The Effect of Motivation on Academic Performance in Traditional and Non-traditional Freshmen College Students
This study examined whether significant differences exist between traditional and non-traditional freshmen college students’ motivation and the effect motivation had on academic performance. A total of 252 freshmen were recruited from a First-Year Experience program at a State College in Southwest Florida to complete a survey. There was a statistically significant difference between the two groups’ intrinsic motivation to know, to accomplish, and to experience stimulation and extrinsic motivation, introjected; non-traditional students were higher than their traditional counterparts. No difference in extrinsic motivation, identified and external, was found between the two groups. After adjusting for the covariates: intrinsic, extrinsic, and amotivation, there was a statistically significant difference in GPA between traditional and non-traditional freshmen students for all three constructs. Development and implementation of academic programs to motivate and engage students in order to foster retention rates are discussed.
Keywords: Motivation, academic performance, traditional freshmen, non-traditional freshmen, retention
Colleges and universities have seen an increase in enrollment of non-traditional students over the last decades (Advisory Committee on Student Financial Aid Assistance, 2012; Choy, 2002; Horn & Carroll, 1996). Today, they make up over 70% of the student population in community colleges (Advisory Committee on Student Financial Aid Assistance, 2012; Choy, 2002; Horn & Carroll, 1996) and expected to continue to increase. The majority of studies have employed the age criterion to define traditional/non-traditional students (Kulavic, Hultquist, & McLester, 2013; Rothes, Lemos, & Goncalves, 2014; Shillingford & Karlin, 2013). However, centering on only one dimension, like the age criterion, has caused an unequal representation of the groups which may limit the understanding of the multifaceted experiences and challenges of college students.
Studies have also addressed various areas of motivation with the assumption that older more mature students are more intrinsically motivated and that motivation flows over into other sectors (Kulavic et al., 2013; Rothes et al., 2014). While these assumptions reflect past research studies that suggest intrinsic motivation is more beneficial to academic success and knowledge acquisition (Ayub, 2010; Lei, 2010; Ryan & Deci, 2000; Vansteenkiste, Lens, & Deci, 2006), one might question then if age is not the defining criteria between the two groups, will non-traditional freshmen college students be more intrinsically motivated than their traditional counterparts?
It was not known if and to what extent traditional and non-traditional freshmen college students differed in the type of motivation and how that affects academic performance. Because of changes in demographics of traditional or non-traditional students and the changes in the defining characteristics of the two groups, there will also be differences in motivation and academic performance of both groups than observed in the past decade. The following research questions guided this quantitative study:
RQ1: Is there a difference in the type of intrinsic motivation (to know, to accomplish, to experience stimulation) between traditional and non-traditional freshmen college students?
RQ2: Is there a difference in the type of extrinsic motivation (identified, introjected, external) between traditional and non-traditional freshmen college students?
RQ3: When controlling for motivation (intrinsic, extrinsic, amotivation), is there a difference in academic performance between traditional and non-traditional freshmen college students?
Overview of Community College Students
Undergraduate students at community colleges differ from undergraduates at universities (4-year institutions) in academic preparedness, socioeconomic status, the number of non-traditional students and retention rates (Martin, Galentino, & Townsend, 2014). In the fall of 2012, 13 million students (45% of all undergraduates) attended community colleges making them a vital component of post-secondary education in the U.S. institutions (Martin et al., 2014). The U.S. Department of Education, Institute for Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics (2012) reported that community colleges (2-year colleges) had over 87% of students with one or more non-traditional characteristics. Today’s population of non-traditional students varies depending on the criteria used when defining this population such as by age or part-time enrollment status.
