[The Montana Professor 25.1, Fall 2014 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

Academic Motivation and Self-Concept: The Keys to Positively Impacting Student Retention

Traci O'Neill, EdD
Associate Professor of Business Management and Marketing
Montana Tech of the University of Montana

—Traci O'Neill
Traci Oneill

Higher education in Montana is experiencing a paradigm shift as the Board of Regents and Commissioner of Higher Education explore strategies to hold universities accountable for student retention—a difficult proposition in the face of ever-increasing industry competition from online, for-profit universities and increased global access via online technology to multiple university-based programs. One such strategy is to couple higher expectations for quality instruction and accountability with a funding scheme based on retention and/or graduation rates. This performance-based funding model, along with a predicted decline in graduating high school students by 2038, will force Montana universities to implement student admission and retention strategies that focus on more than test scores and GPAs.

Struggles in American higher education

A New York Times article suggested that American higher education may be the best in the world, yet in terms of its core mission—turning teenagers into educated college graduates—the system is in large part failing (Leonhardt, 2009). Academic failures have often been attributed to functions internal to the university such as inadequate orientation, lack of proactive retention strategies, and failed student transition as well as student adaptation capabilities. Isikail (2010), on the other hand, tied retention to student motivation, suggesting that students in the United States "begin university education with higher intrinsic motivation scores but their scores decrease in their second and third year of university education" (p. 582). Whether students abandon their higher education for external or internal reasons, why they persist in their pursuit of a college degree often involves variables outside the university's control.

Educators have a responsibility to engage students in challenging opportunities to spur continual personal growth. But how do educators foster individual motivation and positive self-concept in the hearts of today's college students? More importantly, is building student confidence really the job of today's college professor?

Absent a legal obligation, educators have a moral obligation consistent with Sergiovanni's model (2007) to teach the whole student—head, hands, and heart. This three-part approach is necessary if student success during and after college is the goal of today's educators. Therefore, an enhanced understanding of the factors with true impact on an individual's internal motivation and self-concept will assist educators' efforts in the development of proactive student strategies that positively enhance student motivation, self-concept, and ultimately academic achievement. What's more, evaluating academic achievement by coupling traditional college success criteria (e.g., GPA) with psychological variables such as academic motivation and self-concept will yield positive impacts on student achievement and college retention rates.

Our research questions

The recent research study focused on three main questions:

A quantitative, descriptive correlation design using a survey mode of inquiry was deployed. The study instrumentation included two primary survey tools: the Self-Description Questionnaire III (SDQ III), developed to measure academic self-concept in late adolescents to adults, and the Academic Motivation Scale (AMS), developed to assess various dimensions of motivation in college-level students. Surveys were distributed via on-site administration in a cross-section of Montana Tech, University of Montana-Missoula, and University of Idaho business courses. The goal of this cross-sectional design was to allow for triangulation of the collected data to identify themes and gain new perspectives relative to the subject area. By design, students used in this convenience sample were freshman and senior declared business students enrolled during the Spring 2012 semester on all three college campuses. Triangulation also provided validation of those factors with multiple impacts on a student's motivation and self-concept as they affect academic achievement. The total population of freshman and senior business students at the three institutions included 1,476 students. To achieve a 95% confidence level and a 5-point confidence interval, at least 306 of the 1,476 students were needed for a relevant and statistically significant study. The experimental consistency was defined at α = .05 level. Experimental consistency and importance was estimated by conducting an analysis of variance using Levene's test for equality of variances, ideally to gain a significance value of α = / >.05. An assumption of normality was met using the appropriate sample size. The study sample consisted of 364 second-semester freshman and senior business students at Montana Tech, the University of Montana-Missoula, and the University of Idaho, gathered using a nonprobability sampling technique.

Our revealing findings

This study found that freshman students' self-concept is affected by their parental relationships but that this relationship has less impact on self-concept as a student matures. The reported outcomes also suggest that a higher self-concept is positively correlated with mathematical skill. Self-concept affects academic achievement and goal attainment. Positive correlations between self-concept and overall academic ability and mathematical skills were identified in all six student populations, suggesting that as overall academic ability and/or mathematical skills improve, student self-concept advances. A higher self-concept in turn impacts students' personal motivation and academic achievement. Student's self-concept relative to learning is affected by aptitude, prior experiences, and attitude. In turn, self-concept influences academic motivation, learning, and achievement outcomes.

