4.1 Based on Barkley (2010)’s Student Engagement Techniques Chapters 1-4:
Barkley (2010) proposes an ‘expectancy x value’ model (p.11) to describe student motivation. This model premises that learners “are willing to expend [the effort] on a task [that] is the product of the degree to which they expect to be able to perform the task successfully (expectancy) and the degree to which they value the rewards as well as the opportunity to engage in performing the task itself (value).” Barkley goes on to explain expectancy (p.12), citing Covington (1993), who described four ‘typical student patterns’ of expectancy, including:
‘Success-oriented’ students are described by Barkley as “serious learners who want to perform well, and usually do, are predisposed toward engagement, and enjoy learning for learning’s sake, are accustomed to success and are able to preserve their perceptions of self-worth even in the event of an occasional failure.” These learners have a high expectancy of success and they perceive a significant value in the task either for the rewards available and/or intrinsic to the performance of the task.
‘Overstrivers’ are usually successful students but are “not entirely confident in their ability and consequently worry about their grades and performance.” Barkley further describes (p.12) this group of learners as “anxious that each new learning task will be the one that exposes the lower level of ability that they have so far been able to conceal; they expend a great deal of effort to ensure that they do succeed.”
‘Failure-avoiders’ according to Barkley (p.12), having experienced academic failure in the past, are anxious that “if they fail at a specific learning activity, they will prove to themselves and others that they lack the ability to succeed.” As a result, this group of learners may avoid tasks they perceive as too challenging.
‘Failure-accepting’ students have become accustomed and resigned to academic failure and now feel hopeless, responding to learning tasks with indifference. According to Barkley (p.13), this group of students has disengaged from learning.
Barkley (p.13) clearly believes that both learner expectancy of success plays a significant role in student motivation and engagement.
Barkley’s expectancy x value model of student motivation resonates closely, but not precisely with my own observations and experiences in the classroom, both as a student and as instructor. I see myself as three of Barkley’s four typical expectancy patterns in different contexts during my academic career. In elementary and secondary schools (all eight of them) I was always a ‘success oriented’ student because I was never challenged. I had poor work habits, many sports and recreation activities, part time jobs and work at home on our farm, yet maintained a mid-ninety average throughout. I had mastered focus, attention, engagement, memory, problem solving and critical thinking skills sufficiently that I was able to overcome my very poor academic work habits and still achieve academic success. Ironically, my self-esteem was closely linked to my academic success because it was a primary, and one of very few positive feedbacks for my self-esteem. I was quite incompetent socially with no friends, no girlfriends, no popularity and no clue as to how to achieve success in social relationships.
When I first went to university immediately after high school, I quickly became a ‘failure accepting’ student because my lack of study habits so severely crippled my academic performance that I failed every course. Eventually I dropped out and went to college where both the level of difficulty and volume or pace of the workload was so low that I was able to succeed in spite of continuing poor study habits.
After 18 years working full time as a primary care paramedic, I went back to college to upgrade to advanced care paramedic (ACP). The level of difficulty and pace were more challenging than my previous college experiences, but I was motivated due to the relevance to my personal and career goals and the close link to my self-image. I started to develop study habits because I was also working 55-60 hours per week, and also training 10-12 hours per week and competing at the world class level (at powerlifting). My self-image was no longer solely tied to my academic success but also to my view of my success as a powerlifter, paramedic, father of my children and husband, which were, respectively, very positive, mostly positive, mostly positive and very negative (failed marriage). My paramedic supervisor, a vicious bully, was also a primary instructor at the college for my ACP program. In spite of my 85 average, he failed me on a final scenario test and thereby failed me in the program. I was crushed because I had expected success, had worked (average effort) for it, and it was closely linked to my self-image. I appealed the failure but was not successful in my appeal. I was very disappointed and reluctant to accept fault; instead I blamed the bully supervisor/instructor and thereafter hated him passionately. He sensed my worsening attitude and escalated his harassment of me at work for a further two years.
