The Case for Academic Motivation Is Rather Dire

Dr Elizabeth Kaplunov

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Dr Elizabeth Kaplunov, (2020, April 13). The Case for Academic Motivation Is Rather Dire. Psychreg on Educational Psychology. https://www.psychreg.org/academic-motivation/
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It’s hard to be constantly motivated. But if one wants to excel in their career, one must move with the times and keep up with applications, internships, assistantships, and so on, as well as with their degree.

I think that what makes being motivated in academia harder still is the fact that the English education system does not prime people towards motivation. While caring for children with mild learning difficulties is very important, the overly liberal structure suggests to perfectly healthy children and young teenagers ‘that it’s OK to just try your best’ and doesn’t punish bad grades in any way.

It is also very hard to be motivated due a culture-based stereotype that working hard and being motivated at school isn’t ‘cool’. Well, is it ‘cool’ to not have a job or a degree? I’ll let you figure that out, high school bullies circa 2004.

Lastly, in a generic state school, where about 70% of students will achieve A–C GCSE grades, there is not enough information provided to students about the working world and the academia options. How is one supposed to be motivated if one is not told what goal this motivation should be directed towards? This is especially hard for children from a working class upbringing, where neither the parents, nor any close relatives have gone or even considered going to university.

Therefore, the case for motivation seems rather dire. If we don’t have motivation to do well instilled in us from a young age, how can we be expected to keep motivated during university? How can we keep motivated enough to achieve our goals or to have goals in the first place?

During university years, it becomes even harder to keep up the motivation in our lives. With so many classes to attend, essays to write, drinks to drink, flats to rent, societies to run and friends to make, do undergrads really have time to think about their academic careers as well?

As you may now be able to see, being motivated all the time is quite a chore. Especially, as half the time, it doesn’t work out anyway. You self-motivate all over the place, applying for everything, networking, being awesome and then you don’t even get the PhD/RA/Lectureship (delete as necessary). Life simply isn’t fair sometimes. You simply have to pick up the pieces and start over again. No time to be upset now, need to apply to this job before someone else does!

Yes, we get it, motivation is hard. But what it is exactly and how does one generate more of it, without driving oneself to madness?

According to modern psychology, motivation is ‘the arousal, direction, and persistence of behaviour’. Motivation can be intrinsic or extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is based on enjoyment of the task itself, which comes from within the individual. Extrinsic motivation comes from outside the individual, such as money or rewards like good grades or praise. There is no clear agreement on the direction of the interaction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

Self-determination theory is one of the dominant theories in motivation, which suggests that both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation exist. The theory suggests that intrinsic motivation is affected by extrinsic factors and that the responses to extrinsic motivations are regulated by internalising, introjecting, integrating and externalising.

This theory is well supported by research and has also had influences on education. The influence of the theory on education is indexed by the current existence of more than 30 Sudbury Model schools.

In these schools, students are given free learning decisions, as it is suggested that the best learning takes place when started and pursued by the learning. This related to internalising of extrinsic motivations in that if a person does something himself, he is internalising the extrinsic motivation of performing at school.

In an interesting interview with Mimsy Sadofsky, a co-founder and staff member of the Sudbury Valley School, she talks about motivation at length. She suggests that after the democratic education style provided by the Sudbury Schools, children are more prepared for university than children from all other educational systems as the children from Sudbury Schools are autonomous, responsible, motivated to learn and able to learn quickly and easily.

Therefore, I have to back down from my previous speculative suggestion that liberal education makes students unmotivated and replace it with the proposition that if liberal education is done right, it can in fact have its advantages. Sadly, as far as I know, there is no Sudbury Schools in UK. However, there’s many in Europe, so let’s hope that this scheme reaches us soon, for it sounds like a rather wonderful way of creating highly career-oriented individuals, who know what they want in life.

It would seem that motivation can be improved by letting children do what they want, during the school years. Whilst I cannot fully buy into this concept, I am ready to believe that democratic schooling can help different types of people fulfil their potential and also allows for different types of self-expression, which is often lost behind uniforms in other schools.

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Image credit: Freepik


Dr Elizabeth Kaplunov is a chartered psychologist who evaluates projects about health technology for disabled and vulnerable people. 

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