Student Motivation: How Much Can We Really Do?

Jeffrey L. McClellan, Utah Valley State College

In virtually all human relationships, particularly those wherein an individual is trying to nurture and assist in the growth and development of another person, the issue of how to effectively motivate arises as a significant contributor to success. This is particularly true in relation to academic advising and success in college. According to Kramer (2000), “Motivation and a self-regulated strategy, including self-efficacy and a learning goal orientation, are important factors for both high and low achievers” (p. 83). As a result, numerous theories, processes, and techniques have been developed for addressing human motivation. Sadly, none of these seem to adequately address the issue or guide the one motivating to truly help the other person. This article attempts to provide a better understanding of human motivation as it relates to advising students in a college setting and a response to the question of how much we can really do to motivate students.

Motivation vs. Manipulation

The word motivate is derived from a Latin term meaning to move (The American Heritage Concise Dictionary, 1994). Thus motivation involves the movement of an individual towards something—but to what? The response to this question determines whether or not one is helping motivate someone or simply manipulating him or her. Unfortunately, much more of the latter occurs than the former. In fact, Greanleaf (1977) argues that manipulation is unavoidable. He declared, “One way that people serve is to lead. And anyone who does this manipulates others because one literally helps shape their destinies without fully realizing either one's motive or the direction in which one is leading them” (p. 150). While this is a sobering thought, it is important to note that the implication is that the extent to which an adviser is manipulating a student is directly proportional to how much the adviser is trying to get the student to do what the adviser wants without revealing his or her motivation or objective. This is an important concept to keep in mind as one reviews and considers the utility of different models of motivation.

Motivation Theory

As previously mentioned, there exists an abundance of theories related to motivation. Unfortunately most of them fall short of practical or ethical utility. This failure is largely a result of the manipulative intent of theorists, which is often the case in business-related models, or the oversimplification of the models. Thus theories of motivation tend to focus primarily on one or another of the elements involved in, but fail to address the complexity of, human motivation. For example, elaborate theories have been constructed focusing on the role of each of the following in relation to human motivation: needs (Kreitner & Kinicki, 2001; Maslow, Stephens, Heil, & Maslow, 1998), rewards and expectations (Kreitner & Kinicki, 2001), one's environment (Keller & Suzuki, 1998), goal setting and striving (Jensen, 1998; Kreitner & Kinicki, 2001), perception (Bandura, 1997; Frankl, 1984; Kreitner & Kinicki, 2001), neurophysiology (Zull, 2002), etc. While each of these theories is useful in many situations, most are not as useful as they could be because they oversimplify the challenges of human motivation.

How It Really Works

The problem with attempting to describe how motivation works is that it is too complex to truly describe because of the multiplicity of variables and needs that impact movement in any direction (Mintzberg, 1983). As Stone, Patten, and Heen (1999) illustrate, just trying to identify and understand one's own emotions is a tremendously complex endeavor.

As a result of the complexity of motivation and for practical purposes, there is value in looking at motivation in relation to a particular goal or challenge as being made up of an elaborate blend of conscious and unconscious forces that are both propelling one to move towards accomplishing the goal or solving the problem, as well as forces impeding such action. Kegan and Lahey (2001) refer to this interaction between opposing forces as dynamic equilibrium and see overcoming it as the primary task of those wishing to motivate others. They declared, “The biggest player standing in the way of an ... individual's chances to learn and grow [is] this third force we call dynamic equilibrium” (p. 5). Consequently, any attempt to motivate must begin with recognition of the important role of dynamic equilibrium in motivation and an understanding of and respect for the complexity of forces that impact students' decisions to move in any given direction.

One valuable way of understanding these factors is to organize them by their source and impact. Regarding sources, the forces that influence motivation can be either intrinsic or extrinsic. Intrinsic forces that impact one's motivation include needs, wants, interests, self-efficacy, aptitudes, perceptual models, knowledge, beliefs, values, and, to some extent, genetics or instinct. Extrinsic forces include relationships, finances, access to necessary resources, rewards or punishments, actual or perceived social consequences, and other external factors.