I repeated the entire ACP program the following year, achieving a 90 average while continuing to work 55-60 hours per week and training 10-12 hours weekly, as well as competing at the world class level. My increasing success with powerlifting (I was lifting Canadian records daily and lifted a few World records) bolstered my self-esteem and pulled me out of a depression that had lasted several months after the failure. Around that time I hit black ice while driving in hazardous driving conditions and broke my wrist. In spite of the severe pain of this injury, I lifted a World record three weeks later because I relied on my success as a powerlifter very much for my self-esteem. I had a self-image as a success with my lifting and I was willing to go to extremes to maintain it.
Coming up to the final scenario test I developed an anxiety disorder due to my awareness that the previous year my 85 average was not sufficient preparation or assurance of success on the final scenario test; the evil supervisor/instructor was also escalating his harassment of me, both at work and in the classroom. I complained about him to the college program coordinator, who did nothing to help me and told the evil one about my complaint. He further escalated his harassment of me and I began having panic attacks. I requested that he not examine me yet I failed the final scenario test again anyway, due to an anxiety attack. I became suicidal. Only the thought of my children and the unfair impact on those innocents stopped me from actually following through. I had a significant depression lasting several months.
I repeated the ACP program a third time, fully engaging and investing heavily in it, I had become an ‘overstriver’. I cut back my work hours to 42 hours per week by quitting my second job and cutting way back on hours for my third job. I stopped competing at powerlifting for the first time in 16 years. I developed excellent study habits. I earned a 95 average. Based on my formative experiences in elementary and secondary schools, I believed that I was above average intelligence, but I also believed that these were not assurances of success against the evil one. I realized that my feelings toward my persecutor were unhealthy and started seeing a counsellor, which helped a little. I practiced for the final scenario test every day for the four months leading up to the final scenario test, never missing a practice, even during a snow storm. This gained me the respect of my classmates, who were also my peers at work. As a result, my self-esteem improved from the assurances from my peers, who now universally believed that I had been robbed by the previous ACP failures and was more than worthy of academic success in the ACP program. Yet this was not sufficient to overcome the devastating, crushing, debilitating losses, including huge financial losses previously experienced. A few weeks prior to the final I escalated the difficulty of my practice scenarios, with the help of my classmates, making the practice sessions insanely difficult yet still forcing myself to master them. This helped my confidence somewhat.
My Base Hospital Director, an Emergency physician with 30 years’ experience, as well as coordinator of the ACP certifications and directly responsible for my ultimate certification as an ACP, had me work directly with him during the final stage of ACP clinical training prior to the final scenario test. During my final shift with him, he called me aside and told me that he believed that I was “head and shoulders above my peers with respect to my clinical thinking and skills,” and that I “should consider going to medical school because I was wasting myself working as a paramedic.” He also let me know that if I was failed yet again on the final scenario test that he would intervene on my behalf. This sufficiently bolstered my confidence that I actually requested that the evil one test me for the final scenario test. I forced myself to face my nemesis. During the final test the bully interrupted me repeatedly until I politely but firmly warned him not to do it again or I would leave the videotaped test and go directly to the Dean’s office to complain about him. He acquiesced and I completed the test successfully. The following year I filed a harassment grievance against the evil one and was successful, winning a very large settlement. I left the employ of that service and worked elsewhere, where my peers gave me the nickname “Dr. Sean.”
After these experiences, which profoundly shaped me, I had the courage to return to university. I worked 60 hours per week while carrying a full course load in a challenging pre-medical-school undergraduate program, achieving a 90 average and 3.87 GPA. I began the undergraduate degree as an ‘overstriver’ and became a ‘success oriented’ student in the process. I had to overcome the bitterness associated with not even receiving an interview for medical school in Ontario; I was accepted at schools in the US and the Caribbean, but could not afford to go. I was obligated to pay tuition for my children instead and still had a mountain of debt to pay off. I learned to more accurately identify my strengths and weaknesses and made efforts to improve my weaknesses. I learned and practiced excellent study habits. I relied heavily on my work capacity; hard work was my go-to solution to cover my weaknesses. I demonstrated a ‘failure avoider’ strategy by avoiding courses that were too challenging for me.
