Friday, April 20, 2012

Can Colleges Manufacture Motivation?

from The Chronicle of Higher Education 

By Dan Berrett
Vancouver, British Columbia

Motivation is often thought to be a fixed, inborn personality trait whose presence or absence helps explain why some students succeed while others fail to graduate.

Recent research, including papers presented here at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, a forthcoming book, and a well-regarded longitudinal survey of three cohorts of 17,000 students at 49 institutions, have taken a different view. Motivation, these researchers argue, is far more malleable, and colleges wield significant power in instilling—and discouraging—it in their students.

"Motivation is an outcome of college," said Daniel F. Chambliss, professor of sociology at Hamilton College, whose book How College Works will be published by Harvard University Press. "It energizes people to want to learn more and go out in the world and grab it by the throat."

Mr. Chambliss came to this conclusion after conducting nine years of longitudinal research on 100 randomly selected students who entered Hamilton in 2001. He and his co-author, Christopher G. Takacs, a doctoral student at the University of Chicago, interviewed students in person every year while they were on campus and every other year by telephone after they graduated. They also collected other data, including transcripts, and submitted the students' writing for evaluation by outside experts.

A pattern emerged, with motivation cropping up repeatedly during interviews, Mr. Chambliss said. Not every student or graduate used the word "motivation," but many described the same idea: There was an identifiable moment in which a faculty member created a spark in them; students became energized or excited by a topic, an idea, or a discipline. In those moments, he said, a faculty member conveyed to the student that he or she could perform on the collegiate level.

"What struck us was that this was the result of being at the college, not simply a given input, the way lots of people seem to treat it," Mr. Chambliss said. "Colleges and universities are like a museum. They're filled with all this beautiful art, but someone has to turn on the light. If no one turns on the light, nothing else matters."

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