Motivation and emotion/Book/2016/University drop-out motivation

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University drop-out motivation:
What factors contribute to university student drop-out?

Overview[edit | edit source]


In September last year Jessica started university, hoping to be a student for another three years. But, come mid November, Jessica did something out of character - she dropped out. Generally, Jessica put up with whatever it was that makes her unhappy until she learnt to live with it. Jessica undeniably didn't expect to be the kind of person to drop out. But looking back, she realised she just wasn't ready for university. To begin with Jessica had no interest in going.

Common sense told her that perhaps the lack of certainty was just because she was still really unsure if university was for her. For a while she thought a gap year would be best, but accepted a university offer. But university just wasn't what she expected. Jessica soon realised she wasn't passionate about what she was studying so therefore constantly missed her lectures and seminars. Eventually she decided to stop, and drop out. She just wasn't ready for university. 

This type of experience is far too common among many students. So, what factors contribute to university drop-out? What are the risks of dropping out? And what type of motivation encourages an individual to seek completion of a degree? 

University drop-out rates are currently at their highest, and recent testing performed in Australia and New Zealand found that 27 per cent of first year university students and 34 per cent of later year students planned to drop out in the year 2010, mentioning boredom as their primary motivation (The Good Universities Guide, 2016). However, other factors related with university drop-out have a multi-causal nature, and these factors are associated with psychological, essential, generational characteristics as with the student’s educational distinctions (Araque, Roldan, & Salguero, 2009).  

Understandably, determining the most ‘at-risk’ groups allows researchers to distinguish what factors contribute to extensive university drop-out rates. The most recent research published by Edward & McMillan (2015) established that completion rates were significantly lower for ‘at-risk’ individuals. Consequently, providing a foundation for the reduction of university drop-out rates. 

The consequence of ceasing university can affect the student in several ways, including economically and psychologically (Sittichai, 2011). However, the ramifications of university drop-out are broader, potentially diminishing the level of skill required for further development (Sittichai, 2011) 

Extrinsic motivation (EM) entails the process of economic reward, reputation feedback, and reciprocity (Hung, Durcikova, Lai, & Lin, 2011). Extrinsic motivation incorporates the self-determination theory, a theory that examines the basic psychological needs (competence, autonomy, and relatedness). The self-determination theory is an interpretation on human motivation and personality that focuses on social-environmental states that accumulate and/or reduces self-motivation and healthy psychological adaptation (Bartholomew, Ntoumanis, Ryan, Bosch, & Thogersen-Ntoumanis, 2011). 

As extrinsic motivation focuses on the process of reward and feedback, it is clear that EM is a fundamental approach in minimising university drop-out. Reducing drop-out via the process of EM encourages students to utilise the importance of positive reward and constructive feedback. 

Factors contributing to university drop-out[edit | edit source]

Seemingly, there is a variety of factors that provide to these outstanding proportions of university withdrawals, such as boredom, stress, poor results and preference of employment over study (The Good Universities Guide, 2016). Evidently, boredom stems from a spectrum of reasons, such as dispassion for course subject, priority of employment over study (students enjoy the idea of having money now, rather than later), unable to maintain workload, and unhappiness with course results.

Motivational causes of drop-out

Accordingly, motivation plays a critical role in the source of many university drop-outs, evidently motivational causes originate from those factors stated above (such as, boredom, stress, dispassion, and poor unit results).

Moreover, research conducted by Forbes and Wickens (2005), the students’ decision of changing or continuing their formative university course is dictated by the level of social inclusion that students experience at a university institute. Thus, students are likely to experience a sense of belonging through social incorporation and therefore engage with the intellectual demands of university life (Forbes & Wickens, 2005). Consequently, could social exclusion contribute to the majority of university drop-out? 

