Student motivation journal club: Don’t forget about your strengths when considering ways to improve: The impact of various self-regulated learning strategies on effort intentions

By Heather Fedesco, CFT Assistant Director

When we give students feedback on an assignment, we often list what they did well and where they can improve. We likely expect that for the next assignment, students will turn to the areas where they fell short and will hopefully focus their efforts on improving these areas. While this is certainly important and necessary, what happens if we ask them to reflect on ways they can improve their strengths? According to Djoerd Hiemstra and Nico Van Yperen’s article “The effects of strength-based versus deficit-based self-regulated learning strategies on students’ effort intentions,” students should see more gains in their effort intentions to engage in professional development activities.

In our journal club that met on January 23, we discussed the authors’ proposed model, results, and implications for our own practices as it relates to the type of self-regulated learning activities that we should promote in our students. Self-regulated learning activities include the various actions people take to improve their skills, knowledge and learning (e.g., self-evaluation, goal-setting, planning, etc.). People can focus on what they deem to be current strengths and can identify activities they might engage in to further improve these strengths. Perhaps more common, though, is they might focus on their shortcomings and turn their energy towards making improvements in these areas.

Heimstra and Van Yperen argued that while it is perhaps common practice to have students focus on their shortcomings, this deficit-based strategy could reduce their motivation and effort intentions because it reduces their perceived competence. However, if students complement these strategies by focusing on how they can continue to build on their strengths, they might have greater perceived competence, which should increase their intrinsic motivation, and therefore positively impact their effort intentions.

To test this model, the authors conducted two studies. In the first study, students rated the degree to which a series of professional qualities applied to them. These were rank-ordered and students were randomly assigned to a strength- or deficit-based self-regulated learning (SRL) condition where they were asked to imagine they signed up for a school project where they could improve their #1 ranked professional quality (strength-based) or their lowest ranked quality (deficit-based). The authors also measured their perceived competence, intrinsic motivation, and how much effort they intended to put into the project.

The authors found that students who focused on strength-based strategies, compared to deficit-based strategies, were higher in perceived competence, intrinsic motivation, and effort intentions, and that the effect of type of SRL strategy on effort intentions was sequentially mediated by perceived competence and intrinsic motivation.

In study 2, students rank-ordered professional qualities based on what applied most and least to them. Students were then randomly assigned to select one professional quality they want to work on during the following week from either: a) their #1 to #5 ranked qualities (strength-based), b) their #15 to #19 ranked qualities (neutral), or c) their #30 to #34 ranked qualities (deficit-based). They then described in their own words the professional quality they had chosen, listed as many activities as they could think of to improve themselves on this quality, and then selected from this list one activity to carry out during the following week. Students then completed the same perceived competence, intrinsic motivation, and effort intentions measures from study 1.

Results of study 2 showed that strength-based SRL strategies led to greater perceived competence, intrinsic motivation, and effort intentions compared to deficit-based strategies. They also led to greater perceived competence and intrinsic motivation compared to neutral strategies. As with study 1, they found that the effect of type of SRL strategy on effort intentions was mediated by perceived competence and intrinsic motivation.

Heimstra and Van Yperen conclude by saying that instructors shouldn’t eliminate deficit-based SRL strategies, but instead should have students identify the perceived strengths they can continue to improve upon, which should bolster their perceived competence and increase their motivation and intentions to engage in professional and academic development activities.

During our journal club discussion, we reflected on these results and considered ways we could put these findings into practice. We realized that students might need help figuring out what they are good at sometimes. One participant pointed out that when tasked with giving peer feedback, students often struggle to identify where their peers need to improve (perhaps because it is too awkward for them to give negative criticism to each other), but they are better able to point out each other’s strengths. Instructors can leverage this by having peers identify their classmates’ strengths and then students can consider ways they can continue to improve these strengths. Students might also be prompted to consider other ways they might apply these strengths in the class.

We considered other options for implementing these findings into our courses by turning to some of literature that the authors alluded to in their conclusion. For example, we could adapt Bouskila-Yam and Kluger’s feedforward interview strategy by having students reflect on a moment during class where they felt positive and energized before their performance in the class/on an assignment was known. They can explore the conditions that led to this positive feeling, which can serve as road signs to help students figure out where they flourish in this setting. They might also consider ways they can set themselves up to experience more of these positive experiences in the class. Bouskila-Yam and Kluger also suggested that students can request feedback from significant others to create a best-self portrait. This would help students further explore what their strengths are and once gathered, they can identify goals and action plans to continue to improve their best self. This strategy would pair well with the suggestion put forth earlier about soliciting positive feedback from peers.

In sum, this article helped us realize that while we may need students to continue to make improvements on their deficits, one way to enhance their perceived competence in the class, which should improve their motivation and intentions to engage in academic development, is to have students also focus on ways they can improve their strengths.

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