The impact of these forces is typically such that it either contributes to or inhibits movement in a given direction. Thus a student may have difficulty declaring a specific major because of the complex balance of intrinsic and extrinsic forces that both oppose and support the choice. Likewise a student may lean towards quitting school without a full recognition of the countervailing forces that would support a decision to stay. This is not to say that the role of an adviser is to reveal these to the student, but rather to explore them with the student. The reality is that if a student is coming to an adviser without the motivation or clarity necessary to deal with a particular challenge or conflict, it is because the situation is more complex than the student recognizes or understands. In such situations, simplistic answers do not help because most students have already thought of or been given such answers. It is worth mentioning that this is likely what lies behind the complaint of many advisers that students do not follow their suggestions. What students actually need are not suggestions, even when they ask for them, but someone who will help them explore the complexity of the conflicts they are facing. The following steps are intended to provide an outline of how an adviser can help a student through the process of overcoming dynamic equilibrium and engaging self-motivation.

Step 1: Listen, Empathize, and Explore

In order to truly assist students in exploring the complexity they face, advisers must first set aside their own assumption about how things should be done and what is best for students. Then they must engage in actively listening to what students have to say. This involves, as Greanleaf (1977) wrote, “much more than just keeping quiet.... Listening begins with attention and the search for understanding, both the outward manifestation and the inward conviction of really searching to understand” (p. 45). Consequently, true listening is a blend of both ability and attitude.

The right attitudinal approach to listening facilitates openness. This is accomplished as advisers withhold judgment, express encouragement, and demonstrate empathy. As students become aware of the sincerity and compassion of the adviser through this attitudinal approach, trust is nurtured, which leads to openness.

Whereas attitude facilitates openness, ability facilitates understanding. According to Schein et al. (1987), good listeners “use questioning skills” and “communicate with encouraging nonverbal cues.” Examples include “a comfortable amount of eye contact; ... a relaxed, open, interested body posture; and a calm tone of voice” (p. 87). As they do so, it is important that advisers pay particular attention to “how the student learns” and processes information, the student's “social context,” and his or her “preexisting concepts and background knowledge” (Hemwall & Trachte, 2005, pp. 78–80). Additionally, advisers must encourage the student to disclose all of the information necessary to successfully process the situation.

Step 2: Examine Conflict-Safety Levels

As students openly reveal and advisers come to understand the contextual challenges students face, advisers must attempt to understand the delicate balance between motivational conflict and psychological safety inherent within that context. According to Schein (1992), whether or not change occurs in human systems is largely a result of this balance.

In his research, Schein (1992) discovered that change requires “enough disconfirming data to cause serious discomfort and disequilibrium” combined with “a connection of the disconfirming data to important goals and ideals” (p. 299). Thus an individual must experience a significant dissonance between what he or she desires or must do (the goals) and what he or she actually gets or is doing. This gap is what creates the dissonance or conflict. However, by itself this dissonant force is insufficient to bring about change. This is because without sufficient psychological safety, the discomfort of facing the gap is too much. When this occurs, the easiest way to manage the pain associated with the conflict involves simply altering one's ideals or one's perspective regarding actual performance. As Schein explains, “only if I can feel that I will retain my identity or integrity as I learn something new or make a change, will I be able to even contemplate it” (p. 300).

The implications of this need for balance between the conflict students experience as they strive to achieve their academic goals and the psychological safety they need to make the necessary life changes to achieve those goals can be dramatic. All one needs to do as an adviser is ponder the massive number of students that one has advised to take a wise (and often seemingly simple) course of action who do not follow the advice they are given. This is likely because while it seemed simple to the adviser, the perception of the student was such that the proposed action was too disconfirming to pursue, probably because it appeared too difficult for the student based on time available, current skills, or because the student did not divulge enough information for the adviser to provide a good suggestion. Consequently, as advisers acquire information about the complex challenges a student is facing, it is imperative that they pay attention to the perceived balance between the conflict that is driving the student to pursue a course of action and the amount of psychological safety the student is experiencing that will either support or hinder the student's progress.

Step 3: Introduce Conflict or Safety

As advisers assess the conflict and safety levels that students are experiencing, it may be necessary for them to introduce additional conflict or psychological safety in order to motivate the student to make an effort to change. Consider the student who has failed a recent semester but seems unconcerned about the failure. In the face of such disconfirming data, the student may either not be experiencing sufficient conflict, because of low personal expectations or low commitment/concern, or he or she may not have enough psychological safety to admit the conflict and still remain in school. In such cases, it is obvious why simple responses with limited understanding of the student's personal complexity often lead to negative outcomes. An adviser who augments the conflict, when what is lacking is psychological safety, may very well contribute to a student's choice to leave college. Contrariwise, with understanding, the adviser can either introduce conflict and/or safety into the interaction so as to motivate the student to engage in seeking a solution to the problem.

