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COVID-19 Crisis Blog: Student Motivation and Education The Post-Covid Landscape

8 September 2020 - As we navigate a national and global public health crisis with the spread of Covid-19 Coronavirus, we hear from our research and policy fellows, and members of our research community in a weekly blog which reflects on these new societal challenges. This week, Peter Gillis, innovation team lead at Learnovate, Trinity College Dublin, explores student motivation in an emerging, post-Covid, landscape.

Peter Gillis, PhD researcher and innovation team lead at Learnovate, TCD.

Undergraduate drop out due to lack of academic motivation was recognised as a major issue long before the pandemic. It is a widespread problem with implications for the students’ own esteem and future, the institutions’ empty seat that stays that way for the duration of the course and the impact for the wider economy. As we move into a new academic year, with the ongoing effects of Covid 19 for academic life, student motivation is an area we need to focus on.

What if we could improve outcomes for students lacking motivation through nudges to keep them going? My PhD work over the last three years has been investigating ways we might be able to help such students. The first trial in 2019 showed some initial very promising effects. Across three classes in different disciplines, there was a significant improvement for students who were amotivated (the negative form of motivated). 

In these current times of uncertainty and distraction the ability to focus on college work can be even more difficult. It can appear ‘not worth it’, so if we want to help bring the focus back, what can we do? In structured innovation terms we always start with the problem and understand it at a deep level to inform any subsequent solution. In this case the problem is not motivation it is ‘academic amotivation’.

Academic amotivation is not a lack of motivation - it is a strongly held inner negative belief about the academic endeavour at hand. It comprises of four distinct areas; the student does not see value in achieving the academic goal, the student does not believe they have the ability to achieve the goal, even with great effort the student believes they cannot be good enough and finally the student finds the learning task boring. These beliefs are in turn linked to the negative outcomes; low self-esteem, drop-out, poor performance and disruptive behaviour (see below).


In addressing academic amotivation we might leverage the work done by Professor John Keller from Florida State University.” Keller’s ARCS theory on motivational design for instruction defines four distinct areas we can look at to try motivate students. ARCS is an acronym for Attention, Relevance, Confidence and Satisfaction. As can be seen they relate neatly to the four aspects of Academic Amotivation:

  1. Attention: Students’ curiosity should be aroused and sustained
  2. Relevance: The relevance of the module, or course to the student’s personal values or how it helps them accomplish desired life goals.
  3. Confidence: The students must believe that they will be able to succeed.
  4. Satisfaction: Make students feel good about their accomplishments and be clear on the goals from the outset.

My research is delivering support through ‘nudges’ an approach which emerged in 2008 through Thaler and Sunstein’s Behavioural Economics. They describe a nudge as “any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives”. In other words, guiding people to make the right choice through the design of how the choices are presented, called the ‘choice architecture’. There are those who question the approach because shaping people’s choices for their own benefit might seem intrusive. However, proponents claim that people are still free to make their own choices and considering that choice architectures are provided anyway, why not provide the most beneficial ones?  Nudges can take many forms, one example in our current environment is the “This is 2 metres” signs we are all familiar with. The signs do not tell you to stay two metres apart but their presence encourages people to make the right choice. 


Nudges in my case are short text messages designed in line with above.  The effectiveness is in the amount of design that goes into the messages to make them relevant and focused. A couple of examples from my work are:

  • Value – “Data shows that in an economic recession, college graduates are less vulnerable to layoffs. The people who suffer the most are lower level employees with second level education.”
  • Ability - “For the macroeconomics assessment you need to study the manual and as you do,  think about how this relates to your own understanding of the economy and try to relate it to the turmoil the world is currently experiencing”

On the 11th of March, as lockdown in colleges was taking hold, I put a quick introduction video together and sent it to my colleague. She briefed a class of students who had agreed to participate in my second trial and got the initial survey moving for me. The strange times had arrived.

Over the next week I wondered if I should continue with this particular trial, many of the students had travelled back to their homelands abroad. They had exams in an uncertain format looming and of course, like the rest of us, they were dealing with the trauma of the global pandemic. I believed any results I might get would be skewed and maybe not usable in my PhD but then I thought “what if the messages help them even a little bit at this time?” So, I didn’t worry about the PhD and just sent the messages over a three-week period. It brought into focus the need we will have going forward to support students adjusting to a new form of third level education.

We probably all feel we do this already to some extent but having a framework to work from can really support lecturer and tutor efforts. My research is also looking to identify student behaviours which indicate specific aspects of amotivation in turn leading to targeted nudges. As we enter this uncharted new world of education crafting some nudges might be one way for you to support your students on the journey, they take with you.

So how did my students get on? As expected, responses were down but interestingly the nudges did show a positive effect in improving students’ belief in their ability but not in the value they place on the course, maybe understandable in the current climate and a focus for the next trial!  

Peter Gillis is innovation team lead at Learnovate, a research centre, hosted at Trinity College Dublin, focused on EdTech and learning technologies. Learnovate has one of the richest concentrations of EdTech expertise in Europe. Peter is skilled in the practices of: innovation (JTBD, Lean Start-up, Design Thinking), digital strategy, strategy and corporate company management. Peter is also a researcher with a demonstrated history of working in the EdTech research industry. He lectures on the psychology of learning and innovation in learning on several master’s programmes. Peter is also an adjunct teaching fellow at the Trinity Business School. Peter holds a first-class honours degree in Psychology, an MSc in Technology Enhanced Learning at Trinity College Dublin. His research interest is the interaction between motivation and technology-enhanced learning. Peter is currently developing his research on motivation and learning through the PhD programme at TCD.


Recent posts in the COVID-19 Crisis Blog:

The Happiness of Use-wear by Ellen Finn (14 July 2020)

Worship in a Time of Pandemic with Sahar Ahmed (7 July 2020)

Language and the Pandemic with Dr Kristina Varade (1 July 2020)

Essential Workers and the Pandemic with Caitriona Lally (24 June 2020)

Joyce and the Pandemic with Professor Sam Slote (17 June 2020)

The Pandemic and Education with Dr Ann Devitt (9 June 2020)

The Pandemic and the Planet with Dr Ruth Brennan (2 June 2020)

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