Blog 6: The Exciting Motivation Sequel!!

Blog #6

Mealey, Donna L. 2003. “Understanding the Motivation Problems of At-Risk College Students.” Eds. Stahl, Norman A., Hunter, Boylan. Developmental Reading: Historical, Theoretical, and Practical Background Readings (208-213). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

In Blog #5, I focused on the impact of highly structured versus unstructured classroom environments on student motivation. In this week’s exciting sequel, I look at approaches to fostering reading motivation in high-risk populations.

I think this topic is particularly salient for those of us who plan to teach at community college, or any diverse public college or university in fact. Every teacher in these types of settings will encounter students that have had less than stellar academic experiences that have negatively affected their academic confidence. What’s a teacher to do?

Donna L. Mealey asserts in “Understanding the Motivation Problems of At-Risk College Students,” that students with a history of poor academic achievement can improve their performance if they can learn to:

  • Take responsibility for their own learning,
  • Recognize that their success or failure is determined by the level of effort they invest, and
  • View themselves as college learners.

Mealy argues that low-achieving students arrive with negative beliefs about themselves that impede their success. If students do not believe they can be successful, they will lack the motivation to work hard enough to be successful. She cites the work of attribution theorists who argue that students will be motivated when they attribute their successes and failures to the amount of effort they invest – rather than to their innate ability, luck, etc.  If students attribute their success or failure to luck, genetics or other factors outside their control, their sense of personal control decreases. The problem here for educators is that if students do not perceive a pay-off for hard work, if success is all up to chance and circumstance, students are not likely to put in much effort. The probable result? Demoralized, anxious, unmotivated, failing students who are very likely to feel like helpless victims in the education system.

This scenario makes sense to most of us, both as people who have failed at thingsL, and as educators who have worked with students who struggle academically.  I think most of us can relate to the desire to avoid situations where we feel like we are failing and have no control over engineering a better outcome. Despite my general agreement with Mealy’s characterization, I was a little surprised at the lack of support she offered for her assertions. Isn’t there a lot of research out there on this topic? I would have loved to have seen a bit more summary of the literature on the links between achievement and motivation…

She does a better job providing supporting evidence for the strategic learning approach she advocates to help correct this unmotivated student scenario however.  Strategic learning here is defined as a combination of learning and metacognitive strategies.  Essentially, Mealy argues that since motivation is a function of attribution, e.g., students are motivated by success, and success is largely a function of effort. Therefore, motivation can be increased if students experience success as a result of effort. She suggest that the negative loop of low-self esteem, avoidance and failure can be corrected if students strive for competence by exerting effort and persistence; achieve success as a result of their efforts; and therefore develop confidence in their ability to succeed in academic tasks.

Cool, I’m with her there. But wait, what about the metacognitive component? Did we talk about that? Well, it turns out it’s all about control too. Student motivation is also, according to Mealy, contingent upon students’ sense of control over their own learning process. You can’t have strategic learning without student investment in the process. To help students become aware, metacognitive learners, she suggests the use of journaling techniques that can help students increase their awareness of their beliefs about learning and that allow for the exploration of their motivations, attitudes, time-management and study skills and emotions. The ultimate goal here is to put the student in the drivers seat of their own learning process.

As Mealy explains, “Metacognitive development is important because students need to monitor their comprehension and become aware of when they are experiencing difficulties with academic material and when to use appropriate fix-up strategies. Motivation is predicted to improve because of the self-control implicit in their awareness and subsequent actions and the self-management of their resources. If students are shown that strategy use will improve their achievement, they can become convinced that their efforts will make a difference and that their learning is under their control.

This all makes good sense. Yet, I am a little disappointed in Mealy’s methodology. She did not conduct any new research on her topic and her conclusions and recommended learning strategies are derivative. Moreover, if her intent was to provide a review of the literature, she reviews a pretty paltry number of sources. On the positive side, however, she does a nice job of pulling together attribution theory and metacognitive learning strategies in a succinct and practical overview. Sounds great! I hope it works!


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