College Quarterly
Summer 1997 - Volume 4 Number 4

Educating For Success: A Strategy To Motivate Independent Learners.

by Louise Uba


In a typical "independent learning" scenario, students meet their instructors for a weekly one-hour lecture and then complete computer-based assignments in college labs or at home. Community college faculty often voice frustration about a lack of positive motivation displayed by first-semester independent learners. Many faculty advisors believe that a relatively high number of (either officially recorded or informal) course drop-outs, a large proportion of incomplete assignments, and a disproportionate number of low final grades in these courses are all evidence of that poor motivation.

This article examines that somewhat simplistic characterization, and its implications. Could teachers' perception of this situation be flawed? Why might some faculty assume that low-achieving first-semester independent learners are simply not trying? What might be done to ensure that these students are sufficiently stimulated to remain interested in their courses, and to satisfactorily complete course requirements?

This paper first examines some relevant literature to identify those factors which might contribute to the perception that students' inadequate motivation is at the root of poor performance among first-semester independent learners, and then discusses some promising strategies for intervention and remediation of such motivational problems.

An Annotated Review of Select Literature

Cohn (1992) describes successful students as risk-takers who see life as a challenge, who are persistent, who have learned to celebrate their victories, and who can envision their futures. But the links between student attitudes and scholastic success are unclear and not particularly useful in understanding and predicting the impact of motivation on student achievement, or in prescribing remedies for poor student performance.

Cohn's approach implies that scholastic success is not as representative of students' knowledge or skills as of the possession of attitudes which we take to be evidence of superior motivation, attitudes which we assume can be operationalized through students' scores in objective methods of evaluation. In other terms, we tend to believe that well-motivated students will demonstrate desirable attitudes through the receipt of good grades and we impute positive motivation to those students who get them. This assumes that success is equitably reflected in grading, that the grades received are good indicators of academic achievement, and that the link between positive motivation and better grades is causal rather than reciprocal.

The consequences of that assumption include that we are more likely to award higher grades to those students who have received them before, and when faced with evidence of poor performance, we are less likely to question teaching, evaluation and curricular strategies than student attitudes. By extension of this logic college faculty are as responsible for instilling the "habits of success" as for imparting knowledge and skills to achieve objective learning outcomes defined by curricular goals.

On the other hand, if student achievement is less about performance than character and attitude attributes which are measurable only indirectly, and on which college teachers are unlikely to have much influence, then it is arguable that much of what teachers do is irrelevant and much of what happens to students in their course experience is pre-determined by the relative advantage, or disadvantage, which they bring to our classrooms.

A socio-psychological focus on the interaction of individual student attributes and their environment promises to particularly enrich our understanding of why some students might appear to have motivational deficiencies. Roueche and Mink (1976) found that through open admissions policies and vigorous recruitment efforts, community colleges are enrolling larger numbers of "non-traditional" students from low-income and/or minority backgrounds.

Many of these students have experienced little satisfaction or success in previous schooling, and this seems a useful predictor of post-admission difficulties (Roueche and Mink, 1976). But that finding might reflect an already-disadvantaged group's greater vulnerability to the flawed expectations and misperceptions which are said to be typical of all new students (Murtuza and Ketkar, 1995) in post-secondary educational institutions.

Weaver and Matthews (1993) found that disproportionate numbers of "at-risk" students are male minority-group members who come from families of low socio-economic status. The implicit aim of this kind of research is to identify these at-risk students so that they can be offered special attention through altered curricular structures and teaching strategies, pre-course preparation, or timely interventive counseling.

Notably, the research does not assess the implications of differences among incoming student populations who might share low-income minority group descriptors but have little else in common, considering variations in culture, first language, place of origin, and date and circumstance of immigration. Heightened sensitivity to such differences is necessary not only to avert stereotypical identification and stigmatization of at-risk students, but to formulate practical responses to their difficulties.

Another factor in predicting student achievement is gender, and relatedly, domestic responsibility. Murtuza and Ketkar (1995) have found that disproportionately many female students lack long-term career goals, and suggest that to overcome structural disadvantage, colleges should create nurturing programs for women. Because colleges are enrolling increasing numbers of adult women who are simultaneously employed outside the household even while remaining the primary care-givers to dependent children and/or elderly or incapacitated family members, there also might be need for specific programs supportive of adult women returning to school. But this research does not explicitly link students' access to vocational counseling to surveys of student motivation, or reports of scholastic performance.

