Learning about Design Part 1

This fortnight’s blog post comes a little early than usual as next weekend I will be away in Paris for a few days. I thought it was time to share with you my readings around learning design and considerations when applying it to informal learning. The concept of applying learning design to informal learning has started to grow due to the high numbers of registrations and dropouts for MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) whereas previously it only had momentum in paid for, for fee, accredited courses. For my doctorate I would like to apply the theories and concepts of formal learning design into the informal domain, such a comparative application will gain an understanding as to whether there are discrepancies in the application from formal to informal and what provisions need to be made. I’m starting with the recent explosion of MOOCs and then working my way back to the origins of learning design over the next few blog posts.


‘The planning of new educational institutions ought not to begin with the administrative goals of a principal or president, or with the teaching goals of a professional education, or with the learning goals of any hypothetical class of people. It must not start with the question, ‘What should someone learn?’ but with the question, ‘What kinds of things and people might learners want to be in contact with in order to learn?’

Illich (1971, p78)

In recent years the field of informal learning has brought to the forefront of media attention with the emergence of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) firstly through the advent of connectivist MOOCs or cMOOCs, followed a few years later by broadcast MOOCs or xMOOCs. delivered on large scale platforms such as Coursera, edX, and FutureLearn with Bates (2012) stating that the pedagogy of xMOOCs being mainly based on behaviourism not on connectivism, with Daniel (2012) adding that xMOOCs will soon be forced to modernise their pedagogy.

Though connectivism brings with it a wealth and range of learning materials through blogs, articles, internet sites, books and presentations, it isn’t necessarily a learning journey that has been designed. Kop and Hill (2008) argue that connectivism does not have the required criteria to be considered as a learning theory, though do not rule out that this may be the case in the future. Lange (2012) states that it is just a a mixture of a collection of learning theories that are in themselves already well established even if the concoction of them in this state is not.

xMOOCs may be a recent emergence in education, but connectivism began its own emergence in 2005, with the publishing of ‘Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age’ (Siemens 2005), stating its alternative to behaviourism, cognitivism, and constructivism and based on four principles:

  1. That learning consists of connecting nodes (Siemens 2005), not only is learning a consequence of connections, but also the connections themselves.
  2. That learning happens outside of the human mind including connections external to the learner such as information sources (Siemens 2006)
  3. That knowledge/concepts/beliefs are a pattern of connections (Downes 2006)
  4. That knowledge/concepts/beliefs are emergent in their nature, and can be unintentional learning or the development of a pattern by the learner. (Downes 2012)

Downes (2006) states that these four elements move through four stages of context, salience, emergence, and memory to be formed as knowledge. Illich (1971) had a utopian vision of self directed (non-directed) learning being formed from the high availability of resources (nodes), though this may now be more possible than ever with the ready availability of the internet to so many, the lack of learning design of a learning journey may have a serious implication to those that need strong yet subtle direction in order to remain motivation to learn to reach journey completion.

Though Mackness, Mak & Williams (2010) and Downes (2006, 2012) state that a successful network should provide the four characteristics of diversity, autonomy of participants, mechanisms of systems to allow interaction, and connections to be made between nodes, this says little for the design of the learning which even the most successful network may fail to achieve.

Whilst personalised learning may be of benefit and interest to a learner with a higher possibility for completion, the skills required to access, aggregate, remix, and repurpose and republish the learning may be beyond the learners digital literacy skill set.

Kop (2011), Kop, Fournier, and Mak (2011), and Mackness et al (2010) stated that the four main problems with successful learning of cMOOCs are:

  • Participants would need to be highly capable of self directing their own learning
  • The high level of diversity of learners can lead to a low level of connections being made (expertise, confidence, and clique interactions)
  • Lack of ability to relate the connections to the learning climate
  • Lack of care, mutual respect, and support

These problems could find their origins in motivation as learners would need to be highly motivated to self direct their own learning, motivated to seek out the connections in a highly diverse cohort of learners, motivation to relate the connections made to the climate, and motivation to create and maintain a more harmonious learning environment. Even in the high, possibly considered elite, demographic of MOOC learners, there is still the issue of motivation to consider and cater for in learning design to deliver ‘powerfully motivating and intense learning experiences’ (Osborne and Dillon, 2007)

Though MOOCs are new, research into informal learning is not. Scribner and Cole published work in 1973 theorising links between the relationship from informal to formal learning, and Resnick in her 1987 presidential address to the American Research Association raised learning outside of schools. Though it was the increase in accessibility to technology and internet connection that allowed for the increase in informal learning thus resulting in research into such settings and possible connections through to formal learning (Motiwalla 2007).

Prior to MOOCs there has been much debate as to the definition of informal learning (though the advent of MOOCs does not necessarily clarify this any further) as there are complex methodological and conceptual challenges that need much consideration (Hofstein and Rosenfeld, 1996 and Osborne and Dillon, 2007). Informal learning has largely gained its association through its location of learning settings and content, with Callanan, Cervantes, and Loomis (2011), and Sefton-Green (2004) stating that informal learning is that which takes place outside of school. Alternatively, Eshach (2007) and Laurillard (2009) view informal learning in terms of its structure and process in relation to the teacher and the student. Kerka (2000), Marsich and Watkins (2001), and Sefton-Green (2004) see informal learning as accidental, spontaneous, unpredictable, and for leisure learners. Bernstein (1971) theorised that informal learning be on a continuum in which a learner may frame, classify, and evaluate their knowledge as they progress. Laurillard alternatively theorised the learner being at the centre of the locus of control:

‘there is no teacher, no defined curriculum topic, or concept, and no external assessment. The informal learners selects their own ‘teacher’, who may be a peer, or may not be a person; they define their own ‘curriculum’, as what they are interested in learning about; and they choose whether to submit to ‘assessment’ by other.’

