Graduate Essays on Motivation in an Educational Context

Motivation is the process of initiating and directing behaviour based on the persistence of effort to satisfy an individual goal or need (Petri, 1991; Robbins et al, 2000 and Robbins et al, 2001). There are two approaches to understanding motivation, each of which has theories expanding to support the nature of motivation. Content theories focuses on what motivates an individual. In contrast to process theories of motivation which focus on how individual behaviour is motivated. This essay will focus on motivation in an educational context and the importance to provide opportunities and motivation for students.

The purpose of this essay is to present a theoretical overview of the key differences between content theories and process theories of motivation. Then a programme developed from a theory to be applied to an undergraduate business course at Monash University. The motivational programme will focus on improving the assessment technique used by lecturers and tutors (¡§teachers¡¨) that will motivate and improve undergraduate students learning ability. The aim will be to encourage students to gain a better understanding of the core concepts of business. Assessment in universities needs to be reshaped in order to motivate students.


Content theories are also referred to, as need theories. That is, motivational theories that look at what individual needs motivate and direct behaviour to respond to specific goals. Many early theories from the 1950¡¦s, include Maslow¡¦s hierarchy of needs, McGregor¡¦s Theory X and Theory Y and Herzberg¡¦s motivation-hygiene theory, established core concepts which have helped explain motivation especially in an organisational setting. McClelland¡¦s three needs theory is a more contemporary view on the content theory approach to motivation that focuses on three important needs in work situations. Each theory identifies individual needs in order to understand behaviour. The main factors that underlie this approach is the need to understand that individuals have different needs, and what can be offered in response to these different needs as well as the importance on the external working environment to give individuals the opportunity to satisfy their needs (Robbins et al, 2000, p558). An example of a content theory of motivation is Douglas McGregor theory of the ¡¥economic man¡¦. He proposed 2 contrasting views of human nature.

McGregor¡¦s Theory X and Theory Y suggested one negative (Theory X) and one positive (Theory Y) view on human beings. He ¡§concluded that a manager¡¦s view of the nature of human beings is based on a certain grouping of assumptions and that he or she tends to mould his or her behaviour towards employees according to these assumptions¡¨ (Robbins et al, 2001, p199).

The negative assumptions were labeled ¡¥Theory X¡¦, which held four dominant assumptions of workers. Workers dislike work and go to great strengths to avoid it. Based on this it is believed that workers need to be punished with tight control systems in order for them to achieve goals. In addition, workers lack responsibility, thus need formal directions from superiors to perform. Such Theory X workers are predominately motivated by lower-order needs according to Maslow¡¦s hierarchy for example they need security. In contrast, ¡¥Theory Y¡¦ assumes higher order needs dominate individuals. Thus, Theory Y workers enjoy responsibility where they can exhibit self-direction and self-control. Therefore, in order to motivate workers, mangers need to provide a working environment that provides challenging jobs and minimal formalisation.

Applying this to an educational context, it can be assumed that teachers can either have a Theory X or a Theory Y view of students. That is, teachers can view students as ¡§lazy or un-cooperative¡¨ (Theory X) OR as ¡§being clever and work hard¡¨ (Theory Y). Teachers that adapt a Theory Y approach, are more likely to be attuned to students¡¦ needs, actively participate with students to increase student skill-development and learning (OECD, 2000).

It is important for teachers to become more student-centered. Therefore assessment must ¡§focus more on student learning outcomes and students¡¦ attitudes about what they are learning and their role in the teaching and learning process¡¨ (Carey, Wallace and Carey, 2001). This can be better understood by considering process theories of motivation. Process theories of motivation set out to explain how people choose a course of action they will pursue, not solely on individual needs like content theories.


Despite the fact that content theories of motivation have helped many organisations understand employee motivation, many of their concepts alone do not provide a comprehensive understanding of motivation. Therefore, the introduction of another approach to understanding motivation was brought about. Process theories of motivation attempt to explain the process of arousing behaviour, sustaining and regulating the pattern of behaviour (Ames and Ames, 1989). Theories include goal setting, reinforcement, equity and expectancy theory. ¡§These theories attempt to explain why people choose to behave in a certain way and the reasons they react as they do¡¨ (Robbins et al, 2000, p558). In contrast to content theories of motivation, which looked at what initiates behaviour to satisfy a need, this approach broadens the perspective of motivation. It looks at the underlying reasoning that influence individuals to behave and respond in a certain way. Therefore, motivating students by either punishing them to perform or encouraging self-direction, the goal setting theory, identifies underlying factors that achieve a given behaviour, which is the key to understanding the process approach to motivation.

Goal setting theory states that ¡§specific and difficult goals, with goal feedback, lead to higher performance¡¨ (Robbins et al, 2001, p770). That is, work motivation can be increased with goal specific directed behaviour. It also proposes that difficult goals, provided that the individual has accepted them, lead to higher performance than general goals. However, feedback is essential in the achievement of specific and difficult goals ¡§because feedback helps identify discrepancies between what they have done and what they want to do¡¨ (Robbins et al, 2000, p559). In order to gain the performance benefits of specific goals, feedback helps shape the individuals behaviour. Better still, self-generated feedback is a greater motivator as it allows the individual to monitor their progress.

Robbins et al (2000) suggested that goal setting theory is best suited to cultures were there is a moderate power distance, low in uncertainty avoidance and high in quantity of life like Australia and New Zealand. These ensure a reasonable level of independence amongst individuals and those individuals will not be threatened to take on difficult goals. Also the importance of performance is shared by all.

