How I became Ms Motivator

May 9, 2003

Universities can stop students dropping out by considering their goals, says Rosanna Breen

Motivation is my thing. In my maths A-level class, my friends and I sat at the back of class chatting while Miss Barnes attempted to turn our attention to the intricacies of Chi-square analysis. Maths failed to motivate me. And I wondered why? Chi-square analysis did not seem relevant to my success in life. Understanding motivation, however, was.

So I applied for a degree in French and tourism management.

Eh?! Exactly. By the end of the first year I told my parents that I was dropping out. To my horror, my mother frog-marched me to the dean's office.

His name is etched in my memory forever. Thank you, Dr Scurry. You were the first person in any educational establishment who asked me what really interested me.

Dr Scurry suggested a switch to psychology and educational studies and arranged a transfer. These were subjects that looked at human learning and behaviour, right? They would surely give me the answers to questions about why some people want to study history while others choose physics, and why students of equal intelligence succeed in one subject and fail in another.

Imagine my surprise when, at the start of a module called "Learning", we were ushered into a room of caged rats and asked to spend six weeks teaching them to ask for food by pressing the correct button. Only in my final-year dissertation did I get the chance to study motivation, which my supervisor warned was a theoretical "minefield".

Undeterred, we devised a research project on what motivated students at Oxford Brookes University to learn. This included collecting data on their attitudes to their teachers' research. No one had looked into this before.

We discovered that students were most motivated when teachers based their teaching around their research.

After my degree I stayed on as a research assistant while fitting in a PhD about learning motivation. I developed a theoretical model to predict student performance in different disciplines. I found that students were more likely to succeed if there was a match between the disciplinary objectives of a course and their personal goals.

This was interesting because most student dropouts say they picked the wrong subject. They may have made decisions about where to study based on statements in the university prospectus that matched their goals. They have probably entered higher education without a clue about what was expected of them. Universities can do more to help them make the right choice by making sure their prospectuses are an accurate reflection of the experiences of students studying on the courses.

But university responsibility for student choices does not stop there. On arrival, students need help in finding the right modules to match their goals. Indeed, a great deal of their development will occur after entering higher education.

Now I work with some of the most motivated and inspiring students in the world. My role at the University of Cambridge is to research the experiences of PhD students, but I also supervise a few undergraduates in the faculty of education. Here, one-to-one tutorials give me the opportunity to find out about their general motivations for studying and to help them to explore the relevance of the curriculum to their personal goals for learning. The aim is to guide them through their undergraduate dissertations.

Choosing a degree subject is a crucial life decision. When a course does not live up to expectations, the results can be alarming. Students may fail, develop a negative attitude or drop out. The financial and psychological costs can be substantial. Student wastage is expensive for universities too and damages departmental reputations. Students who survive but underperform waste their time and often become demoralised. This can demotivate other students and the academics who teach them.

Little research has been carried out into this area. Universities can prevent people dropping out if they adapt to students' changing personal goals. There need to be more Dr Scurrys in the world. In fact, I would like to get Miss Barnes and Dr Scurry together. I use Chi-square analysis all the time in my research. It would have been useful to know of its relevance to me at the time, and my A-level maths learning experience would have been far more rewarding.

Rosanna Breen is a senior research associate in the faculty of education, University of Cambridge. Research details:


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