Laurillard (2009, p12.)

If this definition is to be considered for informal learning, the concept of being and staying motivated as a learner is even harder to achieve as there is no learning journey or learning design as the curriculum topic is not defined. In many respects the above definitive is closely related to the theory of connectivist learning, where the learners define their own curriculum and sought out peers for connections. This is solely created by the learner, so unless highly motivated and able to clearly navigate the landscape could hardly be deemed as ‘seamless learning’ (Rushby 2012) in the growing recognition in the relationship between informal and formal learning (Barron 2006) and the development of ‘informal learning practices’ (Furlong and Davies 2012):

‘…teachers and institutions, fearful of the disruptive (social) potentials of the contested technologies, do not immediately recognise or understand the increased repertoire of practices available to learners in their engagement with them. At the same time, learners remain mostly unaware of the wider educational potentials of these resources.’

Clark et al (2009, p.66)

There is also a belief that informal learning should be chunked, bitesize, or nuggeted:

‘Nuggets are primarily comprised of tasks that learners will undertake in a particular context in order to attain specific learning outcomes. Contextual elements include subject areas, level of difficulty, prerequisite skills or knowledge, and the environment within which the activity takes place. Declared aims and learning outcomes are addressed by a sequence of tasks, each of which may involve particular techniques, various roles and interactions, plus access to specified resources and associated tools. A task will take a prescribed length of time and may, or may not be assessed. Nuggets are, or should be, designed with a particular approach to learning and teaching in mind.’

Conole and Fill (2005)

What is important to note here is that the theory of nuggets do not necessarily have to be stand alone or isolated in nature, but instead have the affordability of being sequenced. The sequencing of such nuggets has proven in the research by Conole et al (2006) to be problematic in nature as the ordering of said sequences seem to be open to interpretation by the learner, especially in the online world, even if they were previously set by the teacher, with aversions being noted if the placed sequencing is deemed too strict by the learner.

It is important to question at this stage as to the motivation levels of the learner. Previously noted in a variety of literature that learners become demotivated if they are unable to understand or visualise the pathway or journey that they are on. However, if the pathway, journey, (or in the case above) sequence is too explicit then the learner will deviate from the planned learning which may result in a similar level of demotivation.

It is a difficult balance to achieve. Jenkins et al (2008) defined 12 skills necessary for learning; play, performance, simulation, appropriation, multitasking, distributed cognition, collective intelligence, judgement, transmedia navigation, networking, and negotiation. Not only must the learners be able to master these skills but the academic authors must create content that not only tests but develops these skills to maintain interest, motivation, and the achievement of learning outcomes. Reiguluth (2009) argues that learning design theory is different to that of descriptive theory, in that it should be goal oriented and normative. This reinforces that informal learning need to curriculum focused to a degree to ensure that learning outcomes and their associated goals can be identified and achieved.

Winograd (1996) argued that design isn’t a static noun, but instead an organic activity that evolves and develops, identifying design of the conscious process, design as a dialogue with materials, design as a creative process, design as a communicative process, and design as a social activity;

‘visual and functional languages of communication with the people who use an artifact. A design language is like a natural language, both in its communicative function and in its structure as an evolving system of elements and relationships among those elements’

Winograd (1996)

Gibbons and Brewer (2005) added that design language is a set of dimensions; complexity (the design being only a partial representation), precision (a tension between nature and specification), formality and standardisation (the importance of ensuring terms used mean the same to all learners), tension between personally and those shared publicly, tension between the implicit and the explicit, and the tension between standardisation and non-standardisation. Derntal et al (2008) sums up these dimensional tensions as;

‘On the one hand, solutions should be creative, effective and flexible; on the other hand, developers and instructors need precise guidance and details on what to do during development and implementation. Communication of and about designs is supported by design languages, some of which are conceptual and textual, and others more formal and visual.’

Designs should be created for the context in which they planned to be used, and also with the understanding of how the materials is to be learnt and the learning outcomes to be achieved. But importantly, designs should be static, they should carry the ability to be adapted, redesigned, and reused. As defined by Koper and Olivier (2004) learning design is ‘an application of a pedagogical model for a specific learning objective, target group and a specific context or knowledge domain’.

Conole (2010) identified six reasons as to the beneficial adoption of the learning design approach:

  1. A vehicle to elicit designs from academics in a format that can be tested and reviewed, with a common understanding and vocabulary.
  2. To possible reuse of content beyond simple sharing
  3. The guiding of individuals through the creation process
  4. The creation of an audit trail on design decisions
  5. The highlighting of need for staff development and resource
  6. Aiding the guidance of learners through complex activities in an activity sequence

This is closely aligned to the benefits outlined by Gibbons and Brewer (2005); improving the rate of progression, influencing designer concepts, making the design process explicit whilst improving  the design and its tools, and bringing design and production into alignment.