Throughout my Masters ’ degree I was a ‘success oriented’ student. My classmates recognized me as ‘the best student’ with the greatest work ethic and exceptional analytical and critical thinking skills. As a result of the overstriving lifestyle of working 88 hours per week for more than a decade, I experienced severe health challenges, including major surgeries and heart problems, and my mother passed away during my studies, yet I managed to achieve an 85 average and received full scholarships throughout my Masters’ degree. I definitely invested more heavily, both time and engagement, in the courses I valued. As for courses which lacked value to me, I engaged only sufficiently to assure a grade of at least 80.
In my experience, Barkley’s ‘success oriented’ students have experienced some significant academic success, and in the process have been able to identify some of their own academic strengths, such as memorization skills, problem solving or critical thinking skills, abstract or conceptual thinking, organization and planning skills or work habits. This group of learners have achieved at least a competency if not mastery of at least some of the above academic skills, which are necessary for academic success. Learners in this group may not have mastered even a competent level of skill for one or more of the above academic skills, but they are aware of their strengths and weaknesses and either preferentially select courses which require strengths that align with their competencies or which at least allow the learner to compensate with their strong skills and still achieve academic success. An example of this would be a master memorizer selecting a biology rather than math or physics course to assure success.
Inherent in the perception of the value of academic tasks in which ‘success oriented’ learners engage is the positive reinforcement of self-esteem associated with the recognition by peers, instructors, family and friends for the student’s academic success. This tends to increase the confidence of the successful learner. These learners have also identified that engagement is a requisite of academic success, which the learner values as a measure of self-esteem; they tend to engage even if the perception of the inherent value of the particular course is low as a matter of pride because there is a close link between the student’s self-image and academic success.
Another factor which directly effects student perception of value of a course or academic program is the weight the student places on academic success with respect to how the student measures his self-image; if other facets of a student’s life adequately serve to bolster self-esteem and they also compete for the student’s time and attention in order to obtain success, then the academic engagement may suffer. Examples include achievements at work or sport.
A further factor which directly effects student perception of value of a course or academic program is the relative importance of the academic goal with respect to other responsibilities currently in the student’s life, such as family or work responsibilities as well as health issues. For example, if the course or program could maybe someday aid in obtaining a promotion and salary raise at work, but it is competing with a crying child, the child’s immediate needs tend to win over studies; this is true even more so if success with the task requires the student to use his weaknesses or if the student is unsure of how to start the academic work.
Barkley’s description of ‘overstrivers’ (p.12) appropriately identifies the learner’s lack of confidence in academic abilities; this is not necessarily all academic skills but may be just particular skills. In my case, this is speed and memory. When I was young my speed and memory were excellent but no longer. Since returning to school, I have performed very poorly on speed or memorization tasks but performed well on tasks requiring other skills such as problem solving, critical thinking, attention, planning, preparation, organization and work habits. My academic performance has closely reflected my strengths and weaknesses. When my financial and employment obligations permitted, I tended to commit my strength of work habits to overcome my poor memory by spending more time on memorization tasks. When competing for acceptance into medical school, I was always concerned that my poor memory would adversely affect my academic performance. In many cases it did. My failure to gain acceptance into an Ontario medical school tended to reinforce this need to overstrive and consequently I expended an even greater effort to cover my weakness with more work. Eventually this habit destroyed my health.
I have failed financially again and again throughout my life, in spite of the goal of financial success and in spite of great effort with courses, mentoring, and implementation of many financial and business projects. My absolute perfect failing record with respect to financial success has broken me. I have given up. I now have goals only to survive, try to keep my health, and provide what I can for my family. I consciously avoid looking at expensive cars or houses and avoid watching television shows that display or edify financial success because I wish to avoid the accompanying bitterness of seeing what I can never have. Financially I am a ‘failure accepter.’
