Factors of student motivation – Revisiting Case Studies in Motivating the Learner (Part 1)

By Matt Cornock

In this series of blog posts I take a look back at case studies presented in ‘Inspiring Students: Case Studies in Motivating the Learner’ edited by Stephen Fallows and Kemal Ahmet, published by Kogan Page in 1999 as part of the SEDA series of books.

The reason for looking at these case studies is to see where there may be suggestions that remain relevant to the challenges of current higher education provision. Student satisfaction, graduate employability and added value are all metrics that are feeding into league tables and in one way or another, will influence the TEF. However, trying to address these output measures alone is like trying to treat the symptom and not the cause. What I would like to explore through revisiting these case studies almost two decades old is how an environment that supports student motivation, student engagement and ultimately student learning can be developed. Since the case studies were originally written there have been advances in the use of learning technology and pedagogical thinking, so I will be attempting to weave both in when summarising and reflecting on the key messages of the case studies.

Seven factors of student motivation

To start, Fallows and Ahmet’s introductory chapter outlined seven factors they suggested influence a student’s motivation to learn:

  • The learner’s desire to please the teacher.
  • Perceived need for the materials presented.
  • Each learner’s degree of interest in the subject material.
  • The personal philosophical values and beliefs of the learner.
  • The learner’s attitudes towards the materials being delivered.
  • The academic and career aspirations of the learner.
  • Incentives and rewards which are expected to accrue from the learning.

(Fallows and Ahmet, 1999, p.2)

As Fallows and Ahmet explained, ‘pleasing the teacher’ is less likely to be a motivational factor in adult learners, so the influence of these factors will be dependent upon the context of the learning and the context of the learner. The mix of motivations could change through a degree programme, from transition to higher education and the need to for students to take responsibility for their learning, through to becoming self-directed and part of a discipline or profession. Common to all seven factors is that they are dependent upon learner-centred teaching practice.

Perceived learning need

In relation to ‘perceived need’ for the particular content and topic being delivered, Fallows and Ahmet stated that examples of worked problems (they used mathematics as a case in point) should be grounded in the subject to which they relate. They suggested that where there are mixed groups, “examples taken from everyday life have a common currency for all” (Fallows and Ahmet, 1999, p.3).

Finding commonality is particularly relevant with a number of joint honours degree programmes and combined programmes that may have students from a range of disciplines undertaking any one module. However, within our student population we have a great diversity of backgrounds and cultural references, perhaps more so than before the turn of the century, which perhaps means everyday life may not actually be a common currency either. A possible way around this motivational hurdle is to understand the student body, either through polls asking students what examples are most relevant or by problematising the learning and asking students to come up with a scenario that examples can be based upon. Learning technologies certainly make handling this sort of interactive delivery more possible using pre-session online tasks or in-class activities with live internet connectivity.

Identifying need with objectives

Fallows and Ahmet suggested that “clearly defined course objectives and clearly specified assessed work” (1999, p.3), with the implication of alignment between the two, generate a learning need which is then fulfilled by the content and learning activities. Indeed, learning objectives are often a hallmark of ‘good’ learning design, featuring in QAA benchmarks, allowing for assessment against objectives and enabling students to recognise what they have achieved (or need to be working towards). Even in creative subjects or courses where the reward of unintended learning objectives is a central tenet to the learning design, learning objectives (intended consequences if you will) as a result of active engagement in the course can still be defined. As a word of caution, in his blog post ‘Why we need to kill boring learning objectives’, Donald Clark made a point that learning objectives should not be the first thing students see as they act as an immediate ‘turn-off’. Appealing to other motivational factors, such as philosophical values and generating interest, may be the first step, followed by introducing learning objectives (in a clear, but not ‘dull’ way, Clark suggested) to surface the learning need.

Beyond objectives to aspirations

Being clear about what is required, clear expectations, rules of engagement and roles in participation, seems a simple way to create an environment that fosters student motivation. Yet the instructional design alone will not lead to fully engaged students. Other factors suggested by Fallows and Ahmet relate to community and personalisation of learning. Values, attitudes and aspirations can all be identified, discussed and responded to through course design. There may well be parts of a programme that students are not motivated to engage with, perhaps not realising the relationship of a particular topic to other aspects of the discipline. This is particularly the case with research methods and statistical training delivered  abstractly mid way through a programme, that seems to only really become relevant to students further down the line when undertaking their final year projects and dissertations. Whilst we as educators know the significance of such aspects of the course, we are in a position of lived experience knowledge.

One with the discipline

Sometimes, we need to take a step back, remember what it was like for us when we were in a student’s position and then show how a seemingly irrelevant part of the course has actually shaped our whole career. By connecting subject matter to personal values and aspirations, we are inviting students into the discipline. When I was talking to lecturing colleagues recently, the idea of showing what is means to be part of the subject discipline by way of thinking and acting in a discipline-specific way seemed key to the point of most lectures and learning activities. There is an obvious tension though with motivational factors that Fallows and Ahmet attributed to personal objectives, where students see the learning process as just a way to obtain a degree (and subsequent perception of benefits thereafter of being a graduate). Of concern is the message students now frequently receive, and actually highlighted back in 1999, of a “degree is not enough” (p.4). This may be leading those who are particularly employment-minded (rather than just interested in the subject discipline) to be more selective about where effort is applied in their academic studies. Again, trying to resolve this issue, an understanding of these students’ aspirations may help educators, thinking about how the discipline and work beyond university intertwine and are explicitly linked.

This interlinking I think connects well with Fallows and Ahmet’s depiction of “incentives and rewards” as being related to the non-academic subject matter. For instance the personal reward of developing transferable skills such as “communication, problem solving, use of information technology and the social skills of group working” (p.4). More recently, gamification of learning offers a way to reward through participating in activity and collaboration. Whilst some may argue this trivialises learning to the collection of XP, there is a growing body of ‘serious games’ work (even dedicated research centres such as the Serious Games Institute) which has emerged into higher education more so since learning technologies have become increasingly pervasive. Less ‘game’ structured, open badges have been used to reward student engagement with courses and extracurricular activities and could provide a record of achievement across a range of skills and demonstrable knowledge.

Final thought

In summary though, I think what comes across most strongly is the value and significance of the discipline context. If you look at each of the seven factors Fallows and Ahmet suggested influence student motivation, they can all be related to the perceived value placed on the discipline and how it relates to the student, what they wish to achieve, and how they see their chosen subject of study impacting on their life. Presenting any subject devoid of the ‘human’ element may indeed alienate and disengage the learner. That’s not to mean all courses need to be packed with personal relevance, just that the detail should be connected with the bigger picture.


Fallows, S. and Ahmet, K. (eds.) (1999). Inspiring Students: Case Studies in Motivating the Learner. London: Kogan Page.

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