Furthermore, evidence demonstrates that students' motivational attitudes play a vital role in their academic success (Fan & Wolters, 2012). Thus, the results of the present study indicates that the connections between student ability beliefs in math and English and student behaviour of dropping out were fully moderated by students' educational expectations (Fan & Wolters, 2012). The results also uncovers that student intrinsic value in math and English had notable indirect associations with student behaviour of leaving school through students' educational expectations (Fan & Wolters, 2012). The results of the current study show students who continued high school revealed an average educational expectation (M = 5.25) that demonstrated their anticipation to graduate college. In addition, educational expectation demonstrated greater variance for those who dropped out of high school (SD = 1.75) than for students who perservered in high school (SD = 1.39) (Fan & Wolters, 2012). Clearly, the research suggests intrinsic motivation as a notable cause of either retaining an educational degree or dropping out, evidently a students' belief in themselves is highly correlated to successful academic achievement.  

Therefore, can extrinsic motivation enhance an individuals willingness to complete university? But first, it is vital to understand those who are most 'at-risk' and the consequences of university drop-out.  

Who is most at risk?[edit | edit source]

In order to retain students from dropping out, it is important to recognise which students are most at risk (Burrus & Roberts, 2012). Thus, understanding which individuals are associated with 'at-risk' groups, it is then possible to develop intervention strategies that increase a students likelihood to complete university.  

Research conducted by Edwards and McMillan (2015) found that completion rates were lower for Indigenous students, part-time students, students over 25 years old, correspondence students, and students from remote and low socioeconomic backgrounds. Generally, the research on university drop-out argues against the common belief that students withdraw because of academic failure, while the educational background is promoted as a main influence along with the personal characteristics of the student (Belloc, Maruotti, & Petrella, 2011). As a consequence, it is vital to promote the strategies that are involved in extrinsic motivation in order to reduce the chance of low SES students dropping out of university.  

National average[edit | edit source]

Australia wide the national average of University drop-out rates is a total of 26.4%. Up to three-quarters (73.6 per cent) of domestic bachelor students commencing in 2005 had completed a degree by 2013. Nationally, lower completion rates were apparent for students with lower Australian Tertiary Admission Ranks (ATAR) (especially below 60), and those who commenced their enrolments as part-time students or external students (Edwards & McMillan, 2015). In this case, males are more at risk of retiring from their University course.

Age[edit | edit source]

Students aged 25 years or over are twice as likely to drop out than students aged 19 or under (Moodie, 2015). Older students are more at risk of discontinuing a university degree due to the possibility of an ATAR equal to or below 60 (Edward & McMillan, 2015). Overall, students aged 25 years and over often have other intentions for the termination of university, such as family commitments, employment, and dispassion for course subject. 

Socioeconomic status[edit | edit source]

Low-SES students were more likely than other students to drop out within the first two years of study or to still be enrolled without completion of the subject nine years after initiation (Edward & McMillan, 2015). Low SES students make up 17.1% of enrolments and have a drop out rate of 31.1%.

Location[edit | edit source]

Students in metropolitan areas are more likely to complete a degree than those from regional and remote areas (Edward & McMillan, 2015). Student location has a remarkable influence on drop out rates with students from regional and remote areas having a notably higher drop out rate than students living in cities (Moodie, 2015). 

Indigenous[edit | edit source]

Indigenous students contribute 1.4% of all enrolments and more than half of that division drop out, more than double the national average (Moodie, 2015). The distinction between the outcomes of Indigenous and non-Indigenous students is major. Indigenous students had a completion percentage of around 47 (non-Indigenous students had a rate of 74 per cent). More than one in five Indigenous students in this division had dropped out of university before their second year and another quarter had dropped out within the nine-year period (Edward & McMillan, 2015).

Time spent on-campus[edit | edit source]

A student’s study-mode has the most significant influence on the likelihood of dropping out. Part-time students are twice as more likely to drop out than full-time students (Moodie, 2015). Evidently, this could partially result from the little opportunity part-time students have to build intimate friendships with their peers, therefore producing social exclusion. 

Compounding effects[edit | edit source]

Student drop out rates are increased when being members of multiple ‘at risk’ groups (Moodie, 2015). Students in these multiple equity groups are also more likely to have other demographic or enrolment attributes that are correlated with lower completion rates, such as studying part-time or externally, or having a low ATAR (Edward & McMillan, 2015).