Hindsight is 20:20; I have many regrets and would wish to relive my life differently. Conversely, my adverse experiences have increased my tenacity, resilience and work capacity, but at the expense of my health. I learned that I can accomplish anything if I commit, fully engage and work hard enough. But in many cases the rewards may not justify the great personal sacrifice required, especially my health. I assign a much higher value to my health and to finding ways to succeed that don’t require such a great sacrifice. Balance in life is now more important to me. I am resigned to live a life of mediocrity rather than to continue to strive with such intense, absolute commitment that success or self-destruction is assured. I seek lower paying jobs that I am well qualified for and that do not require a commitment that would take me out of balance with my family and academic priorities. I have a good wife and I strive daily to nurture and protect that relationship, which is a constant positive source for companionship, friendship, love, support, encouragement and self-esteem.
In my classroom I recognize that at any moment, my practice of encouraging and believing in my students could and sometimes will, sometimes unaware to me, provide a student who lacks confidence in his or her academic skills, with sufficient courage to strive to work harder or longer or smarter or to seek a mentor to improve a weakness, and thereby succeed academically. I learned this lesson when a coach encouraged me and believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself immediately prior to a decisive test that resulted in my achieving a position on the Junior National Rowing Team when I was only 17 y/o (Brown, 2015).
I realize that I have the responsibility to provide a safe learning environment in which students are not afraid to engage. My role as an instructor is not just to teach content, but to teach students how to learn. I can teach students how to identify their academic strengths and weaknesses and how to strengthen and cover their weaknesses, i.e. how to succeed academically by investing in the development of academic skills. I can improve student motivation by initially providing tasks that students with weaknesses in their academic skills can perform to boost their confidence, then gradually progress to tasks of greater difficulty as the term progresses. I can show students where to turn for resources that improve academic skills both on campus and online. I can emphasize to my students the importance of work habits and show students how to prioritize, plan and organize their work. I can show students how to start work on challenging tasks, provide time to start work on these tasks in the classroom, and give encouragement and support to students who lack confidence. I can mentor my students where possible, modelling a commitment to lifelong learning, a positive attitude and good work habits, and I can support students’ efforts to improve themselves. I can assure that learning tasks are relevant to increase student engagement. I can assure that my expectations are realistic and clearly communicated to the students. I can provide feedback that is encouraging as well as helpful even as it corrects. I can provide students with direction to learning resources that will guide students in how to improve academic skills. I can recognize, praise and reward performance improvement.
I aspire to be an instructor who inspires, motivates, guides and mentors students to grow and become more confident as they develop improved academic skills. I can make a difference by inspiring students to engage and develop improved academic skills that lead to improved success in academics and in life. I can learn to not see life’s failures as a reflection of my self-worth so that I don’t model this mistake to students. I hope to be able to teach students not to take their failures personally so they will have the courage to accept failures as a part of life and to move past such failures and go on to future successes. I can teach students to cover their weaknesses with hard work.
As someone who recognizes that I am and always will be, a work in progress, I can show my students that it is acceptable and even desirable to live one’s life perpetually in such a state, encouraging a life of continuous self-improvement and lifelong learning.
References and Bibliography
Barkley, E. (2010). Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. Jossey-Bass: John Wiley & Sons; San Francisco, CA.
British Columbia (BC) Provincial Instructor Diploma Program (PIDP) (2015). PIDP 3250 Instructional Techniques: Supplementary Student Materials. Ministry of Advanced Education, Innovation and Technology. Vancouver Community College: Vancouver, BC.
British Columbia (BC) Provincial Instructor Diploma Program (PIDP) (2015). PIDP 3250 Instructional Strategies: Course Assignments & Rubrics. Handout offered by Vancouver Community College: Vancouver, BC.
Brown, S. (2015). Transformational learning saved my life. LinkedIn post retrieved from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/transformational-learning-saved-my-life-sean-w-brown?trk=prof-post
Covington, M. (1993). A motivational analysis of academic life in college. In J. C. Smart (Ed.), Higher education: Handbook of theory and research, Vol. 9. New York: Agathon Press.
McTighe, J. & Wiggins, G. (2013). Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding. ASCD: Alexandria, VA.