Student motivation journal club: What do students say matters for their motivation?

What’s more important for supporting our students’ motivation—autonomy, a sense of relatedness, or a sense of competence? That’s the question that our journal club considered in our most recent meeting on February 6.

We read “Using self determination theory principles to promote engineering students’ intrinsic motivation to learn,” by Kyle Trenshaw, Renata Revelo, Katherine Earl, and Geoffrey Herman. In a nutshell, the authors used Ryan and Deci’s Self Determination Theory to guide their redesign of Computer Engineering I, a second-year engineering course that enrolls about 200 students per semester at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In brief, Self Determination Theory posits that humans have three basic psychological needs that, when met, contribute to our motivation.

As the figure shows, we can move from being unmotivated, to being motivated by external factors like grades, to identifying with the outcomes of the action, to being truly intrinsically motivated—that is, just wanting to do something because we like and value doing it.

Most research has suggested that increasing student autonomy was the most effective way to increase students’ motivation, and so the authors structured their course redesign to enhance student autonomy. In the figure below, “IM course” means the redesigned course intended to support students’ intrinsic motivation.

Essentially, the redesign intended to support student autonomy by introducing constrained choice: students could choose 75 out of 125 online practice problems and 5 out of 7 laboratory exercises, and they had increasing choice in the three group projects they did across the course of the semester. However, they also introduced mechanisms to support relatedness and competence. Most notably, the project groups met weekly with a TA and/or course instructor to discuss their written homework and their design projects. In addition, the groups were formed intentionally, putting together students with similar self-identified learning goals and avoiding groups with isolated women or minority students.

After the course was completed, the authors interviewed 17 students (of the 216 who completed the course). All students were invited to interview, and the authors interviewed all who volunteered, which is my only methodological concern about the paper: are we seeing a representative sample of students? In any case, what the students had to say was fascinating.

The authors provided an open-ended prompt to the interviewees, ‘‘Take me through your experience in the course from the first week of classes to the final exam,” following up with questions about aspects of the course that the student did not mention. They then coded student statements according to Self Determination Theory. To their surprise, they found that students mentioned relatedness much more than competence or autonomy.

They also saw that three themes emerged in their analysis of the interview.

The authors suggested a Jenga-like structural stability conceptualization, where each situation has the opportunity to incorporate elements that support autonomy, relatedness, and competence. If any one of these is missing repeatedly—or multiple elements are missing from a single assignment—student motivation can suffer.

The group was really interested in the potential implications for their teaching. We considered to what degree the context (a high enrollment engineering class) influenced results, speculating that relatedness was most salient to the students who were interviewed because they didn’t expect it. We discussed how the modifications to the class supported students’ development as engineering professionals, considering whether this support prevented the pushback to active learning that can sometimes be observed. We asked whether the choices the students got to make in the course (to support their need for autonomy) mattered to them a lot—perhaps choosing homework and even choosing a 3-week project is not key for students who know they are on a path to an engineering degree—and noted that the way the authors facilitated peer relatedness during the weekly meetings was really positive. Their work to form the groups intentionally and then to consult with the groups to make sure they worked together in a way that was productive and professional seems really important to the success of this course redesign.

In short, we as a group found the article thought-provoking and important to our own courses, and each left considering what need—competence, autonomy, or relatedness–impacts our students most and how we can use our course design to help fill that need.

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