In goal setting theory, ¡§the characteristics of a goal and attitudes towards it are thought to be influenced by incentives, self-perceptions and the manner in which the goals are set¡¨ (Brotherton, 1999, p36). Therefore, in an educational context the teacher and student need to work together to determine behavioural strategies that will lead to performance. End-of course evaluations conducted by Monash University ¡§elicit students¡¦ attitudes about instructors and the role that they play in the teaching/learning process¡¨ (Carey, Wallace and Carey, 2001). Such instruments assess students¡¦ motivation for learning and allow for continuous course and program improvement.


Feedback from end-of course evaluations ¡§usually prompts an ongoing adaptation of a course to the emerging learning needs of its students¡¨ (Panasuk and Leabaron, 1999). It was found that ¡§students consistently expressed views that¡Knew assessment motivated them to work in different ways¡¨ (Sambell and McDowell, 1998). The aim in developing motivational programme for undergraduate students will focus on assessment reform applying the goal setting theory. This proposition will encourage students to target specific goals, in hope that it will result in higher performance. The programme will involve students in their evaluation process in order to motivate them to actively participate in their skill-development and improve learning. ¡§Every act of assessment gives a message to students about what they should be learning and how they should go about it¡¨(Sambell and McDowell, 1998). The programme will suggest that goals based evaluation criteria will improve students¡¦ motivation in turn achieving a greater level of performance.

The programme will focus on behaviour related to undergraduate business students at Monash University. It will include a check mark grading system that will be designed around behavioural objectives. ¡§The check-mark systems sets a specific standard for document quality, and instructors give a paper a ¡¥check mark¡¦ when it meets the standard¡¨ (Sorenson, Savage and Hartman, 1993). Students are required to set their own achievement goals, in terms of grades based on their overall subject result. That way they can evaluate their progress toward their goals on their own with each assignment mark. ¡§This necessitates defining goals for oneself, using self-directed strategies to accomplish these goals, and assessing progress¡¨ (Larsen and Thisted, 1999).

The programme will involve behavioural objective questionnaires that will identify what the students want to achieve at Monash. This will include long-term goals (degree completion) as well as short-term goals (average subject result e.g. distinction, right down to improving structure of writing). ¡§Defining tasks in terms of short-term goals can help students to associate effort with success, but of course long-term goals are also needed if students are to become lifelong ¡Vlearners¡¨ (OECD, 2000, p.31). It will also involve social objectives (develop a good rapport with teachers). ¡§Using behavioural objectives may help students organize and structure¡¨ their learning and ¡§may produce positive attitudes toward learning¡¨ (Sorenson, Savage and Hartman, 1993). Also, they outline behavioural objectives of each student, which are associated with goal difficulty.

In addition, a student performance evaluation form is to be handed in with each assignment, outlining specific goals that the essay is to achieve. For example, good use of relevant and current references, each paragraph systematically links one to the other etc. Also the overall mark the student expects on the assignment based on their effort.

From this teachers are to use the check mark system and self-evaluation system to grade the work. It is very important to give feedback, especially in relation to student evaluation forms outlining their objectives. Limited feedback such as ¡§ƒÀ¡¨ meaning well done or ¡§?¡¨ meaning re-consider, needs to be more specific. Effective feedback should provide shorthand comments, throughout the paper and on the marking sheet, clearly clarifying any issues. Such feedback is called evaluative feedback. ¡§Evaluative feedback helps the individual understand the performance information by comparing it to standards or to the individual¡¦s own past performance¡¨ (Larsen and Thisted, 1999). In addition, it is important to direct them where possible to achieve a higher mark, therefore feedback needs to be constructive. ¡§Constructive feedback is task-specific and focuses attention on the task¡¨ (Larsen and Thisted, 1999). By focusing on the task and ¡§providing target objectives results in the achievement of more objectives¡¨ (Sambell and McDowell, 1998). When students use the check-mark system, they can identify what they must do to achieve higher marks. Obviously, the goal difficulty set by students varies among the constraints of his/her ability.

In this programme, it is important to provide specific feedback and include student participation in selecting objectives. In light of this, between the behavioural objectives system, grading method and student outcomes, students should actually be motivated to increase performance under these systems.


The theoretical issues proposed in motivational theories such as the economic man developed by McGregor and the benefits of setting specific and difficult goals are important. The distinction on how they motivate an individual is a major influence on behaviour. Applying motivational theory to an educational context we draw our attention toward skill development, satisfaction and achievement. In developing a motivational programme, the focus was on assessment reform focusing on undergraduate business students at Monash University. Teachers and students need to work together in assessing ones performance. It is believed that ¡§individuals are mutually motivated to learn when they do not have to fear failure, when they perceive what they are learning as being personally meaningful and relevant and when they are in respectful and supportive relationships with teachers¡¨ (OECD, 2000, p29). Therefore, by using a goal setting approach to motivate students, student participation in selection of objectives in assessment criteria is important. Also teachers need to provide more specific feedback. It has been found in ¡§research on the motivational value of goals, both the check-mark and behavioural/performance objective systems seem to motivate students to improve performance¡¨ (Sorenson, Savage and Hartman, 1993). However, with today¡¦s rapid change and emergence of new knowledge and theory, universities will have more concepts on which to build and develop on ¡§motivating the school¡¦s participants so as to obtain the best possible educational results¡¨ (Panasuk and Lebaron, 1999).

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