What are the risks of dropping out of university?[edit | edit source]

Dropping out of university may impact on an individuals work life significantly (Burrus, 2012). There is a higher chance of unemployment rates, less possibilities of obtaining a full time contract as well as finding a well payable job they actually enjoy as well as lean less than those who actually have a tertiary degree (Burrus, 2012). Therefore, it is a plausible reason to employ certain motivational skills to increase a students likelihood of completing university.

A basic definition of motivation[edit | edit source]

Motivation is fundamentally a reason to perform or behave a certain way to achieve a desired goal. To be motivated means to be inspired to do something, therefore a person who feels no momentum to take action is thus described as unmotivated, whereas someone who is invigorated to achieve an end is considered motivated (Ryan & Deci, 2000).  

There are many types of motivation, however the most commonly used involve intrinsic and extrinsic types of motivation. The distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation has revealed important information on both developmental and educational practices (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Consequently, orientation of motivation examines the rudimentary attitudes and goals that give impulse to ambition - that is, it scrutinises the why of motives (Ryan & Deci, 2000). For example, a student can be highly motivated to study for their examinations out of curiosity or, on the other hand, because he or she wants to obtain the blessing of a teacher or parent. As suggested by Ryan and Deci (2000), a student perhaps is inclined to be motivated in order to learn a new set of skills because he or she understands their potential or because learning the skills will contribute to a good grade. 

Extrinsic motivation[edit | edit source]

Extrinsic motivation is an excuse to create incentives or consequences in order for one to engage in an activity or task. Extrinsic motivation involves the process of economic reward, reputation feedback, and reciprocity (Hung, Durcikova, Lai, & Lin, 2011). Evidently, applying extrinsic motivation as a positive form of reducing the level of university drop out offers the opportunity to encourage individuals to complete the selected course, or at least, consider accomplishing a university diploma. 

Extrinsic motivation drives an individual to do things for worthy rewards or achievements, rather than doing it for fun. Consequently, there are four types of extrinsic motivation derived from the self-determination theory by Ryan and Deci (1985), each element symbolises a contrasting motive for a desired outcome.  

  1. Firstly, external motivation involves a behaviour encouraged by an environmental reward or punishment. The process of external motivation in the presence of university dropout creates a connection between the student and his or her studies.  
  2. Secondly, introjected motivation encompasses the yearning to avoid internally inflicted guilt and accusation, therefore students are prompted to complete assessments on time.  
  3. Thirdly, identified motivation is the enthusiasm to convey important self-recognition, thus students feel the need to impress themselves and find what their potentialities involve.  
  4. And lastly, integrated regulation, the most self-determined type of extrinsic motivation, refers to the process of bringing together multiple personal values and identity-appropriate commitments in a significant approach (Miquelon, Chamberland, & Castonquay, 2016).  

Self-determination theory

According to the self-determination theory (SDT), the three primary psychological needs are competence (feeling successful and efficacious in one’s behaviour), relatedness (feeling close and attached to significant others), and autonomy (feeling ownership and inner causation of one’s behaviour) (Sheldon & Schuler, 2011). SDT’s claims’ concerning psychological needs are characteristically tested by showing distinctive associations of each satisfied need with a wide range of positive consequences (Ryan & Deci, 2008). The belief is that fulfilled needs reinforce organismic incorporation processes that bring about psychological flourishing and development (Ryan, 1995).

Therefore, the process of extrinsic motivation in association with reducing university drop-out rates encourages the perspective of human motivation and personality that surrounds the social-environmental conditions that increase or diminish self-motivation (Bartholomew, Ntoumanis, Ryan, Bosch, & Thogersen-Ntoumanis, 2011).

Understanding the relation of university drop-out & motivation theory[edit | edit source]

University drop-out is a major problem among many universities, so far the decision to terminate a university degree is correlated to a lack of motivation and a variety socio-environmental factors. Consequently, motivation is a key factor in understanding student academic determination and achievement (Robbins, Lauver, Le, Davis, Langley, & Carlstrom, 2004). However, the question that arises is whether extrinsic motivation has a positive or negative influence on university drop out?

Is extrinsic motivation a positive or negative predictor of drop-out?

