College Students are not "Unmotivated"

Over the last few years, I have given around a dozen workshops devoted to the topic of student motivation--for example, "how to support student autonomy" and "what to do about chronic absenteeism". These workshops are always well-attended and faculty are eager to address problems that affect student engagement and their own satisfaction in the classroom. 

There is a belief about student motivation that many educators hold, which is that students don't want to learn or that they lack motivation. This is a debilitating belief, because it leads to actions that further undermine student autonomy, psychological well-being, and significant learning. Thankfully, the belief is mistaken.

Looking at student attendance, participation, and interest and then concluding that students lack motivation to learn would be sort of like taking a poll about driving satisfaction by walking up and down the rows of stopped cars on a Los Angeles freeway during rush hour. Rush hour driving might be miserable, but that doesn't mean that all driving is loathsome. Put those same daily commuters on a windy road that carves up the oceanside California cliffs, and your poll is likely to yield different results.

Chronic absenteeism in college is a serious problem. I can say this for my university and for all universities in our state system (Dorene's and my workshop on the subject for our university system was standing room only). But the students are not to blame. College students, like humans more generally, want to learn. They find themselves, however, in a learning environment that is as exciting as is putzing along at 1-2 miles per hour in a pool of exhaust fumes while baking in the sun.

The belief that students are unmotivated to learn conveniently ignores the fact that they have mastered their smart phones and a variety of complicated social media platforms; they are constantly learning new vocabulary and idioms that are invented and transformed by popular musicians and on social media; they are intimately familiar with mental health disorders, symptoms, and common treatment practices; and so on. Indeed, once it is recognized that student interest in learning is powerful, professors will become anxious to tap into it.

Unfortunately, instead of tapping into students' natural desire to learn, college professors see disinterest and apathy and think, "Well, I had better make them want to learn." These professors attend my workshops prepared with questions such as, "How do I make my students enjoy class more?" and "How do I get students to attend more regularly?"

In the 1950s, the belief that students learn only when they are made to do so was in its prime. This belief was supported by research in the leading psychological theory of the time, behaviorism. Behaviorists studied why people do what they do by using the A, B, C’s of behavior. “A” stood for “antecedent,” which means anything that precedes a behavior. “B” stood for “behavior,” and “C” stood for “consequence.” According to the behaviorist theory, everything about human motivation could be captured in these three letters. 

This experimental science of human motivation is attractive because it is 100% empirical (you deal only with observable behaviors) and highly controllable (the experimental controls when and how much any behavior occurs). In the college classroom, this provides the professor with the promise of maximum control: the professor is the master technician of learning.

Throughout the 1960s, however, the behaviorist paradigm fell apart in sometimes hilarious ways (Breland & Breland, 1961, "The Misbehavior of Organisms"). These cracks in the behaviorist understanding of motivation led to exciting new theories. In the 1970s, for example, a pair of American psychologists (Edward Deci and Richard Ryan) were carefully examining the consequences of reward-based-learning. When college students were promised a reward for completing an activity (that is, when they were made to learn through the promise of goodies), they were less likely to finish or succeed at the activity than students who were promised nothing. The students who were promised a reward were less satisfied by the activity, too. Deci, Ryan, and others repeated the experiments in a variety of contexts and continued to find the same results. 

Eventually, Deci and Ryan discarded the behaviorist belief and began working towards a newer and better theory of motivation. The result of their search has become exponentially more impactful than behaviorism—reaching well beyond the borders of the United States and impacting every subfield within psychology, education, athletic training, coaching, performance, and on and on. The new theory is called self-determination theory (SDT; Deci & Ryan, 2017).

SDT researchers have found three basic human needs that are necessary for human flourishing. Just as humans need water, food, and sleep for physical survival, they need autonomy, relatedness, and competence for psychological satisfaction. Autonomy is at the heart of SDT, and it makes up the crux of the name. Humans are at their best performance-wise and satisfaction-wise when they perceive what they’re doing as being self-determined. 

In education, this means that students are at their best when their learning is self-directed—that is, when the learning is either connected to something within the student (internalized motivation) or when it comes directly from the student themselves (intrinsic motivation). External regulation, by comparison, is being told what to do and how to do it. This is the familiar classroom situation in which students have abandoned any hope that they’ll have a say in what and how they learn. More and more, they enter classes and wait to be told what to do. Students have been trained to begin class with the expectation that they will be pawns in somebody else’s learning game. Their best hope is that they might learn something anyway despite the poor learning environment and abandonment of autonomy.

If students appear to be unmotivated, it is because their hope for self-determined learning has dried up. Their apathy and disinterest have been cultivated over years and years of teacher-directed learning. It is my opinion that nearly all classroom behavioral problems and so-called problem students stem from this reversal of the natural learning process. 

The solution is not to become more controlling (as if believing that students must be made to want to learn). The solution is to become more autonomy supportive.

To adopt a teaching style that is supported by SDT, I recommend reading Autonomy Supportive Teaching in Higher Education: A Guide for College Professors (Whitehead, 2023). Autonomy-supportive teaching guides students towards internalized regulation of thinking, learning, and behavior. It also invites students to follow intrinsic regulation of behavior. 

I also believe it is possible to lean entirely on the latter invitation--that is, to invite students to guide their own learning based on intrinsic desires and goals. Sort of like an, "Oops! All intrinsic regulation!" But that will be the subject of a later post.


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