Definition of Non-Traditional Students
There has been no consensus in the definition of non-traditional students. A non-traditional student, by Horn and Carroll’s (1996) definition, is either minimally (1), moderately (2 or 3), or highly (4 or more) non-traditional depending on the number of characteristics each student possessed. These characteristics include: delays in enrollment, part-time enrollment, full-time employment, financial independents, dependents other than spouse, single parent, or a GED. Using this definition, Choy (2002) found 89% of community college students were at least minimally non-traditional. Chung, Turnbull, and Chur-Hansen (2014) reviewed 45 definitions of non-traditional students resulting in 13 different categories of meaning which have been utilized to refer to non-traditional students. The commonality in each of the varying definitions has been age, which is the most common characteristic defining a non-traditional student in research today (Kaufman, Agars, & Lopez-Wagner, 2008; Kim, 2002; Kulavic et al., 2013; Rothes et al., 2014; Shillingford & Karlin, 2013).
Definition of Motivation Types and Effects
Motivation has been defined as a determination to fulfill a need and is related to outcomes such as academic performance (Afzal, Ali, Khan, & Hamid, 2010; Deci & Ryan, 2000; Kusurkar, ten Cate, Vos, Westers, & Croiset, 2013; Ryan & Deci, 2000; Vansteenkiste et al., 2006). Motivation determines “whether and to what extent” an individual learns (Lei, 2010, p. 153). Three types of motivation addressed in the literature are: intrinsic, extrinsic, and amotivation. Intrinsic motivation refers to engagement in activities due to interest, challenge, or satisfaction to the self (Afzal et al., 2010; Rothes et al., 2014; Ryan & Deci, 2000; Shillingford & Karlin, 2013). Three subcategories of intrinsic motivation exist: motivation to know, toward accomplishment, and to experience stimulation (Ayub, 2010; Vallerand et al., 1992). Extrinsic motivation refers to participation in activities due to expected outcome of activity being rewarded or punished (Afzal et al., 2010; Rothes et al., 2014). Extrinsic motivation consists of three types: identified (autonomous), introjected, and external regulation (controlled). Amotivation is neither intrinsic nor extrinsic but instead refers to people experiencing incompetence and uncontrollable behavior triggered by someone or something outside their control (Ayub, 2010; Ryan & Deci, 2000; Moneta & Siu, 2002).
Few studies have gone beyond intrinsic/extrinsic distinctions. Extrinsic motivation has shown to be less conducive to academic performance (Afzal et al., 2010; Ayub, 2010; Müller & Louw, 2004; Moneta & Siu, 2002; Ryan & Deci, 2000). However, individuals possess both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation which work together (in various ways) to determine participation in and subsequent quality of a learning experience, which in turn influences academic performance (Ayub, 2010; Rothes et al., 2014; Ryan & Deci, 2000; Vansteenkiste et al., 2006). Intrinsic and more self-determined types of extrinsic motivation (identified) are not only related to higher academic achievement (Ayub, 2010; Müller & Louw, 2004; Moneta & Siu, 2002) but also persistence (Ayub, 2010) and lower dropout rates (Cutolo & Rochford, 2007). On the other hand, controlled types of extrinsic motivation (introjected, external) and amotivation produced the opposite effect. Some studies suggest that no matter which type of motivation a student possesses if it is high and it satisfies their needs, learning occurs which in turn produces better academic performance (Afzal et al., 2010; Griffin, MacKewn, Moser, & VanVuren, 2013).
Over the last few decades, research has explored different types of motivation and its impact on academic performance (Afzal et al., 2010; Mirabela-Constanta & Maria-Madela, 2011; Wolfgang & Dowling, 1981). The results from Mirabela-Constanta and Maria-Madela (2011) revealed four key findings: (1) there was no correlation between intrinsic motivation and better academic performance, (2) as performance increases the percentage of students being both intrinsically and extrinsically motivated decreases, (3) no correlation between amotivation and performance, and (4) females perform better than males. The first finding contradicts most research. Schweinle and Helming (2011) results indicated that students had multiple reasons (primary and secondary) for success in a challenging activity especially those students who had mastery/intrinsic as their primary reason followed by the prominent secondary reason, grade/extrinsic. Students with grade/extrinsic goals exercised the most effort while those with amotivated goals exercised less engagement in the activities/learning. Afzal et al. (2010) found a positive relationship between students’ motivation and academic performance. Intrinsically motivated students performed better academically, and performance remained consistent while extrinsically motivated students performed well for a short period (to achieve the reward) with inconsistent performance overall (Afzal et al., 2010).
