A Study of Motivation and Self-Efficacy in University Students

A Study of Motivation and Self-Efficacy in University Students

A Study of Motivation and
Self-Efficacy in University Students

Teresa Phillips Spurling


            This paper addresses a problem typical of college/university campuses.  The longstanding issue of how to motivate students is not new.  Many universities are focusing efforts on higher retention of students.  An increase in academic motivation may be one way to target retention.  Regardless of the multitude of reasons for lack of motivation, an institution can take steps to impact student motivation and self-efficacy.  The reader will be guided to explore Bandura’s social cognitive theory where people plan courses of action in order to anticipate the likely consequences of these actions, and set goals and challenges for themselves to motivate, guide and regulate their activities, Maslow’s theory and other solutions.

Motivation and Self-Efficacy in University Students

            The typical university student has mastered skills to prepare for gleaning information and knowledge.  Career opportunities for graduates abound.  Why then do college/university students often lack motivation to pursue academic excellence?  Factors that influence student learning in the classroom continues to be an important concern of teachers and administers at all levels.  The increase in number and diversity of university students highlights the need for intervention to address lack of motivation and self-efficacy.

            Universities are becoming more diverse as evidenced by students from different cultures, English and non-English speaking students, affluent and lower socio-economic students and motivated, amotivated and unmotivated students.  An increasing number of university students find themselves at the end of the semester seeking additional time to complete required coursework.  Contributing causes including jobs and family responsibilities are procrastination, social life, and sometimes depression or addictions.  Time management skills, over-commitment, unskilled prioritizing, and deficient study skills also contribute to the problem.  Nevertheless, with sufficient motivation and self-efficacy these same students could proudly meet all required deadlines and in the process, maintain better relationships in all their interactions.  This paper proposes that with commitment and intentional implementation of certain strategies the university faculty is in a position to encourage the motivation and self-efficacy of students.  Purposeful change could take place through research and discussion leading to consensus on strategies to be employed.

            Research shows that infants and young children appear to be propelled by curiosity, driven by an intense need to explore, interact with, and make sense of their environment.  As one author puts it, "Rarely does one hear parents complain that their pre-schooler is 'unmotivated.'"1  However, whether it is attributable to environmental influences or life experiences, students arrive at the university with varying levels of innate drive and motivation.

            Parenting plays a significant role in determining student motivation.  According to research parental support is beneficial in that it helps to offer a sense of security and comfort in an unpredictable society as the adolescent strives for growth and self- development.  Parental involvement is important to a student’s educational success all the way to the high school level.2  Relationships have been found to exist between parental involvement and such student variables as academic achievement, sense of well-being, attendance, homework readiness, grades, and emotional aspirations.  Specifically, the types of parental involvement examined were assisting the student with homework, attending school programs, watching the student in sports or other extracurricular activities, helping the student to select courses and remaining informed of the student’s progress in school.3

            Additional studies show parental involvement to be positively related to high school students’ academic achievement, time spent on homework, favorable attitudes toward school, likelihood of staying in school, and educational aspirations beyond the high school level.4  Permissive parenting style and a lack of parental involvement tend to force at-risk adolescents to turn to their peers.  As a result, the lack of parental control and excessive peer influence may lead to improper social attitudes and behaviors, as well as a host of negative outcomes including disciplinary problems, low grades, and drug use.5

            While authoritative parenting and parental involvement were effective preventive and intervention strategies for elementary and secondary students, one must look deeper to change the university student’s motivation and self-efficacy.  One instructional variable, verbal praise, has often been identified as an important mediator in the enhancement of students' motivation in the classroom.6  Verbal praise impacts students' classroom achievement, homework habits, and motivation to learn.7  To understand why verbal praise might impact college/university students’ motivation, we turn to Bandura's social cognitive theory.  It stands in clear contrast to theories of human functioning that overemphasize the role of environmental factors in the development of human behavior and learning.  William James argued, "Introspective observation is what we have to rely on first and foremost and always."8

            Bandura’s view of human behavior depicted the beliefs of people about themselves as critical elements in the exercise of control and personal agency.  These personal beliefs influence people's aspirations, self-efficacy beliefs, personal standards, emotional states, and other self-regulatory influences.  For Bandura, the capability that is most "distinctly human" is self-reflection, hence it is a prominent feature of social cognitive theory.9  Through self-reflection, people make sense of their experiences, explore their own cognitions and self-beliefs, engage in self-evaluation, and then alter their thinking and behavior accordingly.10