In design-based research methodology, whether the characteristics set by Reigeluth and An (2009), the course view map or the course dimensions view (Conole 2008), there is a repeating pattern in what Wang and Hannfin (2005) define as ‘a systematic, but flexible methodology aimed to improve educational practice through iterative analysis design, development, and implementation, based on collaboration between researcher and practitioners in real-world settings, and leading to contextually-sensitive design principles and theories’.


Bailey, C., Zalfan, M. T., Davis, H.C., Fill, K. & Conole, G. (2006). Panning for gold: designing pedagogically-inspired learning nuggets. Educational Technology and Society, 9(1), pp. 113-122.

Barron, B. (2006). Interest and self-sustained learning as catalysts of development: A learning ecology perspective. Human Development, 49, 193-224.

Bates, T. (2012). What’s right and what’s wrong about Coursera-style MOOCs? Accessed from http://www.tonybates.ca/2012/08/05/whats-right-and-whats-wrong-about-coursera-style-moocs/

Bernstein, B. (1971). Class, codes, and control: Theoretical studies towards a sociology of language. London, UK: Routledge & Keegan Paul.

Callanan, M., Cervantes, C., & Loomis, M. (2011). Informal learning. WIREs Cognitive Science, 2, 646-655

Clark, W., Logan, K., Luckin, R., Mee, A., & Oliver, M. (2009). Beyond web 2.0: Mapping the technology landscapes of young learners. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 25, 56-69. doi:10.111/j.1365-2729.2008.00305

Conole, G.C., & Fill, K. (2005). A toolkit for creating effective learning activities. Paper presented at EdMedia Conference,  June 27 – July 2, 2005, Montreal, Canada.

Conole, G. (2008). ‘Capturing practice: the role of mediating artefacts in learnng design’, in Handbook of Research on Learning Design and Learning Objects: Issues, Applications and Technologies, in L. Lockyer, S.Bennett, S. Agostinho, and B. Harper (Eds), 187-207, Hersey PA: IGI Global.

Conole, G. (2010). Learning design – Making practice explicit. In: ConnectEd 2010: 2nd International conference on Design Education, 28 June – 1 July 2010, Sydney, Australia.

Daniel, J. (2012). Making sense of MOOCs: Musings in a maze of myth, paradox and possibility. Seoul: Korean National Open University. Accessed from http://www.tonybates.ca/wp-content/uploads/Making-Sense-of-MOOCs.pdf

Derntl, M., Parish, P. and Botturi, L. (2008). Beauty and Precision in Instructional Design, Proceedings of the Edmedia conference 2008.

Downes, S. (2012). Learning Networks and Connective Knowledge. Access from http://itforum.coe.uga.edu/paper92/paper92.html

Downes, S. (2012). Connectivism and connective knowledge. Essays on meaning and learning networks. Accessed from http://www.downes.ca/files/books/Connective_Knowledge-19May2012.pdf

Eshach, H. (2007). Bridging in-school and out-of-school learning: Formal non-formal, and informal education. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 16, 171-190

Furlong, J., & Davie, C. (2012). Young people, new technologies and learning at home: Taking context seriously. Oxford Review of Education, 38, 45-62

Gibbons, A.S. and Brewer, E.K. (2005), Elementary principles of design languages and design notation systems for instructional design, 111-129, in J.M. Spector, C. Ohrazda, A. Van Schaack and D.A. Wiley (Eds), Innovations in instructional technology, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: Mahwah, NJ.

Hofsteinm A. & Rosenfeld, S. (1996). Bridging the gap between formal and informal science learning. Studies in Sciences Education, 28, 87-112.

Illich, I. (1971) Deschooling society. New York: Harper & Row

Jenkins, H., Clinton, K., Purushotma, R., Robison, A.J., & Weigel, M. (2006). Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. MacArthur Foundation. Accessed from http://digitallearning.macfound.org/atf/cf/(7E45C7E0-A3E0-4B89-AC9C-E807E1B0AE4E)/JENKINS_WHITE_PAPER.pdf

Kerka, S. (2000). Incidental learning. Trends and Issues Alert No. 18. Accessed from http://www.ericacve.org/fulltext.asp

Kop, R., Fournier, H., & Mak, J.S.F. (2011). A Pedagogy of abundance or a pedagogy to support human beings? Participant support on massive open online courses. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 12(7), 74-93

Kop, R., & Hill, A. (2008). Connectivism: Learning theory of the future or vestige of the past? International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 9(3), 1-13

Koper, R. and Olivier, B. (2004), Representing the Learning Design of units of learning, Education, Technology and Society, 7(3), 97-111

Lange, M. (2012). Talk: Connectivism. Accessed from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Connectivism

Laurillard, D. (2009). The pedagogical challenges to collaborative technologies. International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, 4(1), 5-20

Mackness, J., Mak, S.F.J., & Williams, R. (2010) The ideals and reality of participating in a MOOC. In Dirckinck-Holmfeld, L., Hodgson, V., Jones, C., de Laat, M., McConnell, D., & Ryberg, T. (Ed.), Proceedings of the 7th International Conference on Networked Learning 2010. Accessed from http://independent.academia.edu/JennyMackness/Papers/717072/The_ideals_and_reality_of_participating_in_a_MOOC

Marsich, V., & Watkins, K. (2001). Informal and incidental learning. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 89, 25-34

Motiwalla, L. (2007). A mobile learning framework and evaluation. Computers and Education, 49, 581-596

Osborne, J., & Dillon, J. (2007). Research on learning in informal contexts: Advancing the field? International Journal of Science Education, 29, 1441-1445

Reigeluth, C.M. (2009), Instructional theory for education, 387-399, in C.M. Reigeluth and A.A. CArr-Chellman (Eds), Instructional-design theories and models – building a common knowledge base, Volume III, RoutledgeFalmer: Oxford.