Motivation has also been linked to predicting academic success and studied in various ways of both traditional and non-traditional college students (Baker, 2004; Kaufman et al., 2008; Lynch, 2006) or freshmen students (Bailey & Phillips, 2016). Baker (2004) found that only motivation to know (intrinsic) was significantly related to lower levels of stress while studying and amotivation had a negative impact on psychological adjustment to university life, stress and well-being. However, intrinsic motivation, extrinsic motivation, or amotivation were not related to academic performance. Bailey and Phillips (2016) findings contradict Baker’s (2004) findings in that they found little or no connection between amotivation and greater stress levels, lower self-esteem, or poor mental health.
Kaufman et al. (2008) found that high levels of intrinsic motivation and low levels of extrinsic motivation are important predictors of academic success. Ayub’s (2010) findings support their study in that students who flourished possessed higher levels of motivation (intrinsic & extrinsic level: identified) and students who did not flourish had lower levels of motivation (extrinsic levels: introjected, external & amotivation) which suggests that individuals possess varying amounts and levels of both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation which affect the outcomes (Ayub, 2010; Moneta & Siu, 2002; Müller & Louw, 2004; Vansteenkiste et al., 2006). Lynch (2006), on the other hand, found intrinsic motivation not extrinsic motivation to be associated with course grades. Research suggested that the more self-determined (regulated) the motivation, the higher the academic performance (Kusurkar et al., 2013)
Still, research lacks exploration into the differences between traditional and non-traditional freshmen college students, not defined solely by the age criterion, regarding motivation and how it affects academic performance. Therefore, research is needed to expand the defining characteristics of non-traditional college students. With less than 60% of the non-traditional population returning for the second year and thus considered most at risk of discontinuing their education, it warrants further exploration into this group’s motivation and how it affects academic performance (Kim, 2002; Martin et al., 2014).
Sampling and Data Collection
A total of 1,337 college students enrolled at a state college located in Southwest Florida and who were enrolled in a required first-year experience in Spring 2016 were invited to participate in the study. The researcher (first author) spoke with several classes face-to-face to explain the study, and a week later the researcher returned to administer the packet of information that included a consent form, demographic questionnaire, and survey. During this visit, consent forms were signed demographic questionnaire completed and the survey administered. At the end of the semester, GPA data were obtained from the college’s Office of Institutional Research.
The demographic questionnaire included questions on the following: student type (traditional/non-traditional) based on student’s age; gender; ethnicity; marital status; dependent children; enrollment status: full (12 or more credit hours)/part time (less than 12); work status: full (35 hours or more)/part-time (less than 35 hours); education level: High school diploma/GED, associate’s degree, baccalaureate degree; living accommodations; primary source of financial support: parents, spouse, self, scholarship, or financial aid. Academic performance was measured by end of semester GPA of the student participants, and this information was obtained from the Office of Institutional Research at the college.
The Academic Motivation Scale (Vallerand et al., 1992) was utilized to measure the type of motivation and was created for college populations. The survey is a 28-item, self-reported, standardized closed-ended question item instrument, 7-point Likert scale instrument, that ask students to indicate how well different statements, such as “Because I experience pleasure and satisfaction while learning new things” (intrinsic), “Because I think that a college education will help me better prepare for the career I have chosen” (extrinsic), and “I can’t see why I go to college and frankly, I couldn’t care less” (amotivation) correspond to why they are currently in post-secondary education. The present study utilized the intrinsic (12 items), extrinsic (12 items), and amotivation (4 items) subscales of the instrument. Participants are asked to rate each item on a 7-point scale (1=does not correspond at all, 7 = corresponds exactly) to reflect the degree to which it corresponds to the reasons why they are attending college. In this study, the Cronbach alpha ranged from .83 to .88, except for the extrinsic motivation subscale, identified, which was .72. This compares with the original Cronbach which ranged from .83 to .86 and the extrinsic motivation subscale, identified, was .62 (Vallerand et al., 1992).