            Social cognitive theory is based on self-efficacy beliefs, "people's judgments of their capabilities to organize and execute courses of action required to attain designated types of performances."11  Self-efficacy beliefs provide the foundation for human motivation, well-being, and personal  accomplishment.  People must believe that their actions can produce the outcomes they wish or their incentive to persevere in the face of difficulty is lessened and their motivation to act deterred.  Much empirical evidence now supports Bandura's contention that self-efficacy beliefs touch virtually every aspect of people's lives whether they think productively, pessimistically or optimistically; how well they motivate themselves and persevere in the face of adversities; their vulnerability to stress and depression, and the life choices they make.12

            Bandura's key contentions regarding the role of self-efficacy beliefs in human functioning are that "people's level of motivation, affective states, and actions are based more on what they believe than on what is objectively true."13  Thus, a person’s actions are controlled more by the beliefs they hold about their abilities than by what they are actually capable of accomplishing, for self-efficacy perceptions are the main  contributors to what individuals do with the knowledge and skills they possess.  However, no amount of confidence or self-appreciation can produce success when requisite skills and knowledge are absent.  It is important to remember, students envision their grade before they begin an examination or enroll in a course.14

            People build self-efficacy by evaluating previous performance while engaging in tasks and activities.  They interpret the results of those actions and use those interpretations to assess their ability to engage in future tasks or activities.  In addition to interpreting the results of their actions, people form their self-efficacy beliefs through observing others perform tasks.  When people have limited prior experience or are uncertain of their own capabilities, they experience insecurity.  Modeling is particularly valuable when an individual is unfamiliar with a task or activity.  Even experienced individuals gain self-efficacy as models teach them better ways of doing things.  A significant model in one's life can help instill self-beliefs that will influence the course and direction that life will take.  Self-efficacy beliefs are developed as individuals engage in life experiences and social interactions.  These persuasions can involve exposure to the verbal judgments that others provide. Persuaders play an important part in the development of an individual's self-beliefs.

            Past research has focused on factors such as gender, and has failed to examine factors such as ethnicity.  Even if the students are studying at the same university, their cultural background, values, beliefs, etc., may be quite diverse, and it is likely that this will have an impact on their motivation, resulting in differing motivational profiles.15  In 1999, African-Americans were the nation's largest ethnic minority group.16  In 1996, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that that in 1995 there were 32 million African-Americans, and by the year 2050 the African-American population in the United States would be nearly 40 million.  Educators must find effective ways to address the academic needs this culturally diverse group.  Dowson and McInerney found a positive relationship between students' social goals and effective engagement in learning.17  Compared to other students, African-Americans felt less socially integrated into their fellow students' environment and the lecturers' environment.  In other words, African-American students find it more difficult to achieve a  satisfactory social and academic integration into the university culture.18

            Maslow's theory states that when a need is unfulfilled, the individual will be academically weak.  Teachers must remember that for some of their poorer students these needs may be very important.  It is difficult to focus on studying if one is worried about money for food and rent.  A student who is terrified to walk back to a dorm after dark will not benefit from help sessions or the availability of a computer laboratory.  Proper campus lighting, police patrols, and an escort service must be offered to meet such safety needs before the student can focus on studying.

            University students, away from family and high school friends may feel alone and find their needs for belonging and love are no longer satisfied.  The highest level in Maslow's hierarchy, self- actualization, is the need for individuals to reach their potential.  People require time to learn how to satisfy their needs.  This self- actualization occurs in mature individuals, and, based on Maslow's studies is uncommon.19

            A program to increase student motivation and self-efficacy must be based on consciousness-raising or conscientization, a term popularized by Paulo Freire to describe a process of self-awareness through collective self-inquiry and reflection.20  Other strategies may include the engagement of faculty in social activities with students; faculty sessions for discussion of research and best practice; and sessions to increase students’ ability to set goals, manage time, and explore careers.  Finally, efforts must directly or indirectly focus attention on the thinking of students.  If students who possess self- efficacy and motivation learn to think productively, are optimistic, persevere in the face of adversity, control stress, and make good life choices then they are likely to succeed academically.

