Enhancing Students’ Motivation and Wellness (Part 1)

Innovation

Christopher P. Niemiec, Ph.D.Written Narratives about Teachers*

Christopher P. Niemiec, Ph.D.
University of Rochester

What is your narrative? Think about all of the teachers with whom you have interacted in your educational pursuits. From among those individuals, which person emerges as the most motivating teacher in your life? With this person in mind, begin to tell the story of your relationship. How did he or she relate to you in the classroom? What types of educational opportunities did he or she afford you?

Once again, consider all of the teachers with whom you have interacted in your educational pursuits. Who emerges as the most demotivating teacher in your life? With this person in mind, begin to tell the story of your relationship. How did he or she relate to you in the classroom? What types of educational opportunities did he or she afford you?

Self-determination theory (SDT; Deci & Ryan, 2008) is deeply interested in how people live, and in how phenomenological experiences shape individuals’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. At the core of SDT is the postulate that all people—regardless of their gender, age, culture, social class, or any other delimiting factor—require support for satisfaction of autonomy, competence, and relatedness to function in a healthy, integrated way. The need for autonomy refers to the experience of behavior as owned and self-endorsed. The need for competence refers to the experience of effectance and mastery. The need for relatedness refers to the experience of mutual care and concern for important others. Self-report questionnaire items—such as, “I feel that my teacher provides me with choices and options”—are commonly used to assess perceptions of need support. And indeed, considerable research from SDT has shown that need support is beneficial for motivation and wellness across life’s domains, including in schools, in homes, in workplaces, in clinics, in sports, in friendships, and in romantic relationships, among other domains.

Keeping in mind the importance of autonomy, competence, and relatedness for health and well-being, I want to present a case for the use of a parallel, and indeed, complementary approach to addressing fundamental questions on need support. It is my belief that mixed methods that is, the use of qualitative assessments combined with quantitative methods, may provide new and valuable insight into how phenomenological experiences shape motivation and wellness.

Optimal strategies for motivating students are of interest to most, if not all, educators. Yet while an emphasis on grades and other incentives is pervasive in many educational settings, SDT posits that provision of need support is conducive to important educational outcomes. Therefore, my colleagues and I took interest in whether provision of need support would be most apparent in narratives about motivating teachers. As well, my colleagues and I took interest in whether grade focus would be most apparent in narratives about demotivating teachers. Participants were college students who were prompted to write narratives about three individuals—the teacher of the last course in their major, their most motivating teacher, and their most demotivating teacher.

Each narrative was coded for content by two naïve raters. A coding item for autonomy support is “The instructor conveyed a sense of pressure in the classroom”, which was reverse-scored. A coding item for competence support is “The instructor gave relevant feedback to the author”. And a coding item for relatedness support is “The instructor conveyed a sense of warmth to the author”. Results provided strong support for the hypothesis, as themes associated with support for autonomy, competence, and relatedness were most likely to occur in narratives about motivating teachers.

Each narrative was also coded for content relevant to grade focus using the items, “Grades were a salient part of the course” and “Grades were emphasized more than learning in the course”. Again, results provided strong support for the hypothesis, as an emphasis on grades was most apparent in narratives about demotivating teachers. Of course, this finding stands in stark contrast to much pedagogic theory and practice, which advocates for the use of grades as a motivational tool. It seems that students associate a strong emphasis on grades with their most demotivating teachers.

As I alluded to earlier, SDT posits that all people require support for satisfaction of autonomy, competence, and relatedness to function in a healthy, integrated way—that is, need support is a universal requirement for wellness. If this is true, then themes of need support would be expected to emerge in narratives written by students in any number of countries around the world.

Indeed, my colleagues and I have been collecting narratives about motivating and demotivating teachers from students in 19 countries—from Canada to Peru to South Africa to Australia; in Europe, in the Middle East, and in Asia. It is important to note that these narratives were written and coded using the primary language of each country. So for instance, we used Hebrew in the Israeli sample and we used Urdu in the Pakistani sample. And the results have provided overwhelming support for the hypothesis that provision of need support would be most apparent in narratives about motivating teachers. As well, the results have provided strong support for the hypothesis that grade focus would be most apparent in narratives about demotivating teachers. Again, it seems that students associate their motivating teachers with support for autonomy, competence, and relatedness, and this finding replicates in a variety of diverse nations and languages.

Indeed, results suggested that the need for basic psychological support emerge naturally in written narratives in the education domain.

As a further illustration, think back to the most motivating teacher in your life. Did this person try to see things from your perspective, encourage you to do your best, and strive to create a warm and caring environment? In essence, the most motivating teacher in your life is likely to be need supportive, whereas these themes are likely to be absent from your narrative about the most demotivating teacher in your life. Of more importance, themes of need support can be used empirically to distinguish motivating and demotivating individuals, and can be linked to important outcomes.

In the May e-newsletter, I will describe practical tips that teachers can use to provide support for their students’ basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness to support.

Dr. Christopher Niemiec will be discussing his research Enhancing Students Motivation and Wellness at the Bastow Twilight session on on 23 June, 2014.


References


Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2008). Facilitating optimal motivation and psychological well-being across life's domains. Canadian Psychology, 49, 14-23.

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* Part of this work was originally presented as:

Niemiec, C. P. (2013, June). In their own words: Naturally emerging themes of need support in written narratives across life domains. Plenary address presented at the Fifth International Conference on Self-Determination Theory, Rochester, NY.