Reigeluth, C.M. and An, Y. (2009). Theory building, 385-386, in C.M. Reigeluth and A.A. CArr-Chellman (Eds), Instructional-design theories and models – building a common knowledge base, Volume III, RoutledgeFalmer: Oxford.

Resnick, L. (1987). Learning in school and out. Educational Researcher, 16(9), 13-20, 54.

Rushby, N. (2012). Editorial: An agenda for mobile learning. British Journal of Educational Technology, 43, 355-356

Scribner, S., & Cole, M. (1973). Cognitive consequences of formal and informal education. Science, 182(4112), 553-559

Sefton-Green, J. (2004). Literature review in informal learning with technology outside school. Accessed from http://www.futurelab.org.uk/research/lit_reviews.htm

Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, 2(1). Accessed from http://www.itdl.org/Jornal/Jan_05/article01.htm

Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism: Learning as network creation. Accessed from http://www.elearnspace.org/Articles/networks.htm

Siemens, G. (2006). Connectivism: Learning theory or pastime for the self-amused? Accessed from http;//www.elearnspace.org/Articles/connectivism_self-amused.htm

Wang, F. & Hannafin, M. (2005). Design-based research and technology-enhanced learning environments, Educational Technology Research and Development, 53(4), 5-23

Winograd, T. (1996), Bringing design to software, AddisonWiley: New York

Still Motivated to Learn?

This fortnight I have continued with my reading on motivation of students, again my frustration has continued with the limited papers available on the motivation of learners in a non/informal learning environment, so with the previous blog post I have been reading about motivation in formal teaching for students and applied it to non/informal learning.


What is important to understand about motivation and students, is that there are many types of motivation and many types of student. The difficulty in applying such principles to informal learners is that the consideration to scale and scope must be given. It is not possible to individually support learners, such as within a formal setting with students, so instead more automated needs are called upon which may not be relevant to some learning styles.

Makinen et al (2004) state that there are three groups of students based on their approaches to day-to-day study:

  • Study orientated students – ‘place genuine importance on the contents of studying…[and]…also appreciate the social elements of studying, such as student parties and peer interaction’.
  • Work-life orientated students – ‘have already taken a mental step toward their future work career…they belittle the meaning of student life ad highlight the importance of careful planning of studying in order to graduate fast’.
  • Non-committed students – ‘unclear study orientation. High anxiety also distinguishes these students who are still clarifying the personal meaning of study’.

Miller et al (1999) make links between the value of study and motivation:

‘learning goal scores were positively related to intrinsic valuing scores…individuals interested in increasing competence and knowledge tended to experience enjoyment and satisfaction in their learning. However…experiencing enjoyment and satisfaction from school tasks was also related to perceiving those school tasks as instrumental to personally valued future goals, despite the substantial amount of shared variance between learning goals and perceived instrumentality…experiencing intrinsic satisfaction depends in part on perceiving the activity as instrumental to attaining personally valued future goals.’

Miller et al (1999)

What is demonstrated here is that the creation of a link between the long term aims and the short term tasks has a positive impact on the value of the task and therefore any subsequent motivations. It is possible to consider that a lack or absence of a link between the two could diminish or remove any form of motivation.

‘future goals represent important incentives for present action, but only when current tasks are perceived as instrumental to attainment of those future goals’

Miller et al (1999)

Rhodes and Nevill (2004) take this concept one step further and instead of the identification of an ‘end goal’ they instead state that the presence and absence of ‘satisfiers’ and ‘disatisfiers’ will have an impact on motivation. Satisfiers include; the achievement of academic success, securing career prospects, intellectually challenging, ability to cope, high level of control. Disatisfiers include; study/life balance, ability to cope, assessment techniques, other student’s views, society’s views of students.

Rhodes and Nevill (2004) discovered that students were equally motivated by ‘knowledge acquisition’ and ’empowerment in the job market’ which draw once again upon the earlier discussion by Miller that there needs to be a link between long term aims and short term tasks.

Siefert (2004) identifies four psychological theories of motivation which could be applied to a learning context:

