When intrinsic motivation is missing in college students

This week I was sharing with dd19 some of my thinking about the development of intrinsic motivation, and why giving young children regular opportunities to choose their own activities and pursue their interests is a critical factor in developing internal motivation.

While discussing this, she asked me about a dilemma that her college is having.

(At the end of last year, dd19 was asked by her college administration to serve as a workshop safety instructor for this school year.  This is a paid position that will also look good on her resume; it was offered to her because she has excelled in her studies as well as being capable and responsible.  This is how she gets to hear about the administrative dilemmas faced by the school.)

The dilemma is that a significant number of students don’t do the coursework or homework.  They come unprepared and their approach to addressing their own lack of responsibility is limited to complaining to the teachers that they have such busy schedules and how can the teachers expect them to get the work done?

The administration is now discussing how to handle this.  What they’re planning is that all students who haven’t done the necessary work will be expected to come to make-up sessions that they’re going to have to pay for.  Dd19 asked me if based on the principles I shared with her, do I think that this effort is going to work?

“No,” I told her, “it’s not going to work.”  They’ll pay the extra cost with lots of grumbling but they still aren’t going to take their classes seriously and will continue to complain about how unfair it is.  What they need is to have a personal  commitment to getting a good education, and this step isn’t going to motivate them to be engaged in their learning.  This isn’t a judgment on these students.  They’ve grown up with a focus on the outcome rather than the process (get the good grade/diploma rather than get an education), and they’re just continuing in the way they’ve been trained.

Dd wanted to know, what would help students take responsibility for their own learning?  The most obvious thing is that they  be allowed to continue doing what they’re doing and experience the natural and logical consequences.  What would those consequences be?  They won’t get good grades, won’t be able to graduate, won’t be hired, are hired but don’t have the skills to perform well.  At any point along the way they can reassess and decide to apply themselves if they want to get different results.

Dd said the college has a policy that doesn’t allow for students to be failed.  I thought this was unusual but a day later read this article and sadly this has become very common.  As kids become less resilient and unable to handle stress, institutions have lowered their standards and expectations so students won’t be distressed.  (What makes kids resilient?  Why can’t they handle stress?  Important issues to address to understand what’s really happening but this isn’t part of the debate – it’s all about school policy. )

The college has tied its own hands and has no power.  They’re going to be left resorting to giving speeches about the importance of working hard that most students won’t pay any attention to.

At some point, there will be consequences for these students.  They aren’t developing their character base and they aren’t developing their knowledge base, and this will affect who they become and how they perform in all aspects of life – not just on the job.


2 thoughts on “When intrinsic motivation is missing in college students

  1. My 18 years old son is not in college and I’m glad that I did not pressure him to go to college after finishing high school. He says that he’s not ready and wants to do some activities (b’h he has a job to supplement his needs) and figure out where he wants to do with his professional life. One less student for colleges to have at this time.

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