Might different types of motivation for going to university influence student mental health?
Intrinsic motivation has been described as the ‘inherent tendency to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise one’s capabilities, to explore, and to learn’.1 Students who go to university primarily to continue their learning and development and to be intellectually challenged and stimulated are therefore intrinsically motivated.
Research suggests that intrinsically motivated students tend to adjust better to university life and report lower levels of stress.2 While research in Australia suggests that students who are intrinsically motivated reported more satisfaction and meaning in life.3
This links with what the University Mental Health Charter describes as deep learning i.e. ‘students engage deeply with their subject, motivated by their passion or interest, reading widely, connecting what they have learned to previous learning and seeking understanding’ – gaining meaning and fulfilment from their academic study, and potentially better wellbeing.4
In their exploration of self-determination theory, Ryan and Deci describe being intrinsically motivated as the natural state in all children.1 However, there are concerns that school teachers have been expected to spend too much time teaching children how to pass tests rather than encouraging wider learning, growth and development.5 Fortunately, changes to the Ofsted inspection framework in 2019 include checking there is provision for ‘learners’ broader development, enabling them to develop and discover their interests and talents‘ - potentially increasing future student wellbeing.6
Extrinsic motivation means doing an activity not because of an inherent interest in the activity itself, but to achieve a distinct separate outcome.1 For example, students who go to university primarily to help them get a job or earn more money in a future career can be said to be extrinsically motivated i.e. their study is a means to an end, rather than an end it itself.
The extrinsic end itself may, of course, be very altruistic, such as a desire to become a doctor or nurse to help and care for others or to secure a good job to help support younger siblings.7
However, extrinsic motivation may lead to what the University Mental Health Charter describes as surface learning. Because students are learning as a means to an end, they are, ‘more likely to skip over the surface of the subject, focusing only on what they need to know, to get the grade they want, with the minimum amount of effort…to seek to regurgitate material rather than understand it.’ According to the Charter, fewer opportunities to gain meaning and understanding is less beneficial for wellbeing.
Amotivation, has been described as an absence of motivation, a state where behaviours are non-regulated and non-intentional.2 For example, students who go to university primarily because their families and schools expect them to, are arguably amotivated i.e. they aren’t going because of either an intrinsic desire to learn or an extrinsic desire to achieve another objective, like getting a job.
Students who are amotivated may be particularly vulnerable to mental distress. One study, for instance, notes that amotivated behaviour led to worse psychosocial adjustment to university, higher levels of perceived stress and greater psychological distress.2
In practice, motivations may be mixed - for instance, both a genuine interest in learning and also a desire to pursue a particular career. So more research is probably needed on the implications for mental health.
Your feedback will be welcome
I’d welcome other researchers’ views on motivation and mental health – including how it may link to other factors influencing student mental health.
Researcher, Student Mental Health project team, Health Action Campaign
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