Greg Lilly explores impact of motivation on student achievement
When Elon’s economics department began requiring all seniors to complete a written thesis, Greg Lilly, associate professor of economics, noticed an interesting trend. “One of the things we noticed fairly early was that there seemed to be this spread in performances, and it seems to be a spread we can’t get rid of,” he said. Read more about Professor Lilly's research...
Lilly began to research variation in student performance and completed a paper titled “Adaptive persistence as a factor in skill production,” which he presented at this year’s Eastern Economics Association’s annual meeting in New York City, a three-day event that drew economists from across the globe.
Educational institutions are trying to understand why some students thirst for knowledge and others seem to skate by, Lilly says, and the same has been true in Elon’s economics department. When students hand in their theses each year, “we always come back later and try to figure out how we can improve the process,” Lilly said, and although the department created new classes, tweaked teaching methods and required a research paper in every economics course, “the data suggested that we weren’t bringing up the bottom.”
Lilly found that those who did not perform well were not necessarily less smart – students’ SAT scores were rising – or less trained, as the specific classes taken by the econ students had no effect. The performance gap remained. He began to discover that a certain type of motivation, called adaptive persistence, has a large role to play in the performance gap.
When given a choice between learning that requires effort and a good grade that is easily achieved, a student with adaptive persistence, this specific motivation, will choose the effort and learning. Now the question is – why do some students have adaptive persistence while others have little to none? “We’ve changed our curriculum a lot, but we really haven’t changed it in such a way that we excite every econ major,” he said.
Lilly continues to search for teaching methods that effectively motivate his students to embrace and pursue adaptive persistence, which he says will impact their future endeavors. Research shows that “people that are extremely motivated to learn also do really well in the business world,” Lilly says. “I think if we can turn some sort of switch and get our majors motivated in pretty much anything they do, it’s going to help them.”
This research has prompted Lilly to consider studying adaptive persistence across countries. He said he hopes to discover which countries may be structured in a way that promotes adaptive persistence and whether that encourages better solutions to economic and social problems.
By Kellye Coleman '12