Another approach recognizes the pervasive effects of anxiety and self-doubt characteristic of many students, and sees these individual attributes as among the variables which commonly influence student learning. Garcia (1995) explores the motivational strategies of defensive pessimism and self-handicapping which students often use to negotiate risky situations threatening their sense of self-worth. It follows that efforts (typically counseling) to help students recognize these pathologies and to build feelings of self-esteem and confidence will have positive motivational consequences.

However, assessing the utility of such remedial intervention on at-risk students is problematic. That is because valid measurement of how intervention changes inherently subjective attributes like attitude and deportment requires research strategies much more complex than measures of change in performance (typically, students' grades), methodologies which can require resources beyond those available to college-level remedial programs.

Also, it is very difficult to distinguish between (and control for) effects of intervention which are caused by students' receipt of counseling advice, and what is termed Hawthorne effects, i.e. changes which are the product of the additional attention awarded the participant student by either or both the intervention process and the measurement of its result.

Hoffman Nemeroff (1994) points out that students often continue their studies in order to please others: parents, employers, friends, or lovers. That source of motivation is usually insufficient to overcome frustration, boredom, feelings of low self-esteem, or financial insecurity which can block scholastic progress regardless of race, sex or socio-economic background. Hoffman Nemeroff also notes that students themselves recognize that their feelings of inadequacy are related to a tendency to procrastinate, dislike of particular instructors, difficulty in managing employment schedules, insomnia, and other behaviors related to motivational difficulty.

This focus provides plausible insight to problems of flawed perception and counter-productive coping behavior which can be addressed through individual or small-group counseling. But it does not directly address issues of curriculum design, teaching and evaluation in practical initiatives which might more easily find greater institutional support in times of scarce resources.

Another issue is the objective qualifications which students bring to post-secondary learning. Richardson and Sullivan (1994, cf. Tinto) argue that students' possession of suitable study skills, the presence of specific goals and a motivating commitment (which implies some self-awareness and objective consideration) to achieve those goals are all important in creating persistence, which they see as the single most important factor in bettering student performance.

Of course it all depends on what one is attempting to explain, but this line of inquiry seems to beg the question of whether persistence contributes to, is independent of, or is a product of motivation. That criticism aside, this approach recognizes the linkage of capability, self-esteem and motivation, usefully directs our attention to what might be done to identify and remedy skills deficiencies among first-year students, and suggests the need for pre-admission testing and early intervention.

Gerdes and Mallinckroft (1994) suggest that a number of environmental variables help determine how well students cope with the challenges of post-secondary education. Separation and individuation from parents are crucial developmental tasks facing late adolescents, and the relative ease and pace of that development significantly affect the psycho-social adjustments often needed for academic success. It is useful to have evidence supporting the common-sense view that highly conflicted, over-involved or poor-attachment relations between students and their parents, and marital conflict between the parents, have an important negative impact on student motivation.

The environmental theme is echoed somewhat indirectly in research which posits that the most difficult problem for most students entering college is "too much freedom." Walter and Siebert (1987) suggest that throughout the period in which college students are attending secondary schools, most of their lives are organized, controlled, and structured by external forces which will be absent or much-reduced in those students' new post-secondary institutional experience.

If many incoming students lack the adjustment skills and applicable experience needed to independently restructure their response to a new institutional learning environment, it follows that this general deficiency will be most acutely manifested in those students who are exposed to alternate delivery modes, such as independent learning, which are at the furthest remove from that previous experience.

This argument suggests the utility of the concept of a "locus of control" which recognizes that motivation is at least in part a function of self-confidence and feelings of efficacy. The locus of control is measured across a continuum along which students said to have "high internal control" see success or failure as essentially determined by their own efforts and direction, while those who have "high external control" believe that success or failure is under the control of outside forces over which they can have but little influence. Kothare (1993) argues that by clearly explaining the desired learning outcome for each course segment and then using classroom evaluation exercises which provide immediate feedback directly tied to those outcomes, instructors can increase their students' skills, sense of achievement, self-assurance, and motivation.

Walter and Siebert (1987) point to the importance of students internalizing responsibility for their own learning. It seems reasonable to believe that a process (like that described by Kothare) by which objectives, performance, and feedback mechanism are all systematically, directly and explicitly related creates a learning structure which is itself a valuable lesson, and which seems particularly well-suited to designing independent learning courses for first-semester students.