A previous study conducted by Evans (2015) employs the self-determination theory framework which contends that three psychological needs of competence, relatedness, and autonomy must be satisfied in order to sustain psychological wellbeing. Therefore, the self-determination (SD) theory demonstrates the effectiveness of applying the basic psychological needs (autonomy, competence, and relatedness) towards the avoidance of university drop-out. The SD theory is a positive approach to human motivation that reports the social circumstances under which people experience well-being and vivacity (Evans, 2015).

Getting students involved, engaged, and motivated in learning is possibly one of the most demanding tasks that parents and teachers have to cope with (Lee, McInerney, Liem, & Ortiga, 2010). Motivation is an internal condition that activates, directs, and maintains behaviour (Lee et al., 2010). Consequently, self-determination entails strengthening individuals to internally motivate themselves through the process of physical rewards and connections to the situation. However, the SDT theory would suggest that if university life were gratifying the basic psychological needs for Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness, then students would be internally motivated to continue and less likely to drop-out. Therefore, intrinsic stimulation contradicts the success of employing extrinsic motives to decrease university drop-out rates.

Moreover, understanding this relationship between motivation and university drop-out encourages universities to employ strategies that involve extrinsic motivation (such as external motivation) in order to gain student success and improvement of drop-out rates. As prior studies suggest students who are extrinsically motivated – that is who do a task for the sole purpose of rewards and other external persuasions – are more likely to undertake surface learning and less likely to continue with the activity once extrinsic rewards and prompts are erased (Biggs, 1991). Clearly, the current study indicates a significant relationship between external rewards and positive behavioural outcomes. Therefore, extrinsic motivation has shown to be a positive process in strengthening an individual’s motive to achieve.

Using motivation to decrease university drop-out[edit | edit source]

What is the process of extrinsic motivation and how can it reduce drop-out?  

Using motivation as a way of decreasing the percentage of university drop-out allows individuals to determine what factors contribute to the attrition of ceasing university, such as lack of social unification, dispassion for course, or poor results. 

Traditionally, motivational direction was visualised as situation-specific, determined by the social environment (Finkelstien, 2009). As previously discussed, extrinsic motivation focuses on developing goal-oriented tasks enveloped by certain rewards and punishments involving the environment around the individual. Previous research explores the extrinsic process of motivation. Therefore, through factor analyses it is scrutinised which factors are most important for dropouts and persisters, respectively, when both groups are asked what caused them to either dropout or persist (Larsen, Sommersel, & Larsen, 2013). Among those who continue their studies, identify 'future occupational identity' as a major role in their completion of a degree, another extrinsic aspect of motivation (Larsen, Sommersel, & Larsen, 2013).     

In addition, developing goal-oriented tasks for individuals to follow increases motivation for university completion. Therefore, encouraging these goal-oriented tasks involves the process of extrinsic motivation. Evidently, this must be enforced by the university and the support system surrounding the individual (parents, siblings, etc). Consequently, if an individual feels motivated they are likely to complete a task with exceptional grades and therefore are more inclined to complete university due to achieving such substantial results.  

For that reason, it is evident that EM plays a significant role in the reduction of university dropout rates. Employing the process of goal-oriented tasks encourages students to find meaning and passion within the subject they hope to dominate.     

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Using extrinsic motivation as a possible solution to university dropout involves the application of goal-oriented tasks within the university institute. External motivations can help students who avoid challenges to put in more effort, but only if the desired target is within the students reach (Smith, 2004). However, student's response to extrinsic motivators is a very unique experience (Smith, 2004). For example, what works for one student may not work for another; once a powerful motivator is absorbed, it should be sustained for some time and then withdrawn slowly in order to avert turnaround of the behaviour change (Smith, 2004). Therefore, utilising EM as a practical resolution to reduce university dropout entails the process of introducing a certain motive, followed by the gradual withdrawal of that incentive.   In terms of the case study provided above, Jessica has a choice to explore the opportunities involved with attaining a university degree. Evidently, this involves encouraging her to continue university via the process of extrinsic motivation. Accordingly, this means developing small goals in order to achieve a higher and more significant aim in the future. For example, in a previous study, boys with learning disabilities who performed poorly on sit-ups and relay runs improved their performance levels when told that they were the kinds of children who did well on such tasks or that the apple juice they drank had given them the extra energy to do well (Smith, 2004). Evidently, this is a form of extrinsic motivation being utilised in order to increase successful performance of individuals. Thus, such approaches can be employed to Jessica's situation in terms of bringing forward a promising outcome to completing a university degree.   

