Monthly Archives: May 2022

The motivated student: academic, demographic and emotional factors in student engagement 

Image licensed from 123RF


As Associate Lecturers on DE100 (Investigating Psychology) for some time we had noticed the change in study patterns, where more students were opting for study at fulltime intensity (FTI). With the advent of Covid-19 and the associated restrictions on social interaction, we saw an unprecedented rise in student numbers, and a growing proportion applying for FTI. This we put down to the requirement to study online, so that students who may have applied for places at brick institutions were choosing Open University courses instead as we have such a long track record of quality distance learning provision.  

We were curious as to whether, with this changing study mode, came a different demographic, with different drives, needs and approaches to study. In response to our curiosity, we undertook an exploratory study of students enrolled on core psychology modules to identify whether there were fundamental differences between the types of students enrolling at different study intensities.  

The project was survey based, collecting demographic data as a means of better understanding the student profile, as well as two psychometric tests assessing academic motivation and study engagement. To complement the quantitative data we also asked a series of open questions  about students’ reasons  for their engagement in specific learning activities.  

As we collected such a huge dataset (over 900 students across three levels of study) it allowed us to explore different and emerging patters that were not restricted to study intensity, but go beyond, and allow us more of an insight into differing modes and explanations for student engagement.   

Study intensity findings  

With respect to the demographics, we found that FTI students were more likely to be female and younger than the more traditional part time students. The FTI students also tended to work less hours per week in paid employment, possibly allowing them more time for their studies. 

An important academic drive for FTI students was their focus on their career and potential earnings, which might also indicate a rationale for FTI study as a means of realising these ambitions sooner. Achievement motivation was captured in two different ways: the intrinsic drive to achieve and the drive for others to see you achieving (extrinsic). The latter appeared to be the greatest driver, therefore emotions linked to social status were more important than self-improvement.  

Although their self-reported cognitive and behavioural engagement levels were the same regardless of study intensity, the FTI students were less emotionally engaged. This may be the product of their functional motivation for choosing to study – to achieve a career aim. Alternatively, this may be seen as the part time students having time to engage more deeply with the study materials and gain more pleasure through this. This latter explanation, when combined with the relationship between age and motivation, suggest that older students are more motivated by the love of learning, so their drive is for the pleasure. 

This is interesting as the more traditional OU learner is driven much more by experiential features, linked to arousal and pleasure from the study experience, whereas the FTI student drive is about future events and rewards.  

Study engagement findings  

Our two-pronged approach to study engagement allowed us to observe patterns of engagement, and understand these trends through the students’ qualitative responses. Both data types allowed us to see that there were two dimensions important to study behaviours:  the origins of the material and the depth of engagement. Materials that were perceived to have originated from the institution were more valued that student-derived material, therefore website materials and tutorials were more valued than student forums. This linked to their need for knowledge and very specific guidance linked to assessments, so relevance and accuracy were perceived as paramount. The second dimension related to how involved the student would need to be with the learning activity: the more they were required to be involved, the less likely they were to engage. This means that students were more likely to opt for passive forms of engagement such as website materials and recorded tutorials, whereas the interaction required in live tutorials was more off-putting. The one form of learning activity that was lowest in institutional origin and high in involvement was forum use, their least preferred of all activities.  

When the data was examined for explanations of these engagement behaviours, there were two universal themes: time poverty and anxiety. Time poverty meant that many students became adept at identifying where the most relevant sources of trusted information could be found, and focused their precious time and attention on these resources. The theme of anxiety was expressed along a continuum of feeling a little bit nervous about posting a comment, through to feeling humiliated in a learning event to diagnosed social anxiety. It may well be that their choice of a distance degree is a means of avoiding these distressing situations, and therefore the encouragement to interact may be counterproductive for some students.  

The study has highlighted that learners are enrolled on Open University degrees for quite different reasons, and how they fit their study into their life may be linked to their academic motivation. It may be useful for us to reflect on these different motivations at the point of module production to accommodate the different approaches to study.  


Cathy Schofield, Lecturer in Psychology and Counselling; Ali Gisby – Lecturer in Psychology & Counselling