The literature supports the notion that disproportionate drop-out rates (formal or otherwise), incomplete assignments, and low final grades in first-year courses are not simple attitudinal manifestations, but symptoms of poor motivation arising from a complex kaleidoscopic interaction of diverse psycho-social and environmental factors. In the absence of straightforward causes and cures for this problem, we can hope only for processes and structures supportive of identification, prophylaxis and remediation.

Misperception and ill-informed expectation, inexperience, difficulties in managing competing scholastic, domestic, and employment demands, lack of confidence in one's skills, and feelings of low efficacy and poor self-esteem are hardly uncommon among college students. However, it is likely that a lack of motivation is exacerbated by new students' particular need for enhanced self-direction, for greater initiative and autonomy, and for rapid adaptation to a challenging new institutional setting. And while there seems to be little research which explicitly addresses the particular impact of these factors on first-year students' ability to sustain purposeful interest in their coursework, it is reasonable to suggest that those adjustment problems are particularly acute among those facing an unfamiliar need for self-reliance in managing the work required of independent learning courses.

Intervention Strategies

Times of fiscal restraint force colleges to make particularly difficult decisions about what services they can provide their students, and particularly to those students who don't seem well-directed or attentive and in consequence aren't doing very well at school. It is tempting to explain the fate of those who falter by citing a crude pseudo-darwinian logic by which only the fittest students achieve much and the remainder are more or less the casualties of "the system," or by applying an informal medical triage model by which the distribution of scarce resources serves those students who seem most likely to succeed. These metaphors initially seem to rely on some notion of merit-based competition, but more clearly they reflect and accept the gap in prospects created by circumstances of comparative advantage and a simplistic characterization of poor motivation.

Responsible educators should be particularly aware of the broader implications of a "cycle of despair" among marginalized students with apparent motivational difficulties and histories of poor performance. In the presence of suitable professional activism, colleges can develop humanistic strategies to identify entering students who are at risk and to intervene suitably on behalf of these and others experiencing difficulty, and by providing such assistance can enhance equality of opportunity for students who might otherwise never become full contributors to our society and economy.

Assuming that college mandates continue to include the fostering of learning centeredness and that computer-assisted learning requiring minimal instructor contact hours continues to grow in importance as a means of delivering post-secondary education, it seems likely that community colleges need to create a safety net of motivational supports at least for first-year students, with a particular focus on those enrolled in courses which require independent learning.

A first step might be to adopt teaching strategies which by recognizing the importance of self-confidence and self-esteem and by reinforcing students' sense of accomplishment, create positive motivation and improve performance. These methods are not exclusively applicable to college-level learning and have been tested otherwise with some success. Weaver and Matthews (1993) conducted a study of at-risk ninth-grade students placed in a 14-week program designed to build self-esteem, and who were found to have developed significantly better self-management skills.

One such strategy employed at the college level is "the feedback loop learning approach" (Kothare 1993, and see discussion above), a classic systems model conception of teaching and evaluation which is designed to operationalize a "locus of control" concept measuring students' belief that it is their own efforts which most directly influence their success or failure. The underlying notion is that while they will be provided with the resources they require, students must be responsible for their own performance and their success is a product of that self-reliance.

In Kothare's classrooms, clearly-stated learning objectives are transparently linked to course content segments, and continuous testing and re-testing enables students to identify and correct deficiencies and receive positive reinforcement for those efforts. While not suitable for all course content, this strategy recognizes that efficacy beliefs born of students' mastering course content and demonstrating needed skills are highly important contributors to creating motivation.

Another means of creating motivational support is found in programs which foster mentoring. Gerdes and Mallinckroft (1994) report that through the mechanism of career planning assistance to help determine academic goals, regular positive contact with faculty maintains course enrollments and otherwise benefits students who are struggling academically.

Bedient, Snyder and Simon (1992) have reported on an innovative mentoring program at Southern Illinois University which addresses the motivational problem within the context of budget restraints, through capitalizing on the experience and skills of retired faculty. Students undergo pre-admission testing, and those who demonstrate deficiencies are required to attend a (non-credit) semester-length study skills course. SIU mentors listen to and advise on both academic and personal problems, and students benefit from the interested and informed attentions of otherwise undistracted academicians.


A socio-psychological focus on the interaction of individual student attributes and their environment helps us to understand the causes of motivational deficiency and to identify students who seem most at risk. A review of relevant literature supports the view that motivation and performance are complex and interdependent, and this suggests that simple explanations and prescriptions for their relationship deserve a healthy skepticism.

