Enhancing student motivation in science: a course-based research experience approach

Gerald D. Griffin
Department of Biology; Tuskegee University

One research core in teaching in learning is student motivation.  A central theory in the science of motivation is Deci’s and Ryan’s self-determination theory.  This theory posits that if students have an enhanced sense of autonomy, competence, and relatedness, then they will have high levels of motivation to learn.  The current study utilized a course-based research experience where neither the students nor the instructor knew the outcome of the projects.  The author theorized that an authentic research experience would increase student autonomy, competence, and relatedness; thus, enhancing student motivation.  Students (13 female, 6 male) were challenged to select individual research projects in the realm of neurobiology.  Students had to present personal reasons they were interested in the topic, prepare a formal, specific hypothesis, and write a specific aims page before experiments were conducted.  Next, students designed and executed original research experiments during and outside of prescribed class hours.  Lastly, students prepared scientific manuscripts based on their research results.  In addition to a University Instructor Teaching Evaluation, students also completed the Classroom Undergraduate Research Experience (CURE) survey.  While data analysis is ongoing, key preliminary findings indicate that 87.5% of students felt “extremely motivated” by the instructor and course; 12.5% of students were “very motivated.”  Ninety-nine percent of the surveyed students felt that the course-based research experience nicely matched the lecture content either “extremely well” or “very well.”  The CURE survey indicated that 58% of students felt a “very large” or “large” gain in learning from a project where no one knew the outcome (compared to 37% of students who experienced “none” or a “small” gain).  Eighty-four percent of students stated they had a “very large” or “large” gain in conducting individual laboratory projects (16% stated they only felt a “small gain” in learning from working alone).  Lastly, 95% of students indicated that the course-based research experience had a positive effect on their interests in science.  Taken together, these results demonstrate that most students feel as if they have large gains in learning when they are challenged to design and execute research projects (competence).  Moreover, a large majority of students attributed to being able to meet this challenge as individuals enhanced learning (autonomy).  Given that students designed research projects based on their personal interests, it can be theorized that there was a great deal of relatedness to the individual projects.  In sum, having students design, execute, and analyze individual research studies in a class not only greatly enhanced student perception of learning but also increased student motivations to continue in science.