Study of Motivation Guides Academic Work
AnneMarie Conley, Ph.D
Assistant Professor

Irvine, Calif., June 1, 2009

“How can I motivate my students?” It’s a question we hear often from teachers, but it implies that students lack motivation. Assistant Professor AnneMarie Conley explains why it doesn’t make sense:

Students are motivated; they just aren’t always motivated to do what we want when we want it. Trying to do the least amount of work possible and still get by is motivation. Copying another student’s homework to get the points is motivated behavior. In neither case should we say the students aren’t motivated, but these aren’t the kinds of orientations toward learning that we want to encourage. To understand motivation in the classroom, we need to ask not whether they are motivated, but how.

Dr. Conley is an educational psychologist who researches how students are motivated to learn. As an undergraduate at UC Berkeley and a graduate student in the Combined Program in Education & Psychology at the University of Michigan, she has investigated how the will to learn develops during adolescence, and how this motivation influences how much students learn and achieve. She earned her Ph.D. in developmental and educational psychology in 2007 and came to UCI in July of that year as an Assistant Professor of Education in the Learning, Cognition, and Development area.

Dr. Conley’s work in Orange County schools dates back to 2003, when she started working as a graduate student on a large motivation grant awarded to Paul Pintrich and Martin Maehr of the University of Michigan by the National Science Foundation. This project (Math Science Partnership – Motivation Assessment Program, MSP-MAP) worked with other math and science reform sites throughout the country to help them measure, understand, and improve student motivation. One $6 million math project was near Dr. Conley’s hometown in Orange County, California. “I knew these schools,” she explains. “This was a place where we could study motivation among diverse learners—linguistically, economically, and ethnically diverse learners.” The principal investigators on the project (TASEL-M: wanted to improve motivation. She continues:

So I started talking with PIs Dianne DeMille of the Orange County Department of Education and David Pagni of Cal State Fullerton on my trips home from Michigan to meet about what a collaboration could look like. No one was sure what would come of it, but it seemed like we could do good work together.

The following year Dr. Conley was awarded a one-year dissertation fellowship to conduct a set of studies on motivation with diverse learners and in the context of high-stakes tests. For her dissertation, she planned to survey a handful of students from randomly selected classes from the Orange County project.

Dr. Conley’s small dissertation project quickly became not-so-small. The motivation surveys were given to every math student in TASEL-M schools (7 middle school, 7 high schools). This amounted to 1 ton (literally) of 10-page surveys for each round of data collection.

The Kinkos vans delivering our surveys had to make multiple trips; they were too low to the ground with so many surveys. We turned my parents’ house into research central with walls of boxes. We had one day to collect all the data from a school—up to 2,000 students in some cases. To get the required army of research assistants, I recruited undergrads from local colleges, my three brothers and their college friends, and even my mother and uncle. My husband assembled research materials well past midnight every night for two weeks. It really was a family affair.

Seven waves of data collection and 55,000 surveys later, the motivation and math achievement database represents one of the largest studies of motivation ever done. Though most of the students in the project have graduated from school, research assistants continue to link across waves of the data to study how motivation changes over time. To study the long-term effects of motivation, Dr. Conley and her research group at UCI still follow the youngest cohorts of students to gather their achievement and test score data.

Dr. Conley’s current research areas involve the Orange County motivation project. Her first research area focuses on measurement in a set of studies that test whether measures of motivation function in similar ways across diverse groups. She explains, “If our surveys are interpreted in different ways as a function of culture or English proficiency, then it doesn’t make sense to compare average levels of motivation across groups.”

A second research area looks across many kinds of motivation beliefs to identify types of students who differ in the way they approach, experience, and benefit from learning situations. Here she takes a person-centered approach to find subgroups of students who may require different types of intervention from teachers and schools to support adaptive motivation.

A third research area looks at the effects of teachers and the classroom environment on students’ motivation and achievement. She explains:

We know some classes are more competitive and that some teachers are more effective at helping students see the value in what they are learning. With the rich data collected from complete classrooms and schools we can tease apart individual effects from classroom and teacher effects.

Research assistants in Dr. Conley’s Motivation Research Group here at UCI work on a variety of projects related to motivation during adolescence—looking at GATE students, English Learners, or the effects of culture on the development of motivation.

Dr. Conley is excited to have found a home as part of the faculty in UCI’s Department of Education where she can pursue collaborations with Orange County schools as part of a vibrant research community: “I have an outstanding group of students to work with here and all the resources the university and UC system have to offer. Since July 2007, I haven’t had to use my parents’ living room for research once.”