Is it Important for Students to Want to Learn in Order to Succeed in Learning?

October 4, 2018

Throughout my teaching career, I have pursued a variety of instructional strategies to increase student learning to a deeper and lasting level for all students. Through this endeavor, I found that one especially prominent underlying cause for student failure or success was student motivation and willingness to learn. Although there are many factors that play into motivation, instructional strategy has been shown to affect it. For the past several years I have been grappling with a variety of teaching strategies that increase student motivation to learn biology and have explored motivation types in various groups of students. Motivation is defined in terms of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Some authors define a third type of motivation called atrinsic motivation or the motivation to NOT succeed in learning (Aydin, Yerdelen, Gurbuzuglo, Yalmanci, & Goksu, 2014).

Intrinsic motivation is student motivation to learn due to a deep interest and curiosity in the subject itself.  Students with high intrinsic motivation tend to seek out new learning, ask questions which delve deeply into the topic and eagerly attempt to solve the problems inherent in that learning.  The learning that takes place is on a deep level of understanding and is more likely to be usable and applicable to future learning.

Students who are extrinsically motivated seek to achieve an external reward. One type of extrinsic motivation referred to as career extrinsic motivation has tangible rewards such as acceptance into a prestigious college or the attainment of a competitive career path. In another type called social extrinsic motivation, the student is motivated by the attention they receive from others which may be in the form of grades, social recognition from parents, or visible school acknowledgement such as an honor roll list or cords at graduation ceremonies. Extrinsic motivation can cause students to look at their learning as a competitive sport rather than the acquirement of knowledge for the sake of the knowledge. This can lead to anxiety and a hesitation to avoid academic challenges and risk failure.

Atrinsic motivation is motivation to avoid learning altogether. There are a variety of reasons why a student may be atrinsically motivated. It is possible that other types of motivation for that student are present but are in a negative direction to effective learning.

Student motivation to learn is frequently a combination of different types of motivation.   To learn deeply and effectively, it is important for students to have high levels of intrinsic motivation.  However, according to Pittinsky and Diamante (2015), although effective learning starts with intrinsic motivation, it may be important to have extrinsic motivation when the topic becomes more difficult and seems more like work than like fun.

In my study (Moertel, 2018), ninth-grade students were given a survey modified from the work of Aydin, Yerdelen, Gurbuzuglo, Yalmanci, and Goksu (2014) following completion of their high school biology course which asked for their level of agreement on 18 statements regarding motivation to learn biology. I correlated these results on motivation type with the Minnesota assessment in biology standards competencies (MCA exam). I asked students to indicate their course choice, identified culture, gender, and whether they qualified for free or reduced-priced lunch.

The results indicated that the course in which the student had been enrolled showed a significant correlation with atrinsic and extrinsic social motivation.  The data also showed that young women enrolled in a highly interactive biomedical science course reported the highest levels of motivation in all areas except atrinsic motivation in which they showed the lowest levels.  This suggests that this type of learning works well in meeting the needs of these young women. Black students in all courses reported the highest levels of atrinsic motivation and Hispanic students reported the lowest levels of extrinsic career motivation as compared to the average scores in other ethnic groups. This may indicate areas in which educators can improve their technique and focus in motivating students. State science scores were positively correlated with intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and were negatively correlated with atrinsic motivation.  Students who qualified for free or reduced-price lunch reported equal motivation to other students, however their MCA scores were significantly lower indicating a possibility of an increase in other barriers to learning.

The motivation to learn is a critical aspect of science education. Without the desire to understand and become actively involved in it, it is difficult if not impossible to experience academic success in the field and consider future learning and careers. Understanding student motivation and the factors that contribute to it can do a great deal for the success of students in all areas of study.

Cheryl Moertel, NBCT

Cheryl Moertel is a National Board Certified Teacher in Adolescent and Young Adult Science since 2000. She holds a bachelor’s degree (St. Olaf College) with majors in both biology and chemistry, a master’s degree in Molecular biology (Mayo Graduate School), a master’s degree in Education (Winona State University) and a Doctoral degree in Educational Leadership (Bethel University). She has been teaching Biology and Chemistry for the past 24 years in Rochester, Minnesota.