            Factors affecting student motivation are varied.  Some students don’t have a clear vision regarding their reason for being in college.  Perhaps they are heeding their parent’s advice while undecided about what they really want to do with their life.  Sometimes students choose areas of study to please others, while concealing their own true interests.  It takes a fairly clear purpose to motivate a student to engage successfully in the lengthy and difficult process of higher education.21  Sessions could be scheduled focusing on goal setting and career choices to clarify students’ insight and help them determine their true goal and purpose.  These sessions should be flexibly scheduled to meet students’ work and study needs.

            Students may need to work at part-time jobs or engage in time-consuming extra-curricular activities at the university level.  The demands of academic assignments require students to have time management skills of a successful business executive.  Unfortunately, many students have not had any formal training in this area.  A large percentage of entering students lack useful direction with specific study methods.22  Sessions could be  designed, scheduled and presented that address prioritizing, time-management, and study skills.  Particular attention should focus on identifying  and assisting those students who are experiencing difficulty in these areas.  Research shows that many students are labeled “the silent majority.”  Their plight in school is just to get through.  A major difference in the outcome for them could be influenced by teaching some basic survival academic skills, such as note taking, helping develop a binder to organize their school work, and providing an introduction or orientation to the college campus.23

            In order for instructors to be effective motivators they must consider individual students and diversify their teaching methods.  In addition, instructors must attempt to involve students in classroom activities and to give them a sense of being able to accomplish high-level tasks.24  A major undertaking is to nurture student curiosity and use curiosity as a motive for learning through various pedagogical tactics.  If a class has clear expectations and standards provided with a clear syllabus, and a sense of predictability and order, then the class will have addressed the students' need for fairness.  As a class progresses, there is a need for fairness and safety to be exhibited at all levels in the grading of student assignments.25

            Murray and others reported that undergraduate college students rated instructors as more effective when they displayed sociable and extroverted personality traits.  The studies conducted by Erdle, Murray, and their associates also indicate that an instructor who displays an extroverted nature increases perceived instructor effectiveness.26  Therefore, a practical approach would be to make available research to encourage professors to provide social experiences for their classes.

            Research shows that the role of faculty in motivating both undergraduate and graduate students is positively valued by students and perceived by both undergraduate and postgraduate students to have beneficial effects on their learning.  Undergraduates and graduates share that research activity by the professor and the student enriches lectures, increases credibility, and ensures that knowledge is current.  A high level of research activity in a department will increase student awareness of ongoing research and its impact upon teaching, as well as student attitude.27  Faculty should be encouraged to share their research with students.

            An increase in student motivation and self-efficacy should be reflected in an increase in successful course completion.  Additionally, there should be a decrease in the number of withdrawals and dropouts and a corresponding increase in the number of students returning each semester.

            Even at the university level, students value parental involvement.  An adjustment to the strategies could be made by increasing incentives to motivate parents to visit campus, including invitations and/or free tickets to sports events, music recitals, drama presentations, and faculty colloquia.  Perhaps dorm rooms could be made available at a reduced price for family lodging.

            Students will learn what they want to learn and may have great difficulty learning material that does not interest them.  Students are motivated to learn--new dance steps, the status hierarchy on campus, football strategies--learning that does not necessarily contribute to attaining the academic goals of university curricula.28

            Among immigrant families, educational pursuits are an important way for youth to fulfill their lifelong obligations to assist their families and to repay their immigrant parents for their investments and sacrifices.  Improving students’ motivation should be a goal for every university and efforts should be made to organize learning environments that promote the most appropriate form of motivation for all ethnic groups.29  The potential payoff of having students who value learning for its own sake is priceless.  It is critical for university professors and university administrative leaders, as well as others to devote themselves fully to rekindling and maintaining students' motivation to learn.

            Motivation is a dynamic process different for different individuals.  Research has shown that good teaching practices can do more to counter student apathy than special efforts to attack motivation directly.  The majority of students react positively to a well-organized course taught by an enthusiastic professor who has a genuine concern for students and what they learn.  Thus activities undertaken to promote learning will also enhance students' motivation.  To develop the drive to achieve, students need to believe that achievement is possible--which means that there are early opportunities for success.  Praise builds students' self-confidence, competence, and self-esteem.  Recognize sincere efforts even if the result is less than stellar.  If a student's performance is weak, let the student know you believe he or she can improve and succeed over time.30


