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Focus On Basics

Volume 2, Issue A ::: March 1998

Focus on Research: Learner Motivation

"We're trying to get a picture of the complex set of obstacles and supports that students have as they attempt to persist in a program," explains Dr. John Comings, the director of the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL) and principal investigator of the NCSALL study on learner motivation. "We will use that information to design an intervention that we think will help students persist, and then test out the efficacy of that intervention using traditional experimental research methods."

NCSALL has embarked on a multi-phase research process involving innovative and traditional qualitative research and traditional quantitative research techniques to better understand learner motivation and apply that knowledge to the classroom. The non-traditional aspects of the project grew out of research assistant Andrea Parrella's teaching experience. Her students had trouble answering in-depth questions "cold." They needed a chance to reflect before they could produce substantive answers. She felt that the same might be true for participants in this study, so the research team designed an activity that involves potential research study participants in exploring a topic similar to the research topic to "warm them up" before the research interview. By participating in this activity, research participants also get some exposure to the interview team, and are thus more comfortable talking with them during the interviews.

Comings and his team weighed the value of doing this activity as part of their research. "There's a fine line between leading participants and helping them to think more deeply about the question," he says. They wanted to be sure they would have a rich set of responses, and built in checks and balances to ensure that they would be getting valid data.

This activity is only one small part of the project. Following the activity, Parrella and research assistant Chaunda Scott conduct 30-minute one-on-one interviews; they are planning to do a total of 200 at 18 sites around New England. During the interviews, they ask learners to discuss the forces acting upon them three times, in three different ways, to ensure that they are getting an accurate picture. They will return four months later and re-interview the participants to see if the supports they have and obstacles they face have changed.

The research team will use this data to give them a picture of the major forces acting for and against learner persistence. They will then design a classroom activity or set of activities that they feel will help learners to understand these forces and balance them. This activity will be tested using a traditional experimental control model with random assignment. In other words, students will be randomly assigned to classes that use the same curriculum; the main difference between the classes is that in some the teacher will use the motivation-enhancing activity and in others -- the control groups -- the teacher won't. The persistence of the two sets of learners will be compared. By using this design, the effect -- which the researchers hope will be stronger motivation -- can be attributed to the intervention rather than some other variable.

Researchers take into account substantive and financial issues when choosing a sample upon which to focus. This team is looking at adult basic education learners who have reading levels on the Test of Adult Basic Education (TABE) that fall between grades five and eight. They chose this level because they felt that students reading below it may have different motivational issues that relate to learning disabilities. General Educational Development (GED) students were eliminated because many would have completed their tests and graduated before the research team did follow up interviews, creating logistical problems. The team did not include English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) students because of limited resources: in this type of study, ESOL students should be interviewed in their native languages, an expensive prospect. The sample includes learners who range from the age of 16 to 70, it's divided about evenly between men and women, and the learners are white, black, Latino, Portuguese, and Haitian. Learners come from both rural and urban programs.

For more on this study, contact Andrea Parrella at Harvard Graduate School of Education, NCSALL, Nichols House, Cambridge, MA 02138-3572; phone: (617) 495-1712; and e-mail:

-- by Barbara Garner

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL