report quite the same level of quality.  Though this might be attributable to all sorts of circumstances unique to the freshman year, I think it’s worth looking for ways to ensure that our freshmen are engaged in substantive conversations with faculty.  And this student experience is valuable for many reasons above and beyond positively influencing intrinsic motivation.

The impact of informal diverse interactions is also worth considering.  First, in addition to so many other findings on college students, this particular result reiterates the degree to which out-of-class experiences can influence the development of outcomes that are vital to academic success.  From the standpoint of faculty, this finding should further encourage us to develop a deeper understanding of our students’ out-of-class experiences and the way in which those experiences could be integrated with the curricular experience.  This will makes us better advisers, teachers, and mentors to students.

For student affairs professionals, this finding emphasizes the degree to which the impact of student affairs staff can and should be an educational one.  Increasing the degree to which students engage in diverse interactions is by no means impossible, but it surely takes intentionality to (1) expand students’ notion of difference beyond merely gender and skin color, and (2) encourage, cajole, coerce, or even require students to participate in activities that foster, or even directly create, these kinds of interactions.

Cultivating a general level of co-curricular involvement is not enough, for students left to their own devices tend to connect with others who are just like them – there is an understandable comfort in the familiar.  Cultivating a robust environment of diverse interactions requires that we stretch our students, pushing them beyond the familiar.  In order for students to allow themselves to be stretched, we have to think carefully about designing ideal environments for learning that appropriately balance challenge and support as we push them to expand their horizons and deepen their understanding of difference.

We are an institution that has proven its ability to improve by following the data and using that evidence make us better at what we do.  Finding ways to encourage quality student-faculty interaction and informal diverse interactions will help us continue to embody that trait.

Make it a good day,


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