A total of 252 freshmen college students completed the survey. The age of the participants ranged from 18-53 years old and the average age was 22 (SD 6.58). Over half of the participants were female and the majority were single and were without dependent children. Half were white and enrolled in college full-time. Slightly less than two-thirds still lived with their parents. Their primary source of financial support came from themselves, followed by their parents. The majority were employed in either full-time (40.5%) or part-time jobs (39.5%) Table 1 provides a summary of the demographic characteristics of the study population.
The age of the participants in the traditional group ranged from18-22 years and the average age was 18.7 (SD 5.77). The majority were single, without dependent children and living at home. Over two-thirds were enrolled in college full-time and slightly less than two-thirds were supported financially by their parents. Over half were male and employed part-time and half were white. The age of the participants in the non-traditional group ranged from 18-53 and the average age was 25.4 (SD 7.99). The majority were single and financially supported themselves. Over half were female and employed full-time. Over two-thirds were enrolled in college part-time, without dependent children, and lived off-campus. The groups differed on gender, enrollment status, work status, living accommodations, and primary source of income. Table 2 provides a summary of the characteristics of the study population by groups.
It was hypothesized thatthere is a difference in the type of intrinsic motivation between traditional and non-traditional freshman college students. A Mann-Whitney U test was conducted and findings indicated that intrinsic motivation to know was greater for non-traditional freshmen college students (Mdn = 15.1) than traditional freshmen college students (Mdn = 13.6), U = 6594.5, p = .02 and that intrinsic motivation to accomplish was greater for non-traditional freshmen college students (Mdn = 13.5) than for traditional freshmen college students (Mdn = 12.5), U = 6572.5, p = .02. Then an independent t-test showed that intrinsic motivation to experience stimulation yielded a statistically significant difference as a function of the independent variable (t = 2.09; df = 250; p = 0.037). Levene’s test for homogeneity of variance shows that the data are homoscedastic (F = 1.327; p = 0.251). Traditional college freshmen students (M = 8.49) have lower intrinsic motivation to experience stimulation relative to non-traditional college freshmen students (M = 9.68).
For extrinsic motivation, it was hypothesized that there is a difference in type of extrinsic motivation between traditional and non-traditional freshmen college students. A Mann-Whitney U test was conducted. The findings indicated that extrinsic motivation, introjected, was greater for non-traditional freshmen college students (Mdn = 18.3) than for traditional freshmen college students (Mdn = 17.1), U = 6713, p = .03. There was no significant difference among traditional and non-traditional freshmen college students’ extrinsic motivation: identified and external.
It was also hypothesized that when controlling for intrinsic, extrinsic or amotivation, there is a difference in academic performance between traditional and non-traditional freshmen college students. ANCOVAs were conducted for each type of motivation (intrinsic, extrinsic, and amotivation). The findings indicated that for intrinsic motivation there was a statistically significant difference in GPA between traditional and non-traditional freshmen college students (see Table 3). For extrinsic motivation, the findings indicated there was a statistically significant difference in GPA between traditional and non-traditional freshmen college students (see Table 3). Amotivation findings indicated that there was a statistically significant difference in GPA between traditional and non-traditional freshmen college students (see Table 3). One thing to note about these results is that the three motivation types were not linearly related to GPA, therefore the covariate relationship could be questioned.
The findings indicated that non-traditional freshmen college students’ intrinsic motivation (to know, to accomplish, and to experience stimulation) was higher than their traditional counterparts which is supported by scholarly research (Rothes et al., 2014; Shillingford & Karlin, 2013; Wolfgang & Dowling, 1981). The findings also indicated that for extrinsic type of motivation, identified (autonomous) and external (controlled), there was no difference between the two groups. However, for the extrinsic type of motivation, introjected (controlled), there was a difference. Extrinsic type of motivation, introjected, was greater for non-traditional freshmen college than for their traditional counterparts. These findings contradict most the research which posits that traditional-age college students are more extrinsically motivated than their non-traditional-age counterparts (Rothes et al., 2014; Shillingford & Karlin, 2013; Wolfgang & Dowling, 1981). The differences in findings could be related to how traditional and non-traditional college students were defined in past research. Most of the past research has defined the two groups based on age alone while the present study defined the groups by characteristics defined by the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Aid Assistance (2012), Choy (2002), and Horn and Carroll (1996). The incorporation of different instruments to measure motivation could also account for the contradictory results as different aspects of motivation were being measure.