  • Self-efficacy theory states that motivation is located within individuals confidence levels, in that if the belief is there to achieve a task or challenge then engagement with the task is more likely. Students who are more efficacious and essentially capable are more likely to be self-regulating in nature, and participative in nature when addressing study activities, including those thought to be beyond their skill set, believing that they are able to successfully undertake the challenge.
  • Attribution theory inquires into the ways in which individuals perceived causes to outcomes, or create explanations on an individual basis as to why events result in certain outcomes. The attributions created may have positive or negative emotions attached to it, which can in turn determine future behaviours and calls to action when addressing further challenges. The attributions to scenarios made are individual to a learner and can be influenced by a number of factors including the learner’s level of self-efficacy, with highly efficacious people more likely to internalise explanations and those less confidence opting for more ‘external’ causes to their explanations. Siefart states that there are three elements to attribution; the locus of causality, stability of the cause, and controllability of the cause.
  • Self worth theory has a clear link to motivation in the learner’s ability to enhance and maintain self-worth. The framework assumes that self worth is required for basic every day functionality, and defined as ‘judgement one makes about one’s sense of worth and dignity as a person’ which is often connected to performance. In the field of learning, self worth is associated with the ability to perform tasks which results in pride and self esteem. Failure due to low effort can result in guilt, whilst failure due to high effort can result in humiliation and shame. This links back to the theory of the ‘strategic student’ as a balance is required to become ‘failure avoidant’ whilst maintaining self worth, though may be ill conceived as ‘failure avoidant’ students are more likely to strive to look competent but without investing the motivation into their own abilities and motivation above that of strategic worth.
  • Achievement goal theory is similar to the research by Makinen in that it states that academic motivation is the attempt to achieve goals, whilst behaviours used are those that are required to achieve the relevant goals. Such learners would have high levels of self regulation and self determination and are more likely to achieve cognitive development with the understanding that effort is strongly linked to success and/or failure and enjoy the challenge that learning brings whilst accepting responsibility for their efforts. If confidence in their abilities is high then they are more likely to demonstrate adaptive behaviours than those with low confidence who demonstrate maladaptive behaviours.

Seifert goes on to suggest that these four theories are by no means exclusive and it fact it may be possible for the four theories to interact with perceptions of a learner’s self worth impacting on their motivations regarding performance goals, and those motivated by performance goals may demonstrate failure avoidant tendencies. What links all four theories together is the understanding or sense of self, but what effects all four theories is the learner’s willingness to take responsibility for their own actions with regards to learning, which though results in confidence also requires it to achieve the challenges to generate it.

‘For students to develop into healthy, adaptive and constructive individuals, it is imperative to foster feelings of competence and control. Previous research has suggested that the teacher-student interaction is the critical factor in fostering a sense of competence and autonomy’

Seifert (2004)

It is important to draw from the theories discussed above that there is a link between that of the role of an individual’s own goals with their of their awareness or capability to achieve them. The strand that connects these two elements together is that of meaning. Miller et all (1999) state that only if students perceive such links then they will be truly motivated to achieve long term goals.

‘Perceived meaning is important in motivating behaviour. The mastery student is able to find meaning in the work. If students do not find the work meaningful and tend to make external attributions, then work avoidance may develop. To this point, however little attention has been paid to meaning in studies of academic motivation…If students do not understand what it is they are supposed to do, then they may not be able to discern the relevance of the topic. Likewise, if students do not feel capable of understanding the topic, they may not find the work meaningful.’

Seifert (2004)

As discussed earlier it is important that the ‘perceived meaning’ is not that only associated with grades, but instead the knowledge and skills created and developed in the engagement with academic studies required to achieve such grades. Breen (1999) discovered that motivation is linked to the desire to gain high grades and the interest in the subject matter from which the marks are gained. Breen also added that the importance of the involvement with the culture around which the subject is studied is influential in the aforementioned two factors. In the attainment of high marks Macdonald (2002) suggests that the problem with exams may not be the examinations themselves, rather the students perceptions of what is required in preparation for the examinations and the negative connotation that examinations are for testing knowledge, rather than the positive connotation that examinations can boost subject knowledge through targeted study. Upon gaining their results students will then self-evaluate (Jackson 2003) their marks against the effort invested and could in turn produce either vicious or virtuous cycles of motivation in future study.

For learners in the informal domain, they have additional external pressures not normally felt by traditional residential campus based student, such as balancing work and a family in conjunction with their learning. Such a presence of external pressures can have an additional impact on their achievements as it has a direct correlation to motivation in light of conflicting priorities and should be taken in consideration in comparison to their more tradition student counterparts:

‘Students have considerable free time to plan their own study time and they can choose whether to spend their time on study or other activities. Therefore progress in higher education depends on student’s disciplines to study regularly’

Janson (2004)

However studies by Halbesleben et al (2003) suggest that a number of tutors had the sense that many of their students do not allocate enough of their time to their academic studies.

Previously when reviewing papers on gamification Csikszentmihalyi’s (1975) concept of ‘flow’ was examined, Despaul et al (2004) suggest that with regards to motivation a ‘flow state’ can be achieved for ‘optimal experiences’ through high challenges and high skill requirements. Like with Csikzentmihalyi, Despaul also states that there needs to be a balance within the flow state otherwise boredom (low challenge/high skills) or anxiety (high challenge/low skills) can occur. Despaul also states that the flow state can be effected by contextual and external factors such as setting and social environment.

