Keeping up the good work: the motivational profiles of students in secondary and higher education

Author: Ulrike Bavendiek


With the transition from school to Higher Education students are expected to adapt to a new learning environment and to new demands and expectations. As a consequence, during their first year in a Modern Languages Department some learners may have problems learning the language efficiently. They may either be unaware of the new demands, or have difficulties learning in the new situation. Based on the changes in the learning situation caused by the transition from school to university, I shall use a single case study in order to describe some possible negative effects of a mismatch between institutional and students' expectations on the motivational disposition of the students.

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Table of contents

Languages in Higher Education Conference 2008: transitions and connections

This paper was originally presented at our conference: transitions and connections, 8-9 July 2008.

1. Motivation in language learning

Language learner motivation is a complex phenomenon which can be described from different perspectives. In the present paper, learner motivation is seen as dynamic (Dörnyei and Ottó 1998) and resulting from a variety of components. It is affected by, among other factors, the learning situation (Shoaib and Dörnyei 2005: 23). In other words, student motivation forms 'a dynamic cyclic relationship with learning experiences and success' (Ushioda 1996:10), where past experiences, as well as the present situation and the future outlook, all play a role.

Accepting the notion that the learning situation impacts on a student's motivation, some points in a language learner's history seem to be more obviously challenging than others. The transition from school to university brings with it a change of circumstances, demands and experiences which is likely to change the motivational profile of the student.

2. Aims and methodology

This qualitative, small-scale study aims to describe the motivational challenges experienced by language learners shortly after their transition from school to university. The investigation consists of two parts. A pilot study was conducted in order to identify the changes in the learning situation perceived by the students. To this effect interviews with six first-year language degree students were transcribed and analysed. In the main part of the study the impact of the identified changes on the motivational profiles of randomly selected students was described. This part of the investigation was based on in-depth interviews with nine first-year students. Each participant was interviewed twice, once in the first two weeks of teaching and once after the first semester results had come out. Thus, the first set of interviews focused on the students' motivational profiles on entry, i.e. at a time when their motivation was still largely based on the language learning experiences in school and their expectations of university study. A second interview with the same student again started with the description of their motivation at that point in time. The intention was to detect the impact of the new learning situation and experiences on their motivation to learn the language. The main parts of both interviews consisted of the discussion of the answers to a short questionnaire, which the interviewees were asked to complete during both interviews. The questionnaires invited them to rank selected motivational factors in the order of their perceived personal importance. They then elaborated on their decisions in the interviews. In this paper I shall report on the case of only one student from the main study, whose profile on university entry highlights the potential mismatch between the students' needs and the demands of the university.

3. Results

Three main areas of change in the learning situation between school and university could be identified from the pilot study: The extent of learner independence at university was the change most frequently reported by the interviewees. The degree of independence in Higher Education is likely to require cognitive, metacognitive and affective/social adaption. A change in learner confidence was also often described as a result of the transition. Some students were anxious about their ability to cope in the new learning environment, and their confidence was built or undermined by results during their first months at university. Finally, the teacher-student relationship at school was perceived by some as markedly different from the rapport between students and teaching staff in the university. All three identified changes have a potential impact on the motivation of students who are new to Higher Education.

Having identified the three main areas of perceived changes in the learning situation, it seems that students can be well or little prepared to cope with the new motivational challenges. In particular, there are some indicators in the motivational profiles of students on university entry which may predict motivational problems. The rank order of motivational factors of student no. 10 during the second week at university exemplifies a reliance on some sources of motivation which may be scarce at university, and, at the same time, little readiness to exploit the motivational forces on offer.

Table 1: Questionnaire 1.1. Ranking of motivational factors on entry - student no. 10

  1. I enjoyed learning the language/s.
  2. I was good at learning the language/s.
  3. Good teacher/good relationship to teacher.
  4. I didn’t want to disappoint my parents.
  5. I want to be able to use the language/s fluently and efficiently.
  6. I am happy / satisfied when I receive good marks.
  7. My parents encouraged me.
  8. We were set a lot of work.
  9. The teacher was very strict.
  10. I like the target language country/countries and its speakers.
  11. My friends encouraged me.
  12. I needed a good mark.
  13. I wanted to keep up with or be better than the other students.
  14. Language classes were more stimulating than other classes in school.
  15. I didn’t want to disappoint my teachers.
  16. I enjoyed learning the language/s independently, i.e. doing work that was not set by the teacher

Shortly after starting his/her university studies, the student regarded enjoyment of independent learning as the least important factor in his/her motivation. The reason can be little or no experience in independent language learning. In this case, the student would probably need some guidance regarding his/her independent language learning, so that he/she can take pleasure in it and ultimately be motivated by it. However, the student may also have experienced independent learning and not have enjoyed it. In this case, the learner responsibility required at university may seriously undermine this learner's motivation. A relatively strong reliance on the teacher-student relationship, on work set and the strictness of the teacher also imply a preference for teacher guidance and control. Though student no. 10 is not driven by a competitive outlook, he/she draws heavily on self efficacy beliefs (Mills et al 2007: 417) for his/her motivation. This may become problematic if this confidence is linked to performance factors such as marks and he/she has to cope with low marks.

4. Conclusions

Many language teaching staff in universities are aware of the need to provide guidance towards greater language learner autonomy. Yet such guidance is usually restricted to the development of cognitive and metacognitive language learning strategies. Learner autonomy, however, also entails the ability to motivate oneself. As shown in this paper, self motivation is particularly difficult when some of the driving forces have disappeared or changed, for example after the transition from school to university. Recognising responsibility and independence, learner confidence and the teacher-student relationships as important sources of motivation may help language teachers to understand and counteract their students' potential problems to motivate themselves.


Dörnyei, Z. and Ottó, I. (1998) Motivation in action: a process model of L2 motivation. Working Papers in Applied Linguistics. 4, 43-69.

Mills, N., Pajares, F. and Herron, C. (2007) Self-efficacy of college intermediate French students: relation to achievement and motivation. Language Learning. 57 (3), 417-442.

Shoaib, A. and Dörnyei, Z.  (2005) Affect in life-long learning: exploring L2 motivation as a dynamic process. In Benson, P. and Nunan, D. (eds) Learners' Stories: Difference and Diversity in Language Learning. Cambridge: CUP, pp. 22-41.

Ushioda, E. (1996) The Role of Motivation. Dublin: Authentik.

Related links

The Subject Centre Pedagogic Research Fund 2007/08 (Phase 3)
Download a more comprehensive report: Investigating Changes in the Motivational Profiles of First Year Students on a Modern Languages Degree Programme
Ulrike Bavendiek