Saturday, February 11, 2006

The Motivation of Online Students

On ARNOVA listserv, somebody doubted about the value of "online" PhD. This was my step-by-step reply.

Intrinsic motivation, according to its definition, is the “the inherent tendency to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise one’s capacities, to explore, and to learn” (Ryan & Deci, 2000, p.70 --- to look up other material, most of which is online, go to their Center for the Self-Determination Theory). It means, in this specific case, that when a student is intrinsically motivated, the reason for which he engages into a given activity (in this case, a PhD course) is because s/he derives “something” out of it that is not an external reward.

If you scratch below the definition of what’s intrinsic motivation, you’ll realize (again as per Ryan & Deci, 2000, p.68) that intrinsic motivation has 3 components:

- Competence: that is, having/acquiring functional skills

- Relatedness: feeling that one’s work/skills have some kind of meaning/significance

- Autonomy: the individual has some recognized ability to act on his/her own will.

Therefore (and this is a syllogism!!!!), a student that is intrinsically motivated is a student that also is:

*competent to acquire functional skills
*feeling that his/her skills have some kind of significance
*able to act on his/her own will.

The competence/relatedness pair also is the core of what Bandura (1981, 1983, 1999) called “self-efficacy” defined, in Bandura’s own words, as “people's beliefs about their capabilities to produce designated levels of performance that exercise influence over events that affect their lives”. That is, the conviction to be able to successfully control the outcome of a situation one is presented with. So we can say (with another syllogism) that an intrinsic student also has self-efficacy.

Self-efficacy affects the ability of individuals to adapt and be flexible in spite of difficult situations, BUT ALSO affects aspirations, analytical thinking, and perseverance in the face of failure (Bandura et al. 2001). This last concept is called RESILIENCE.

But self-efficacy is also linked to the locus of control concept (Rotter, 1966): the locus of control is an individual perception that control can be exerted through his/her behaviour (internal locus of control, in this case the student’s pattern of study/research) vs at bay of external forces (luck, misfortune, the professor’s will). So a person that has intrinsic motivation, and also has self-efficacy and resilience (as per previous syllogisms) ALSO has internal locus of control.


A. Because of relatedness, the student with higher intrinsic motivation would tend to think his/her work is significant/meaningful
B. Because of autonomy, the student with higher intrinsic motivation would tend to act on his/her own will
C. Because of A and B and their relationship with self-efficacy, the student with higher intrinsic motivation would tend to have more resiliency
D. Because of the internal locus of control, the student with higher intrinsic motivation would have a lesser probability of being impacted by the professor’s control and supervision
E. Because of the very nature of resilience, the student with higher intrinsic motivation would have a lesser probability of being impacted by the professor’s reward/punishment system

Online students (and a student who got an online PhD IS a successful online student --- that’s another syllogism), in a variety of settings, have been shown to have:

i. higher rates of intrinsic motivation
ii. higher focus on internal locus of control

So, NOW you can understand how conditions A to E apply to successful online students.

On top of it, we can ALSO add that:

Since intrinsic motivation vanishes with the use of external, performance-contingent rewards (Deci, Kostner & Ryan, 1999), students exposed to this method are more likely to have extrinsic motivation.

And, if you allow me to end with an opinion (as opposed to facts previously gathered and exposed), faculties might not like these students because:
*they find worth in their own works
*the usual reward/punishment and control system don’t work
*they keep on going for their own path and keep on thinking that they will eventually succeed because they believe that success lays into their merit and not on somebody’s else “grace” (therefore, supervisor has to convince through hard reasoning, NOT with a "because I say so").

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