The Elephant in the Hall: Motivating the Study of Student Motivation and Self-regulation in Studies of Academic Achievement and Persistence in Higher Education

Gary J. Kennedy


This essay proposes that much of what constitutes the quality of an institution of higher education is the quality of the students attending the institution. This quality, however, is conceptualized to extend beyond that of academic ability. Specifically, three propositions are considered. First, it is proposed that a core construct of student quality is defined in terms of student motivation and self-regulation generally, information that many institutions do not routinely collect. Second, without information on students’ motivational profiles, admissions formulas and statistical models of program evaluations are misspecified at best and run the risk of producing biased parameter estimates. In these situations, the bias is often positive and can lead educational leaders into believing that the commonly collected ability measures are more predictive of college performance and that institutional programs are more effective than they really are. This problem may not be mitigated by including demographic or socioeconomic variables. Third, institutional and program accomplishments are supervenient on student characteristics such that differences between or among institutions or programs within institutions cannot exist without differences in the characteristics of the students attending the institutions or participating in the programs. If these propositions are true, then not only are the admissions formulas and program evaluation models that exclude motivational and self-regulatory influences misspecified, but a deeper issue arises that questions the exogenous nature of institutional and program effects and thus the credibility of institutional and program accomplishments.

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International Journal of Higher Education
ISSN 1927-6044 (Print) ISSN 1927-6052 (Online) Email:

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