Motivation, Self-Regulated Learning, and Graduate Education

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I have been working on revising our grad handbook, and leading some revisions to our graduate curriculum this year in my role as grad studies chair. One process I looked at was the end of the year report. We have grad students submit annual evaluations. These annual evaluations were used to give students a rating of “satisfactory”, “excellent”, or “unsatisfactory”. Starting next year, to be in line with the OSU grad school, we are changing the ratings slightly so that they are “reasonable progress”, “excellent”, and “warning”. As part of this change, I wrote up some guidelines for what reasonable and excellent progress might look like for graduate students.  My thinking was that students might want to see what would be needed to achieve these categories. My colleagues reacted negatively, in particular, to the “excellent” progress guidelines.  Thus, I began to reflect on this question – what motivates graduate students?

photo credit: angietorres via photopin cc

photo credit: angietorres via photopin cc

I started my search for the answer with a search of the literature. I  found almost nothing on motivation or self-regulated learning among graduate students. Indeed, it seemed that there was virtually no literature on the topic. Lucky for me, I have two new fabulous colleagues in my college that are experts in self-regulated learning – Chris Wolters and Shirley Yu. I had coffee with both of them, and they agreed with my assessment – there was virtually no research on motivation and graduate students.

Thus, I was on my own. I discussed with both Chris and Shirley about strategies that work with regard to grad students and motivation. The first thing I learned was that intrinsic motivation is much better for achievement than extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation exists within the self, and stems from a personal interest in the task itself. Extrinsic motivation is externally motivated, and usually stems from an external entity setting the goal. That is, the motivation to do the task is that the outcome is desired, not that the task is inherently interesting to the individual. Intrinsic motivation is related to greater achievement.

As I thought more about motivation, that lead me to the concept of self-regulated learning. There has been much written on self-regulated learning as it applies to undergraduate education. What is self-regulated learning? According to Zimmerman (1990), “self-regulated learners plan, set goals, organize, self-monitor, and self-evaluate at various points during the process of acquisition” (p. 4-5). Sounds like the perfect graduate student, right?

Unfortunately, self-regulated learning has not been applied to graduate education. But, with regards to undergrads, O’Brien et al. (2008) wrote that “a learning-centered syllabus requires that you shift from what you, the instructor are going to cover in your course to a concern for what information, tools, assignments, and activities you can provide to promote your students’ learning and intellectual development” (pp. xiv). Imagine if the graduate faculty of a graduate program designed it with an eye towards answering this question “What information, tools, tasks, and activities could we provide to promote our graduate students’ learning, intellectual development, and achievement of their post-graduate school goals?” Wouldn’t this graduate program of study rock?

So, over the next few weeks, I am going to pick one of these components (information, tools, tasks, and activities) and reflect on how it could lead to exceptional graduate student learning, intellectual development, and achievement.


O’Brien, J. G., Millis, B. J., Cohen, M. W., & Diamond, R. M. (2008). The course syllabus: A learning-centered approach. San Francisco: Wiley.
Zimmerman, B. J. (1990). Self-regulated learning and academic achievement: An overview. Educational Psychologist, 25(1), 3-17.

One thought on “Motivation, Self-Regulated Learning, and Graduate Education

  1. I just stumbled upon this blog as I feverishly search for more information on this topic as I craft my Capstone Project to wrap up my degree in Higher Education Administration four weeks from today. As you have astutely pointed out, little research exists regarding graduate students and I am exploring the topic from the angle of online student, so attempting to create an engaging learning environment with the absence of a physical presence seems to be an almost impossible cause!

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