SSHRC-funded research project explores new frontiers for increasing student well-being

Exams are a common source of stress for students, but little has been done to explore ways for educators to alleviate this stress. Now, a researcher in the Faculty of Education is embarking on a project that will put student well-being at the forefront of assessment practices.

Educational psychology professor Lia Daniels was recently awarded more than $277,000 from the SSHRC Insight Grant program to fund a five-year project entitled "Reorienting assessment practices in higher education: prioritizing student well-being through motivation theory.”

As a motivation researcher, Daniels is part of a field of study that examines the role of intrinsic motivation in education. In contrast to the well-known “carrot and stick” approach that defines extrinsic motivation, this type of motivation “resides in people and comes out of them naturally, or can be brought out when we create systems that function in a particular way,” says Daniels.

Intrinsic motivation is built by meeting people’s three basic psychological needs: the need to feel like you’re effective (competence), the need to feel you have choice (autonomy) and the need to feel you’re in warm, caring relationships (relatedness).

When these needs are met, people’s lives are benefited in many ways. “Intrinsic motivation is good for well-being, it’s good for enjoyment, it’s associated with reductions in anxiety and increased creativity — all the things we like in life,” says Daniels.

Intrinsic motivation is already part of instruction in schools, Daniels points out. Teachers may foster relatedness by learning about their students’ hobbies, build competence by offering increasingly difficult work sheets or provide autonomy by allowing them to make choices about what to focus on in their lessons.

Yet, when it comes to assessment practices, the default approach remains to rely on incentives or consequences as the primary means to motivate students. In the process, the goal of meeting students’ psychological needs is lost.

“It’s this situation where even though we have instructors and teachers who do so much to try and build up these things in their instruction, we’ve just for some reason given assessment the permission to not have to follow those rules as well,” says Daniels.

Daniels and her team of research assistants hope to change this. The first phase of their project, which gets underway in the fall, will focus on gathering feedback from postsecondary students about their feelings around assessment and motivation.

“Postsecondary remains more entrenched in traditional assessment practices than K-12 education, and it’s a place where we’re experiencing really heightened student stress and anxiety,” says Daniels. “That’s why I want to start there.”

In the summer of 2023, the team will recruit 12-15 instructors from across campus to work collaboratively with them during the fall term. These instructors will be part of communities of practice looking at different methods of assessment and how motivation principles can be applied to them.

By the following summer, there will be enough data for the researchers to assess what worked best and begin to build a repository of assessments. The end result will be an online module that will help instructors apply different methods on their own.

Daniels believes this opportunity to move her research forward comes at an ideal time, with the pandemic putting student wellness at the forefront of educators’ minds.

“There are many instructors who really want to do right by their students, and I don’t think they’ve had an opportunity to think about how their assessment practices could be contributing to the problem or the solution in terms of stressed out students,” she says.

“It’s a great time to be able to bring some theory, wellness and well-being to something that’s largely been ignored.”