The results of this study further suggest that self-concept is influenced by reinforcement from and evaluations by members of the same and opposite sex. When groups are combined, freshman students' self-concept is impacted more by same-sex and parental relationships, whereas senior students' self-concept is impacted more by opposite-sex relationships. Thus, peer relationships seemingly have more impact on freshman students' self-concept, and relationships with significant partners have more impact on seniors' self-concept—not a surprising finding in light of advancing maturity with age in both individuals and relationships. Younger students entering college may have a partner relationship, but relationships with peers play a vital role in advancing how they feel about themselves. As students mature, peer relationships play less of a role as the development of a quality relationship with a life partner becomes important. Hence, as students advance in their academic career, a long-term relationship and its future typically become more important than peer relationships.

All six student populations experienced increases in total motivation with the increase of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. However, one notable correlation involved Montana Tech freshmen who experienced declines in GPA associated with increases in extrinsic motivation. This result suggests that external motivators such as salary have a negative effect on academic achievement in this freshman population. Globally, total motivation increased when intrinsic and extrinsic motivation increased.

Increased motivation in turn positively impacts a student's self-concept. Similarly, amotivation negatively impacts a student's total motivation, which in turn impacts student self-concept. Student's self-perception of internal competency is conducive to higher levels of intrinsic motivation.

The results of this study suggest that although motivation does not increase with age, it undergoes a dynamic transformation as students mature. As a group, freshman students are focused on their outer appearance and relationships with members of the same sex, suggesting that freshmen are more extrinsically motivated. Seniors, on the other hand, were more concerned about the quality of relationships and their internal belief in who they are as individuals. The strength of these internal beliefs was directly related to self-satisfaction, which suggests that senior students are more intrinsically motivated. The study results indicated that higher motivation leads to better academic achievement regardless of age.

Recommendations for educators

Understanding what motivates a student to learn and how those motivators differ by generation is crucial to a student's academic achievement and future personal growth. Therefore, educators must consider modifying instructional techniques to accommodate evolving generational characteristics and personalities. Lectures must be adjusted to better develop students' critical-thinking and problem-solving capabilities. Although subject mastery is important, the ability to transfer classroom knowledge to the real world is more so. Students must advance from an extrinsic or performance goal orientation to an intrinsic, mastery-oriented one. To assist in the development of a student's self-concept, educators must first identify mastery- versus performance-based students, or intrinsically versus extrinsically motivated learning. It is vital to create educational learning strategies that complement and grow a student's positive self-concept, such as the implementation of in-class activities to assist students' understanding of themselves. Building self-regulated behavior skills and increased confidence levels in today's students is vital to academic success. Mastery goal orientation is associated with a heightened ability to overcome challenges and increase college persistence.

Institutions must move beyond offering extracurricular activities and student clubs to encourage student motivation and complement self-concept. Higher education institutions have traditionally worked off the premise that higher levels of involvement encourage college persistence. However, despite the increase in student groups and opportunities, retention rates remain low in Montana universities. Thus, we must move beyond student clubs and basic extracurricular activities to focus on strategies that promote higher-order thinking and transferable skills and knowledge working toward higher levels of motivation, confidence, and self-concept.

Recommendations for the Montana University System

Palmer (2010) suggests that higher education is at a critical juncture, requiring a creative education agenda to serve the human cause and emerging global economy. The time to adjust to this new student generation is now. What worked in the past will no longer be effective for today's students. Change is difficult and time-consuming, even more so for an industry like higher education that is departmentally structured and steeped in tradition.

A student's completion of motivational and self-concept tools such as the Self-Description Questionnaire III (SDQ III) and the Academic Motivation Scale (AMS), as required elements of the college application as well as semester-end evaluation criteria, will only enhance student academic success. Moving beyond current GPA and ACT score criteria as a basis for predicting students' academic success will encourage individual appreciation of each student's current self-concept and motivation levels. In order to be successful, classroom and intercampus collaboration opportunities must be supported by institutional leadership. Educators must collect and correlate current demographic and personality data to construct student profiles complemented by motivation and self-concept measurement tools. Collection and analysis of common demographic data will provide a framework to better identify which student factors impact successful academic achievement. This activity, if consistently applied and supported by institutional leadership, will encourage institution-specific student strategies customized in accordance with student demographic data.