The findings did support Müller and Louw’s (2004) finding that not all learning can be based exclusively on intrinsic motivation. It also supports the idea that not all types of extrinsic motivation are detrimental to academic performance (Kusurkar et al., 2013; Müller & Louw, 2004; Rothes et al., 2014; Ryan & Deci, 2000; Vallerand et al., 1992). Even though non-traditional freshmen students possessed higher levels of the extrinsic type of motivation, introjected (controlled), it supports the Self Determination Theory (SDT) as the participants possessed varying amounts and levels of motivation to obtain their desired academic success (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Individuals that are intrinsically motivated can likewise be extrinsically motivated by goals such as grades, rewards, or peer acceptance.
Finally, the findings indicated that after each of the three constructs of motivation was controlled for (separately), the non-traditional freshmen college students’ GPA was higher than the traditional freshmen college students for each of the motivational constructs: intrinsic, extrinsic, and amotivation. The results should be interpreted cautiously as there was not a linear relationship between each of the covariates (intrinsic, extrinsic, and amotivation) and the dependent variable, GPA. It is evident something happened in the data as seen by the mean differences of the two groups (traditional and non-traditional). However, other mediating factors such as gender or work (full-time vs. part-time) could be contributing to GPA other than intrinsic, extrinsic, or amotivation. Several studies posit that females outperform males academically (Ayub, 2010; Mirabela-Constanta & Maria-Madela, 2011). Work has also been shown to be a contributor to these group differences as students’ employment is an important factor as seen in Kim, Sax, Lee, and Hagedorn (2010) study. Other studies suggest that no matter which type of motivation a student possesses as long as it is high and it satisfies their needs, learning occurs which in turn produces better academic performance (Booth et al., 2013; Griffin et al., 2013).
The findings reinforce past research that shows higher education institutions play a vital role in motivating students (Booth et al., 2013; Griffin et al., 2013). Administration, faculty, advisors, and staff should continue to develop and implement academic programs that motivate and engage students in the learning process, targeted to traditional freshmen college students. Some students may not know how to turn their motivations into success and need additional guidance (Booth et al., 2013; Williams & Williams, 2011). Faculty directly play a major role in motivating and engaging college students. Professor’s knowledge of subject matter, enthusiasm for subject matter, a sense of humor, quality and differentiation of instruction, intellectual challenge, engagement in class, and assistance outside of class can all influence students’ motivation to achieve academic success (Williams & Williams, 2011). In this sense, faculty are at the core of the student experience.
Structured academic advising can assist students in finding their way through college. Advisors can ask questions that lead students to come up with their own ideas. By requiring students to reflect on the challenges at hand (college) and formulate solutions, they own their educational experiences. (Williams & Williams, 2011). Advisors can also encourage students to participate with peers in campus events and organizations and partake in educational activities that promote student learning and development. Advising combined with academic support services can also promote student success. Students perform better when motivated, and better the students perform, the more motivated they become (Afzal et al., 2010).
Utilizing the label of “traditional” student may no longer be necessary because of the rapid change in the undergraduate population at colleges and universities. Traditional students are no longer the majority (Advisory Committee on Student Financial Aid Assistance, 2012; U.S. Department of Education, Center for Postsecondary and Economic Success, 2011). Even though students are classified as non-traditional by age, not all of them possess other attributes of a non-traditional student such as full-time employment or part-time enrollment as well as students classified as traditional by age may possess attributes of the non-traditional student (Kim, 2002). As seen in the current study, 50% of the students in the traditional population possessed at least one attribute of the non-traditional student leaving 50% of the traditional population as a “true” traditional student as defined by the researcher supporting Kim’s (2002) point of not focusing on labeling or labels of students when developing and implementing programs to motivate and engage the freshmen college student.