Although Schein (1992) focuses on the role of disconfirming data as a means of introducing conflict, other researchers argue that more positive methods can be used to increase motivation (Cameron, Dutton, & Quinn, 2003; Cooperrider & Whitney, 2001; Schiller, Holland, & Riley, 2002). Common ways of introducing conflict include discussing consequences (both positive and negative), appreciative inquiry, positive visioning, goal setting, etc. In contrast, psychological safety can be augmented by helping students to clarify confusion regarding potential choices, offering assistance and encouragement, and promising to provide ongoing support as they progress.

All of these methods increase a student's awareness of the complexity of the situation and disrupt the paralyzing force of dynamic equilibrium. This contributes to motivation; however, this exploration process, if engaged in appropriately, does not manipulate students to make specific choices in accordance with the adviser's will. Instead, the exploration and introduction of conflict and psychological safety facilitates understanding through awareness, which leads to choice.

Step 4: Encourage Choice

As students gain clarity, it is important that advisers encourage them to make choices to act in accordance with their increased motivation. By so doing, advisers shift responsibility for decision making to the student instead of retaining it for themselves. Doing so also encourages ownership of decisions and empowers the student to act, thereby increasing personal commitment and motivation (Covey, 2002). Chickering (1994) argued that this approach to advising helps “students become effective agents for their own lifelong learning and personal development” (in Mann, 1999, ¶2). Advisers who engage in this type of advising tend to perceive their students as capable and self-motivated (Crookston, 1972). Thus they focus on the potential of the student (Appleby, 2001) and strive to help him or her to accomplish educational objectives by encouraging shared responsibility (Appleby; Frost, 1991) and by striving to contribute to the development of the student's “rational decision making processes, environmental and interpersonal interactions, behavioral awareness, and problem solving, decision-making, and evaluation skills” (Frost, p. 16).

Step 5: Provide Support

The final step in the motivation process involves providing support for students as they pursue their personal goals. Maddi and Khoshaba (2005) suggest that social support comes in two forms: encouragement and assistance.

Maddi and Khoshaba (2005) define encouragement as a process that begins with empathy, which “leads to being sympathetic” (p. 166), thereby nurturing a desire to help, which ends in “feeling and expressing confidence in, and admiration for, the significant other” (p. 167). The importance of encouragement in relation to ongoing motivation is significant because it has been shown to impact intrinsic motivation (Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 2001), learning (Jensen, 1998) and resilience (Benard, 2004). Consequently, encouragement, because “it is the language of the desired, the dream, the vision, the ideal, ... inspires the growth of new meanings, new rationalities, and new actions” (Anderson et al., 2001). Thus, encouragement is a major contributor to success in college and in life.

Assistance, according to Khoshaba and Maddi (2005), “emphasizes how to use one's own resources and capabilities to help the other in reaching what is wanted or needed” (p. 8). For advisers, these resources include their knowledge of resources and strategies that may help the student achieve his or her goals as well as the assistance they provide students regarding “program choice, course choice, and scheduling courses” (O'Banion, 1972, p. 62) and through the “development of meaningful education plans” (NACADA, 2004, p. 1). The combination of assistance and encouragement in advising provides students with the support necessary to augment their psychological safety, thereby sustaining their motivation as they embrace the personal conflict inherent in change.

Conclusion

As important a topic as motivation must not be oversimplified. Human motivation is complex and, at times, messy, and must be engaged in carefully if advisers wish to avoid either manipulating students or providing unhelpful, overly-simplistic advice. Consequently, it is important that advisers understand the role of dynamic equilibrium as it relates to motivation and strive to overcome it through deeply listening to, empathizing with, and exploring alongside students as they strive to understand the nature of the challenges or conflicts they are dealing with. As they engage in this process with students, advisers may come to recognize the complex balance between conflict and psychological safety in the life of the student and contribute to the student's understanding of these by appropriately introducing additional conflict or safety, thereby increasing awareness. Then advisers can encourage students to make choices and take actions that will lead them in positive directions. As students do so, advisers can be there to support them throughout the process. In so doing, the adviser becomes a facilitator of the motivation process, but respects the reality that the impetus to move must come from within the student.

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About the Author

Jeffrey L. McClellan is assistant director of Career and Academic Counseling at Utah Valley State College, Orem, UT. He can be reached at mcclelje@uvsc.edu or 801-863-7184.

Published in The Mentor on November 29, 2006, by Penn State's Division of Undergraduate Studies
Available online at dus.psu.edu/mentor
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