What we know: Students as learners: Students learn if they have motivation (intrinsic and extrinsic) and achievement goals

The ‘What we know’ theories are going to be published here as a series of blog posts over the coming weeks but are also available now collected as a free eBook from the OCSLD shop, where there are now four titles available. Our new book, Assessment Literacy: The Foundation for Improving Student Learning is available in paperback and kindle formats

Students learn if they have motivation (intrinsic and extrinsic) and achievement goals

What do we know?

Students are more likely to learn if they are motivated to learn, and there are two sources of motivation – extrinsic and intrinsic.

With extrinsic motivation – the desire to achieve an external goal – the drivers may be short or long-term and may be positive or negative.  Positive inducements come in the form of rewards – praise, the promise of being given a car, or a desire for a job with higher salary or status – while negative inducements come in the form of penalties and punishments – losing marks for late work, being ‘shown-up’, not being given a car, etc. The general conclusion from the literature is that extrinsic motivation is not as powerful as intrinsic motivation but, with regard to the classroom, probably the most effective form of extrinsic motivation is in the use of explicit goal-setting linked to mastery learning – i.e. that a concept or idea should be fully understood before moving on to the next learning objective (goal).

Intrinsic motivation – the desire to understand or learn for its own sake – can be related to, and influenced by, a number of factors and can be linked to taking a deep-approach to learning (see below).

Implications for improving student learning

Ideally, we want to encourage and stimulate intrinsic motivation in our students and this can be done in a number of ways.  One of these is through self-regulation and providing students with the possibility of exercising choice.  This could be choice of the topic to be explored and/or choice in exactly how the learning will be organised and/or choice in the way the outcomes of the learning will be presented and assessed.  The use of individualised learning contracts

is one way of enabling and facilitating this level of choice.

Helping the students to be enthusiastic and interested in what it is they are learning (see ‘the best teachers’ below) is also likely to increase intrinsic motivation, and is likely to be linked to helping them see its relevance.  Why is the topic important – to the wider discipline, to the world, and to them?  Why should they want to know and understand it?

Further reading

Ames, C. & Archer, J. (1988) Achievement Goals in the Classroom: Students’ Learning Strategies and Motivation Processes, Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol. 80, No. 3, 260-267

Pintrich, P. R. (1999) The role of motivation in promoting and sustaining self-regulated learning, International Journal of Educational Research, 31, 459–470.

Richardson, J. T. E., & Remedios, R. (in press). Achievement goals, approaches to studying and academic attainment. In V. Donche, D. Gijbels, J. Vermunt, & J. T. E. Richardson (Eds.), Learning patterns in higher education: Dimensions and research. London: Routledge.


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About the author

Chris Rust

Emeritus Professor of Higher Education, Oxford Brookes University. Before retiring in September, 2014, after over 25 years at Brookes, Chris had been Associate Dean (Academic Policy). Previously, for ten years, he was Head of the Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development (OCSLD), and Deputy Director of the Human Resource Directorate. Between 2005 – 2010 he was also a Deputy Director for two Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning – ASKe (Assessment Standards Knowledge Exchange) and the Reinvention Centre for undergraduate research (led by Warwick University).

In OCSLD, with thirteen colleagues, he helped to provide both staff and educational development support to the University’s academic Faculties and support Directorates for 23 years. For six years he was Course Leader for the University’s initial training course for new teaching staff.

He achieved a PhD by publication in 2003 and became a professor in March, 2010.

He has researched and published on a range of issues including:

  • the experiences of new teachers in HE
  • the positive effects of supplemental instruction
  • ways of diversifying assessment
  • improving student performance through engagement in the marking process
  • the effectiveness of workshops as a method of staff development.

Mostly he has focused on researching and writing about assessment, including:  improving student learning through active engagement with assessment feedback, and the significance of both explicit articulation and socialisation processes in improving students’ understanding of assessment requirements and assessment feedback.

He is also interested in the design, development and use of social learning space in universities, as well as the development of research-based learning in the undergraduate curriculum, including its potential effect on university organization.

In the 90s he contributed to the design and delivery of a national programme of staff development in higher education on the issue of teaching more students and over the years has run numerous workshops around the country and internationally on a range of issues including teaching large classes, developing assessment strategies, and engaging students with assessment and feedback.

Most recently he has been involved in a research project into the effectiveness of the external examiner system and how it might be improved

He has been a Fellow of the RSA, a Senior Fellow of SEDA (Staff and Educational Development Association) and was one of the first fourteen Senior Fellows of the UK Higher Education Academy, for whom he was also an accreditor.

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