For the “true” traditional population, academic and social support programs that accompany the institution’s mission and student characteristics can facilitate students’ adjustment to college by providing clear pathways to achieving college success (Kuh, Kinzie, Schuh, & Whitt, 2005). Institutional programs and practices should be aimed to meet the needs of students are they intend to reach (Kuh et al., 2005). Academic support programs like an early intervention warning system can help to identify and support traditional students who are at risk academically by providing a network of individuals, such as faculty, advisors, mentors, and peer support groups to address early adjustment difficulties (Kuh et al., 2005).
As mentioned earlier, classroom experiences can influence student growth and satisfaction with college. Students who are learning and applying new concepts and given stimulating assignments will ultimately be more academically (Williams & Williams, 2011). Institutions that provide active and collaborative learning approaches, increased hands-on projects, and incorporate peer involvement are more effective as these strategies promote student engagement. Therefore, institutions might find it beneficial to provide faculty development programs that help faculty to acquire these skills in the classroom to promote students’ motivation and learning.
Caution should be exercised in generalizing the findings to the larger population as this study focused on recruiting students from one state college located in Southwest Florida. The type of institution also limits the ability to generalize the results. The study site is an institution that offers mainly associate degrees, followed by certificate programs, and a few baccalaureate degrees). Community colleges undergraduate populations are made up of mainly non-traditional college students while undergraduate university populations are less than half (Advisory Committee on Student Financial Aid Assistance, 2012; Choy, 2002; Horn & Carroll, 1996). Therefore, generalizability to other Florida state colleges is possible but may be harder to generalize to community colleges or universities across the United States.
Another limitation revolved around the AMS scale as the labeling of the response format (i.e. 2 is between the label “Does not correspond at all” and “Corresponds a little”) did not directly correspond to a numeric choice. As a result, participants may not have interpreted the points in the same way which could increase measurement error.
With self-reported survey data, people are not always honest. In this case, students may want to present themselves as being highly motivated when they are not. GPA is commonly known to be an imperfect measure of student achievement (Lei, Basseri, & Schultz, 2001) as grade inflation is common. Therefore, using the end of semester GPAs to measure academic performance may not be an actual reflection.
Future research might focus on defining non-traditional population as having one or more of the characteristics of a non-traditional student as outlined by Horn and Carroll (1996). This would provide a more realistic description of the student population. It might also be beneficial to expand recruitment to include all freshmen courses so as to provide a more accurate picture of the undergraduate population. Furthermore, conducting qualitative studies can help to provide insight as to why traditional and non-traditional freshmen college students have higher or lower motivation and GPA is obtained as well as why they discontinue their education within the first year.
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Descriptive Statistics of the Study Population (N=252)
|Student Type: Traditional
|Ethnicity: Caucasian (white)
|Marital Status: Single
|Dependent Child/Parent: Yes
|Enrollment Status: Part-time (<12 hours)
Full-time (12 or more hours)
|Work Status: Part-time (<35 hours a week)
Full-time (35 or more hours)
Do not work
|Education: High School Diploma
|Living Accommodations: Home (with Parents)
On Campus (Dormitory)
|Income (primary source): Parents
Descriptive Statistics of the Study Population by Groups; Traditional (n=126) and Non-traditional (n=126)
Part-time (<12 hours)
Full-time (12 or more)
Part-time (<35 hours week)
Full-time (35 or more)
Do Not Work
High School Diploma
At Home (with Parents)
|Source||Sum of Squares||df||Mean Square||F||Sig.||Partial n2|
|Intrinsic Motivation (covariate)||.055||1||.055||.041||.840||.000|
|Extrinsic Motivation (covariate)||.007||1||.007||.005||.943||.000|
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