‘while activation was highest at home and alone, the optimal mental states were reached in social situations….engagement in study is not intrinsically motivating and will be minimised to maximise social activities and pursue more motivating activities’

Despaul et al (2004)

Lizzio and Wilson (2004) also argue that skills are key to aiding motivation, ‘…the value students place on capabilities is the key factor in influencing their level of motivation for further development’. They found that student beliefs about skills varied depending on gender, subject, career plans, age and life experience. However in their studies, students identified six areas of skill requirement:

  • written communication and literacy
  • communication and leadership
  • disciplinary/professional
  • problem-solving
  • conceptual thinking and organisational membership
  • personal responsibility

‘students rated all skill areas (except written communication) as more relevant to their future work than their present course of study. Students appear to perceive the ‘world of work’ as demanding a greater range of skills than academic study’

Lizzio and Wilson (2004)

What is important to draw from this is the understanding that identification and development of skills is important to career opportunities which throughout the literature is a repeating factor in respect to motivation. However, as previously encountered in the literature a strongly weighted preoccupation towards career related performance can have a negative impact in daily motivation if the links aren’t created between the development of learning and skills with that of the long term career aspirations. However, we mustn’t lose sight of those that learn without association to career progression:

‘Learning for learning’s sake is something we should criticise very warily. People want to learn simply because learning is wonderful… You get a taste for learning and then you want to learn even more’.

Kim Howells (quoted in Smithers 2004)

Breen (1999) suggests that students will often select subjects due to a sense of affinity for the academic content and its associated culture, and the access of which would greatly enhance motivation.

What has become increasing clear from the literature is that motivation is strongly tied to outcome, but the associations linked to the outcome such as knowledge developed, skills acquired and refined, student culture, etc. are not necessarily identified by students as important to the outcome. The forging of such understanding may, as the literature suggests, have a greater impact on student motivation.


Breen, R. (1999). Student motivation and conceptions of disciplinary knowledge. Paper presented at the HERDSA Annual International Conference, Melbourne, Australia, July 1999.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1975). Beyond boredom and anxiety. San Francisco, CA: Josey-Bass

Despaul, P.A.E.G., Reis, H.T., and de Vries, M.W. (2004). Ecological and motivational determinants of activation: studying compared to sports and watching TV. Social Indicators Research 67. 129-143

Halbelsleben, J.R. B., Becker, J.A.H., and Buckley, M.R. (2003). Considering the labor contributions of students: An alternative to the student-as-customer metaphor. Journal of Education for Business. 78 (5). 255-257

Jackson, C. (2003). Transitions into higher education: gendered implications for academic self-concept. Oxford Review of Education 29 (3). 331-346

Jansen, E.P.W.A. (2004). The influence of the curriculum organisation on study progress in higher education. Higher Education 47, 411-435.

Lizzio, A. and Wilson, K. (2004). First-year students’ perceptions of capability. Studies in Higher Education 29 (1), 109-128

Macdonald, J. (2002). ”Getting it together and being put on the spot”. synopsis, motivation and examination. Studies in Higher Education 27 (3). 329-337

Makinen, J., Olkinuora, E., and Lonka, K. (2004). Students at risk: students’ general study orientations and abandoning/prolonging the course of studies. Higher Education 48, 173-188

Miller, R.B., DeBacker, T. and Greene, B.a. (1999). Perceived instrumentality and academics: the link to task valuing. Journal of Instructional Psychology 26 (4). 250-260

Rhodes, C. and Nevill, A. (2004). Academic and social integration in higher education: a survey of satisfaction and dissatisfaction within a first year education studies cohort at a new university. Journal of Further and Higher Education 28 (2). 179-193

Seifert, T. L. (2004). Understanding student motivation. Educational Research 46 (2). 137-149

Smithers (2004). Learn for joys not just jobs says new minister. The Guardian 24 September 2004

Motivation, Motivation, Motivation

I’ve decided to make a slight change to my blogging format, and start blogging fortnightly instead of weekly, not because there is a change in my motivation levels (which would be ironic considering that is the theme of my papers recently), but so I can read more and reflect more in a fortnightly post than a weekly one. Definite method to the motivational madness.

The last few weeks I have been reading papers on motivation. Frustratingly there aren’t that many papers on motivation for non-formal study (not for credit), but there are plenty on formal study (for credit). So I have been reflecting on how to reframe the themes, theories, and issues from the papers that I have been reading on formal study and deliberating how they would apply to non-formal study. This work has helped me to create my interview questions for my preparation work for my initial study.


What has come to the forefront in the researching of reasons for lack of motivation and withdrawal from studies, is that there is not one common issue. If that were so, then the issue would be focused upon and resolved, and motivation and retention related papers would not be required. A number of papers also focus on reoccurring ‘what went right’ themes in motivated and successful students, instead of focusing on ‘what went wrong’ in demotivated students.

A number of results have been researched based on the self-perception of the students, but what is crucial is the lack of discourse around the skills required to be successful in education. A reoccurring pattern is that the students see that the marker of the education (e.g. grades achieved) is the success criteria for obtaining gainful employment in the future, and seem to be blindsided by the knowledge gained, or the transferability of the skills obtained whilst studying into employment and daily life.

What is clear is that there are ‘long term’ motivations to studying at higher education level (such as employment and career opportunities) and and there are ‘short term’ motivations (such as daily study schedules). The ‘short term’ motivations, could be, for all intents and purposes, in a state of flux. Dependent on grades, feedback, subject material covered, etc. a students motivations in the short term could vary due to these factors. Because of this flux, there has been an emergence of what is considered the ‘strategic student’ or a term coined by OU students ‘the 40% rule’. These particular students lack short term motivations, and instead study at the minimal level required to obtain a pass score. The concern with such students is that a high level of resource may be required to maneuver them beyond this mindset, that the students would need to be able to respond to feedback to increase their scores, become immersed in the subject material instead of skim reading it, and understanding the skills developed (personal and academic) whilst studying are just as important as a pass grade.