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Araque, F., Roldan, C., & Salguero, A. (2009). Factors influencing university drop-out rates. "Computers and Education, 53"(3), 563-574.

Bartholomew, K. J., Ntoumanis, N., Ryan, R. M., Bosch, J. A., & Thogersen-Ntoumanis, C. (2011). Self-determination theory and diminishing functioning: the role of interpersonal control and psychological need thwarting. "Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37"(11), 1459-1473.

Belloc, F., Maruotti, A., Petrella, L. (2011). How individual characteristics affect students drop-out: a semiparametric mixed-effects model for an italian case study. "Journal of Applied Statistics, 38"(10), 2225-2239.

Biggs, J. (1991). "Good learning: What is it?". (Ed.), Teaching for learning, ACER: Melbourne.

Burrus, J., Roberts, R. D. (2012). Dropping out of high school: prevalence, risk factors and remediation strategies. "R & D Connections, 18", 1-9.

Edwards, D., McMillan, J. (2015). "Completing University in a Growing Sector: Is Equity an Issue?" Retrieved from

Evans, P. (2015). Self-determination motivation for practice in university music students. "Psychology of Music, 44"(5), 1095-1110

Fan, W., Wolters, C. A. (2012). School motivation and high school dropout: the mediating role of educational expectation. "The British Psychological Society, 84"(1), 22-39.

Forbes, A., & Wickens, E. (2005). A good social life helps students to stay the course. "Times High Education Supplement, 1676", 58-63.

Finkelstien, M. A. (2009). Intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivational orientations and the volunteer process. "Personality and Individual Differences, 46"(5), 653-658.

Hung, S., Durcikova, A., Lai, H., & Lin, W. (2011). The influence of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation on individuals’ knowledge sharing behaviour. "International Journal of Human Computer Studies, 69"(6), 415-427.

Larsen, M. R., Sommersel, H. B., Larsen, M. S. (2013). Evidence on dropout phenomena at universities. "Danish Clearinghouse for Educational Research", 1-53.

Lee, J. Q., McInerney, D. M., Liem, G. A. D., & Ortiga, Y. P. (2010). The relationship between future goals and achievement goal orientations: an intrinsic-extrinsic motivation perspective. "Contemporary Educational Psychology, 35"(4), 264-279.

Miquelon, P., Chamberland, P., & Castonquay, A. (2016). The contribution of integrated regulation on adults’ motivational profiles for physical activity: a self-determination theory perspective. "International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology", 1-20.

Moodie, G. (2015). "Which students are more likely to drop out of university?" Retrieved from

Robbins, S., Lauver, K., Le, H., Davis, D., Langley, R., & Carlstrom, A. (2004). Do psychological and study skill factors predict college outcomes? A meta-analysis. "Psychological Bulletin, 130", 261-288.

Ryan, M. L. (1995). Psychological needs and the facilitation of integrative processes. "Journal of Personality, 63", 397-427.

Ryan, M. R., Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: classic definitions and new directions. "Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25", 54-67.

Ryan, M. R., Deci, E. L. (2008). Self-determination theory and the role of basic psychological needs in personality and the organisation of behaviour. In O. P. John, R. W. Robins, & L. A. Pervin (Eds.), "Handbook of personality psychology: Theory and research" (3rd ed., pp. 654- 678).

Sheldon, K. M., Schuler, J. (2011). Wanting, having, and needing: integrating motive disposition theory and self-determination theory. "Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101"(5), 1106-1123.

Sittichai, R. (2011). Why are there drop-outs among university students? Experience in a thai university. "International Journal of Educational Development, 32"(2), 283-289.

Smith, C. R. (2004). Extrinsic motivation. "Excerpt from Learning Disabilities: The Interaction of Students and their Environments". 227-282.

The Good Universities Guide. (2016). "Five Tips if You’re Planning to Drop-Out of Your Course". Retriever from

External links[edit | edit source]