The variety of causal influences identified as contributing to attitudinal and behavioral difficulties implies that while students who are structurally disadvantaged (by race, ethnicity, gender, income levels, etc.) are traditionally perceived as more vulnerable than others, motivational problems span social, cultural, and class distinctions. What makes those differences significant is how students respond to such problems and who gets help, and absent supportive intervention, that seems most likely to be a function of students' relative resources, individual circumstances, and sophistication in understanding the ways of the institution.

The traditional educational paradigm, which chiefly relied on teachers lecturing students, is giving way to reflect the influence of the concept of learning centeredness, in which students are encouraged to take greater responsibility for learning. One of the virtues of the traditional approach (and perhaps an important reason that some educators seem so threatened by the new) is that it clearly defined the structure of the relationship between teacher and learner, and provided powerful norms and expectations of their interaction. The new paradigm's focus on increasing students' self-reliance amplifies the difficulties of students who have motivational problems arising from maladjustment or structural disadvantage, and further suggests the importance of timely and appropriate intervention.

Poor student motivation acutely impacts on curricular and teaching strategies, the agencies of "student services" and (indirectly) the general student population, because faculty expectations and college resources are inevitably skewed by the need to compensate for the presence and performance of apparently ill-motivated students in classrooms and advising sessions. Thus, purposeful strategies and agencies of intervention provide colleges with both institutionally cost-effective and pedagogically appropriate responses to motivationally-related deficiencies, and these efforts ultimately are of benefit to all students.

Successful intervention requires administrative commitment, planning and organization, the assignment of appropriate budgetary resources, and the development of suitable skills and attitudes. Universal pre-enrollment testing and other qualifying programs are useful in identifying at-risk students without recourse to stereotypical categorization. Vulnerable students can be given special attention through (non-credit) studies skills courses, preventive indoctrination and remedial counseling.

Specialized learning and counseling centers provide a resource of expertise for faculty, an organizational locus for remedial programs, and a referral destination for students said to be experiencing motivational difficulty, and these agencies should maintain strong links to other college departments, and to service providers in the general community.

Through these efforts, counselors, academic advisors, and teaching faculty can be taught to avoid assuming that students deficient in attitude, deportment, or academic performance are merely ill-motivated, and instead, to question whether such apparent motivational problems are symptoms of underlying difficulties. Only then can these vulnerable students be identified, and assisted to satisfactorily complete course requirements


Bedient, D. et al., "Retirees Mentoring At-Risk College Students." Phi Delta Kappan. February, 1992; 462-466.

Cohn, S. "Overcoming College Fears ... The Road to Success." Research Report. 26 April 1992.

Garcia, T. "The Role of Motivational Strategies in Self-Regulated Learning." New Directions for Teaching and Learning, No. 63, Fall 1995; 29-41.

Gerdes, H. and B. Mallinckrodt. "Emotional, Social, and Academic Adjustment of College Students: A Longitudinal Study of Retention." Journal of Counseling and Development. Vol. 72, (Jan.-Feb.) 1994; 281-287.

Hoffman Nemeroff, G. Succeeding in College and University. Toronto: Harcourt Brace, 1994.

Kothare, U. "The Effects On Students of Pre-Announced Learning Objectives and Immediate Performance Feedback." The College Quarterly. Fall, 1993.

Murtuza, A. and K. Ketkar. "Evaluating the Cost-Effectiveness of a Freshman Studies Program on an Urban Campus" Journal of the Freshman Year Experience. Vol. 7, No. 1, 1995; 7-26.

Richardson, S. and M. Sullivan. "Identifying Non-Cognitive Factors that Influence Success of Academically Underprepared Freshmen." Journal of the Freshman Year Experience. Vol. 6, No. 2, 1994; 89-100.

Roueche, J. and O. Mink. "Helping The "Unmotivated" Student: Toward Personhood Development." Community College Review. Vol. 3, No. 4, Spring 1976; 40-50.

Walter, T. and A. Siebert. How To Succeed In College And Still Have Time For Your Friends. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1987.

Weaver, M. and D. Matthews. "The Effects of a Program to Build the Self-esteem of At-risk students." Journal of Humanistic Education and Development. Vol. 31, June 1993; 181-187.

Louise Uba is Manager of the Open Learning Centre at Humber College of Applied Arts and Technology in Etobicoke, Ontario.


• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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