What became clear from the literature read, is that there is very little on identifying the expectations of a student upon dropping out from higher education. There was a repeating pattern of ‘the course isn’t what I expected’ though there is little follow up questioning as to what the student did expect from the course. This is a key criteria in understanding not only the student’s expectations, but also the academic’s expectations upon authoring and presenting the course. Who is at fault here? Is it the student’s for not understanding the requirements of the course? The academic’s for not delivering what the course stipulated? Or the marketing and recruitment of students in possible misrepresenting the course?

What is important to remember is that the student and learner population is exceptionally diverse so the understanding of the reasons for drop out from learning may not be homogeneous in nature, though if patterns can be detected then intervention scenarios can be planned and actioned. Christie et al (2004) discovered from their research that there was no single ‘tipping point’ reason for students to withdraw from their studies, with the course not being what the student expected as a common denominator in responses provided. Though as stated previously, that this response without further investigation is almost meaningless. What was important from Christie el al’s study was that students continually misunderstood or misrepresented their own academic difficulties with the course.

Thomas (2002) identified a number of external pressures that could have an impact on the decision to withdraw from study, such as balancing studying with a job to assist in educational expenses which is related to another cited pressure of financial hardship.

The other reoccurring factor is more intangible, not only in the ability to identify and quantify it, but also in the ability to counter it – the feeling of belonging and fitting in.

‘…the extent to which the decision to continue in the face of financial (and other) difficulties is intrinsically related to the quality of relationships with other students, tutors, and support staff, and to the extent to which students feel they ‘belong’ to the university.’ 

Christie et al (2004)

Breen (1999) identified three further dimensions in addition to ‘levels of inclusiveness’ to aid the quality of learning and teaching, they are; curricula coherence and sequencing, connecting learning and understanding to other areas of study, and development of critical perspective in students. Braxton et al (2000) believed that the social integration for students to feel part of a university, must begin the classrooms of schools as a ‘gateway’ to acquiring such skills in preparation for further education.

But as discussed, the concept of fitting in, isn’t an isolated one, consideration to the expectations of the course must be given the same level of attention.

‘It is plausible that many students enter Higher Education with ill conceived ideas of what it really means to study their discipline in their chosen university. If this is taken to be true, then a discrepancy exists between expectations (and motivations) and experiences, this will undoubtedly lead to withdrawal, failure or the development of inappropriate approaches to learning.’

Breen (1999)

The real conundrum for The Open University, is how can an purely online environment be created that allows non-formal learners to feel that they fit in or belong to? Is this possible? Where a non-formal learner becomes a formal student, they are presented with their allocated tutor group forum of approximately 20 students and a dedicated tutor.

‘the basis for the development of a common set of student dispositions, or something like a ‘student habitus’…the unique residential tradition of the British university, although decreasing in importance, is a framework which nurtures and perpetuates these specific student dispositions. This framework, extending to shared student housing, halls, the library, the laboratory and the lecture theatre creates, a ‘special time and place’ with its atmosphere of deference and inquiry which, temporarily, sets students apart from the non-student world…’

Chatterton (1999)

In the instance of non-formal learning, the learner does not have these online social benefits, and with OpenLearn attracting circa 5 million learners a year, how could this community be created and maintained?

‘those students who do not live in ‘student’ accommodation…are more likely to feel marginalised from their peers, and thus that they occupy a lower position’

Thomas (2002)

There is also a distinct gap between the level of understanding and learning required at A’level to that of at Higher Education level. For the required outcome to be achieved students would need to understand ‘what needs to be learnt, and why’ (Chan 2001). This would require the development of active learning skills, which according to Braxton et al (2000) ‘enhances student knowledge and understanding’. Chan (2001) states that this level of active learning can only be achieved from an ongoing dialogue;

‘…autonomous learning experiences do not automatically turn dependent learners into autonomous ones. Frequent consultations with the students over the approach to their autonomous study are thus necessary….[and]…regular student-teacher dialogue.’

Chan (2001)

The difficulty in appreciating this viewpoint is that in the paradigm of non-formal learning, the student-teacher dialogue is at best uni-directional and based almost entirely on automated feedback structured upon predicted learner scenarios. In this situation, it is perceived that more groundwork would have to be given in the preparation of developing the skill set of autonomy in learners;

‘Learners autonomy is essentially concerned with decision making on the learner’s part…the locus of control and responsibility lies in the hands of the individual learner…the autonomous learner excepts responsibility for his/her own learning and is able to take charge of the learning, determine objectives, select methods and techniques and evaluate what has been acquired. He/she is expected to be able to make significant decisions about what is to be learnt, how and when…assuming greater responsibility for his/her learning…the autonomous learner establishes a personal agenda for learning…He/she (with or without the teacher’s help) is expected to be actively involved in the setting of goals, defining of content and working out evaluation mechanisms for assessing achievement and progress.’

Chan (2001)

Formative feedback can be very beneficial in developing an autonomous learner, but as stated above this would be automated in nature in the situation of non-formal learners as to opposed to formal students. Research by Yorke (LS1, 114-5) indicated that not only is formative feedback a valuable learning tool, but it can also aid student retention. It may be possible though to achieve formative feedback in this manner as Ridley (2004) demonstrates students ability to ‘access, interpret and evaluate information from electronic sources.’. Such formative dialogue is crucial for learners to see beyond just achieving the required marks as a matter of priority, and to develop and understanding that feedback and the ability to analyse it is just as much a part of the learning process.