Research has demonstrated that partnerships between students, parents, and the institution improve overall student performance. While such partnerships are stressed at the K-12 level they are often abandoned at the onset of student's collegiate career. However, an evolved, ongoing parental relationship strategy may assist college freshmen as they make the transition to and through college. This may be the partnership needed to encourage some students to succeed beyond the infamous second college semester. Additionally, parents must reinforce the importance of college education by providing emotional support and consistent reinforcement of personal potential throughout a student's academic career.

Institutions of higher education could create student mentor programs similar to mentorships within organizations. A program of this kind would assign a junior or senior student to each new college freshman prior to the first day of class. During the crucial first year of collegiate study, each freshmen would be aligned with an experienced mentor; this recommendation is based on the relatedness premise of the self-determination theory.

From an academic perspective, student motivation is driven by the relationship between academic success and the internal priority the student places on the value of the educational cause. Variables such as positive self-concept, increased motivation, realistic self-appraisal, successful leadership experience, involvement, and individual differences are as useful as entrance standards as key evaluation instruments for predicting future GPA, persistence, and college graduation probability (Olani 2009). When controlling for traditional predictors, such as high school GPA and/or ACT/SAT scores, academic self-efficacy and achievement motivation were found to be better predictors of college success (Olani, 2009). Consequently, universities must respect student characteristics beyond GPA to strengthen retention efforts and reduce student separation.

Lessons learned

Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are not necessarily on opposite ends of a motivational spectrum; students are rarely either wholly intrinsically or wholly extrinsically motivated. As exhibited by this research study, the presence of both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation positively complement academic achievement and overall student self-concept. Ultimately, gaining a better understanding of today's students is key to empowering institutions as well as educators to shape learning strategies based on the whole student. The importance of greater student retention is exemplified on a state as well as local level. Student growth and retention efforts require a deeper appreciation and definition of today's student. Parents and educators can help by valuing what truly motivates a student to learn and succeed. This valuation requires soul searching by all students to better understand who they are and who they aspire to be. The path to inner growth is different for every student. Ultimately, educators and parents must encourage students to develop a mastery orientation fueled by intrinsic motivation. The vast student majority possess the required intelligence to successfully complete college. Thus, the missing piece to the college puzzle is student motivation, and motivation is impacted by an individual's self-concept. Students must possess an innate ability to regulate inner motivation. The ability to control motivation by improving self-concept promotes optimal performance in and outside of the classroom.

Fully engaging a student involves captivating the aspects of a student's heart and mind. Palmer suggested that today's mandate includes the creation of "universities to make or help to make human beings in the fullest sense of the words" (Palmer, 2010, p. 13). Education is more than learning theory—it is more about helping each student realize his or her own potential and, more importantly, how to become all they can be.


Isiksal, M. (2010). A comparative study on undergraduate students' academic motivation and academic self-concept. The Spanish Journal of Psychology, 572-585.

Leonhardt, D. (2009). Colleges are failing in graduation rates. Retrieved October 2009 from The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/09/business/economy/09leonhardt.html?_r=0

Olani, A. (2009). Predicting first year university students' academic success. Journal of Research in Educational Psychology, 1053-1072.

Palmer, P.J. (2007). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher's life. New York, NY: Jossey-Bass.

Palmer, P.J. (2010). The heart of higher education: A call to renewal. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Sergiovanni, T.J. (2007). Rethinking leadership: A collection of articles. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, A Sage Publications Company.

Vallerand, R.J., Pelletier, L.G., Blais, M.R., Briere, N.M., Senecal, C., & Vallieres, E.F. (1992). The Academic Motivation Scale: A measure of intrinsic, extrinsic, and amotivation in education. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 52(4): 1003-1017. DOI:10.1177/0013164492052004025

[The Montana Professor 25.1, Fall 2014 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

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