Psychology researchers explore intrinsic student motivation in new published paper

April 8, 2024
By: Paul Davey

Intrinsic motivation, or motivation that comes from within oneself, has long been theorized to be related to one’s sense of satisfaction that different psychological needs are being fulfilled. After the switch to online learning following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, educators raised concerns about how to keep students motivated at a time when many of their psychological needs were potentially not being met.

A team of faculty and three students who are now graduates from Worcester State University’s psychology program conducted research on this topic, and found that motivational levels were connected to the degree to which students felt certain needs were fulfilled in their online classes. Their work was recently published in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, a quarterly academic journal that is published by the American Psychological Association.

The research paper,  Protecting Student Motivation Following COVID-19: The Role of Need Satisfaction in a Period of Prolonged Remote Learning, analyzes changes in intrinsic motivation in college students during a semester of online classes. The co-authors include Jacquelyn N. Raftery-Helmer, Kathryn E. Frazier, Colleen J. Sullivan, Nicole M. Rosa, Taylor Hapenny, Erica Hanlon, and Alyson Langhorst.

“We were really curious about coming out of the pandemic in a time when a lot of people were still taking courses in a Zoom format or a hybrid format, and what that now looks like for students in terms of their learning and also their motivation for learning,” said Kathryn Frazier, associate professor of psychology at Worcester State University and one of the paper’s co-authors.

Their research was informed by self-determination theory, which argues that a person’s psychological needs, specifically the needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness, must be met for them to feel intrinsically motivated. 

“It’s the leading theory in motivation science. One of the assumptions is that all people have universal needs, and these are psychological needs,” said Jacquelyn Raftery-Helmer, associate professor of psychology at Worcester State and lead author of the study. 

The sample size consisted of 75 undergraduate students from a mid-sized public university in New England, and the study took place during the spring 2021 semester. The students were enrolled in a mix of synchronous and asynchronous online classes, and more than a third of the participants reported being first-generation college students.

Data was collected through an online survey given to participants twice over the course of the semester, at the midpoint and end of the term. The survey asked students to report their perceived levels of competence, relatedness, and autonomy, overall levels of motivation, and other motivational outcomes. 

“What’s neat about our study design is that we were able to actually look at change over time,” said Raftery-Helmer. “We were able to look at whether or not early experiences in the classroom predicted things later.”

The researchers said they were surprised to find that intrinsic motivation did not significantly decrease over time, but instead stayed relatively constant. “We expected to see a lot of decline in motivation across the course of the semester,” said Frazier. “We thought motivation would kind of wane over time, but it seemed like in our sample that wasn’t true. It was fairly stable.”

Students who reported higher levels of competence satisfaction, which suggests a belief that they are capable of succeeding in their classes, reported an increase in interest and enjoyment in their online classes, and a decrease in perceived pressure or tension. Those who reported higher levels of relatedness satisfaction, indicative of a strong personal connection to their classes, reported an increase in general college motivation.

“One of the interesting things that we found was that feeling competent at the beginning of the semester predicted your motivation later in the semester,” said Raftery-Helmer. 

These findings suggest that there are ways for professors to protect and increase student motivation in their classes by supporting their psychological needs.

“As a faculty member, it was really exciting to see that there are things that I can do in my  classroom that can tap into a student’s sense of competence or a student’s sense of relatedness,” said Frazier. “And if I do  those things in an effective way, that’s going to make my students feel more motivated, it’s going to help them with their learning, and it could even help them feel more motivated to continue their education.”

Top Photo: Study co-authors Taylor Hapenny ’23 and Erica Hanlon ’23 presented the team’s research on student motivation at the New England Psychological Association’s annual conference in October 2022 at WPI while they were both undergraduates. Photo courtesy of Dr. Kathryn Frazier.


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