One of the reoccurring themes of literature related to student motivation is that of ‘student centred’ learning, the theory being that if a student is at the centre they are more likely to enjoy the experience and continue with it. Johnson (LS1, 17) counters this by stating that such approaches are only valid to those students with the confidence of being at the centre, and those with little confidence would find such an approach as isolating and demotivating.

It is entirely plausible from the use of the theories and issues above that a student may strategically choose to develop what is known as ‘surface approaches’ (Prosser et al 2003) in that;

‘students who reported adopting surface approaches…perceive the teaching to be poorer, the goals and standards to be less clear, the workload to be too high and the assessment to be testing reproduction’

Prosser et al (2003)

What is difficult to address is that students are adopting ‘strategic student’ and ‘surface approaches’ even when the courses that they are studying are for credit and at a cost. Non-formal learners are not studying for credit and at little or no cost – does this mean that this pattern of behaviour is higher in its prevalence or re-occurrence, or that it is more or less easy to readdress?

‘With regard to friends and peers…research found that these were often the first source of advice and support for students that were considering leaving university. Local students that continued to reside at home felt that they missed out on being able to access this type of advice.’

UFNE (2001)

So what type of action needs to be taken with non-formal learners to guide them through the learning process? How will the learners know when to ask for advice, or how with the platform or system know when to display such advice when learners do or don’t know when to ask for it?

‘The challenge for universities has always been to reconcile its view that of the students to ensure that both get something from the relationship’

Corcoran (2002)

Non-formal learners enter a university system such as OpenLearn via not-for-credit learning and bring with them the perceptions of their previous study. When, for example, such learners were at school, the discourse available to them was more freely accessible than that of the online, with learners expected by their academic peers to develop skills to reflect, analyse, and respond to difficulties in their learning environment. However, students and learners may associate university teaching with knowledge and not skill development, so may struggle with this change in a more autonomous environment, which would impact on their levels of motivation.

‘the nature of an individuals’s internal forces and the extent to which they define external goals and direct the individual towards them…a problem is encountered when attempting to characterise the learning environment within which the student is oriented in order to establish towards what they are oriented’

Breen (1999)

An interesting paper by Makinen et al can be applied from students directly to learners;

‘Due to the voluntary nature of higher education, one might imagine that motivational problems would not exist among university students. It is sometimes happens, however that students whose study orientation is not clear gain access to university…because of their ambiguous orientation, they are unable to follow the typical course of studying…often the first signals of these kinds of problems are very implicit and students’ intentions to drop out surprise their fellow students, family members, and even close friends.’

Makinen et al (2004)

The barriers to entry and exit of non-formal learning are as such that they are even lower and more voluntary than that of formal study. What is important to take from the literature by Makinen is that both students and learners require a clear orientation. The more pertinent question being, is in non-formal learning is that an orientation that is created by the learner or presented by the university? In creating the orientation themselves, would a learner be more or less committed to it than if it was presented to them?

‘…how students see the meaning of and how they locate themselves in relation to their university studies as a whole…i.e. what is their general study orientation’

Makinen et al (2004)

What this review of literature has demonstrated that even with the high stakes associated with formal university study, students have difficulty with their levels of motivation. What is currently unclear from literature is the spectrum of motivation that applies to non-formal learners and to whether there is an increase in motivational issues in relation to the decrease in barriers to exit.


Braxton, J.M., Milen, J.F. and Sullivan, A.S. (2000). The influence of active learning on the college student departure process: towards a revision of Tinto’s theory. Journal of Higher Education. 71 (5). 569-590

Breen, R. (1999). Student motivation and conceptions of disciplinary knowledge. Paper presented at the HERDSA Annual International Conference, Melbourne, Australia, July 1999.

Chan, V. (20001) Learning autonomously: the learner’s perspective. Journal of Further and Higher Education 25 (3). 285-300

Chatterton, P. (1999). University students and city centres – the formation of exclusive geographies. The case of Bristol, UK. Geoforum. 30. 117-133

Christie, H., Munro, M. and Fisher, T. (2004). Leaving university early: exploring the differences between continuing and non-continuing students. Studies in Higher Education 29 (5). 617-636

Corcoran, P. (2002). Students and universities: a dysfunctional relationship. Paper presented at the ATEM/AAPPA Conference, Canberra, August 2002.

Makinen, J., Olkinuora, E., and Lonka, K. (2004). Students at risk: students’ general study orientations and abandoning/prolonging the course of studies. Higher Education 48, 173-188

Prosser, M., Ramsden, P., Trigwell, K. and Martin, E. (2003). Dissonance in experience teaching and its relation to the quality of student learning. Studies in Higher Education 28 (1). 37-48

Ridley, D. (2004). Puzzling experiences in higher education: critical moments for conversation. Studies in Higher Education 29 (1). 91-107

Thomas, L. (2002). Student retention in higher education: the role of institutional habitus. Journal of Education Policy. 17 (4). 423-442

UFNE (2001). Student Retention, Support and Widening Participation in the North East of England. Universities for the North East, Newcastle.