    1 James Raffini, Winners Without Losers: Structures and Strategies for Increasing Student Motivation to Learn (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1993), p. 286.
    2 Jacqueline S. Eccles and Rena D. Harold, “Parent-School Involvement During the Early Adolescent Years,” Teachers College Record 94:568-87, n3, 1993.
    3 Allysar R. Gonzalez, “Parental Involvement: Its Contribution to High School Students’ Motivation,” The Clearing House 75:132–34, n3, 2002.
    4 See Sharon E. Paulson, “Relations of Parenting Style and Parental Involvement with Ninth-Grade Students' Achievement,” Journal of Early Adolescence, 14:250-67, n2, May 1994; Jerry Trusty, “Relationship of Parental Involvement in Teens' Career Development to Teens' Attitudes, Perceptions, and Behavior,” Journal of Research and Development in Education, 30:317-23, 1996; Russell W. Rumberger et al, “Second Chance for High School Dropouts: The Costs and Benefits of Dropout Recovery Programs in the United States,” D.E. Inbar, ed., The Second Chance in Education (New York City: The Falmer Press, 1990), pp. 227-50; and J. Trusty, “Family Influences on Educational Expectations of Late Adolescents,” Journal of Educational Research, 91:260-74, n5, 1998.
    5 Rumberger, op. cit., p. 295.
    6 David A. Bergin, “Influences on Classroom Interest,” Educational Psychologist 34:87-98, 1999.
    7 Dawson R. Hancock, “Influencing Graduate Students' Classroom Achievement, Homework Habits, and Motivation to Learn with Verbal Praise,” Educational Research 2002 44:83-95, n1.
    8 William James, The Principles of Psychology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981), p. 185.
    9 Albert Bandura, Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1986), p. 21.
    10 Ibid., p. 391.
    11 Frank Pajares, “Overview of Social Cognitive Theory and of Self- Efficacy,”  2002,  www.emory.edu/EDUCATION/mfp/eff.html,  June  30, 2004.
    12 Ibid.
    13 Albert Bandura, Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control (New York City: W. H. Freeman, 1997), p. 2.
    14 Pajares, loc. cit.
    15 Lyn Lavery, “Ethnic Group Differences in the Academic Motivation of University Students, Student Learning Centre, University of Auckland, Nov-Dec. 1999,” www.aare.edu.au/99pap/lav99255.htm, June 30, 2004.
    16 Leroy Baruth and M. Lee Manning, Multicultural Counseling and Psychotherapy: A Lifespan Perspectives, 3rd ed. (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1999).
    17 Martin Dowson and Dennis M. McInerney, “Psychological Parameters of Students’ Social and Work Avoidance Goals: A Qualitative Investigation,” Journal of Educational Psychology 93:35-42, 2001.
    18 Florian H. Muller and Johann Louw, “Conditions of University Students’ Motivation and Study Interest,” Education-Line, www.leeds.ac.uk/educol/documents/00003572, May 20, 2004, and June 30,
    19 William J. McKeachie, Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers, 9th ed. (Lexington, MA: D.C.Heath/Houghton- Mifflin, 1994), p. 394.
    20 Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York City: Herder and Herder, 1970).
    21 Hope Goldberg, “Failing Classes: Academic Problems,” University of Cincinnati Psychological Services Center and the Division of Student Affairs and Services, 2004, 
www.psc.uc.edu/SH/PDF/SH_Academic%20Problems, June 30, 2004.
    22 Ibid.
    23 Kevin Bushweller, “The Forgotten Majority,” American School Board Journal 1998, www.asbj.com/199803/0398coverstory, June 9, 2004.
    24 Jennifer L. Thomas, “Effects of An Instructor’s Attire and Lecture Style on Student Motivation,” Emporia State University: 4-8 Aug 2000, www.uwgb.edu/humdev/Thomas, June 30, 2004.
    25 McKeachie, op. cit., p. 235.
    26 Stephen Erdle et al, “Personality, Classroom Behavior, and College Teaching Effectiveness: A Path Analysis,” Journal of Educational Psychology 77:394-407, 1985, and Harry G. Murray et al, “Teacher Personality Traits and Student Instructional Ratings in Six Types of University Courses,” Journal of Educational Psychology 82:250-61, n2, 1990.
    27 Roger Lindsay et al, “Academic Research and Teaching Quality: the Views of Undergraduate and Postgraduate Students,” Studies in Higher Education 27:309-27, n3, 2002.
    28 McKeachie, loc. cit.
    29 Lavery, loc. cit.
    30 Barbara Gross Davis, “Motivating Students,” Tools for Teaching (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993).