Will school ever be out?

How school-based motivation affects adult learning
igorovsyannykov, Pixabay.com, CC0 1.0
igorovsyannykov, Pixabay.com, CC0 1.0

Every year, millions of high school graduates celebrate the fact that for them, school’s out for good. Their future seems promising – no more compulsory schooling, and from now on they are free to choose their own learning opportunities. Yet such opportunities are not distributed equally across the population. Opportunities to acquire further skills and competences through learning come almost automatically to individuals with higher levels of education. By contrast, those with lower levels of education need to actively seek them out.

What is it that drives engagement in learning? According to the expectancy-value theory as outlined by Jacquelynne Eccles, people need positive expectancies of success and positive value beliefs if they are to engage in learning. That is to say, they will choose a learning opportunity only if they are confident of success, and only if their engagement will be worthwhile. A learning opportunity should have utility value, i.e., it should be useful in achieving one’s goals, and/or it should have intrinsic value, i.e., promise to be an enjoyable and motivating activity in and of itself.

How can adult learners evaluate the likely success and intrinsic value of learning, if the learning opportunity involves novel learning content? And how can they assess new content areas that they have not encountered in high school, but probably will in higher education and professional development?

The truth is that they cannot be sure whether new subject matter will bring success and gratification. However, they can anticipate its likely success and value based on their experience with different kinds of content. Most of this experience is gained in the years they have spent in high school.

Experience in school helps students form expectations for university

In two research projects, I have investigated the role of school-based experiences in the formation of expectancies and values regarding novel learning content in post-compulsory education. The aim was to determine how school-based ability and value beliefs relate to expectancies of success and values regarding a range of fields of study as well as a project management course.

My assumption was that learners continue to use their motivation—their expectancies of success and task values—developed in school to inform their motivation to deal with unfamiliar learning content. Using their “old” motivation to predict their “new” motivation means that learners generalize established ability beliefs regarding similar and known tasks to evaluate how they will do on the novel task, and whether they will enjoy the task.

“A learning opportunity should be useful in achieving one’s goals, and/or it should be an enjoyable and motivating activity in and of itself.”

I started with a survey of first-year business administration students. These students reported their expectancies and values regarding four school subjects—mathematics, German (their native language), history, and physics—as well as four possible fields of study, including their own. Each of these fields was chosen to match one of the school subjects: business administration (mathematics), mechanical engineering (physics), sociology (history), and linguistics (German). Students’ similarity ratings confirmed my expectations regarding their perceptions of similarity between known and novel learning content.

Results demonstrated that students’ school-subject-specific expectancies predicted their expectancies regarding fields of study they perceived to be similar to the school subject. When the same analyses were conducted focusing on students’ task values, the results were largely the same; that is, students apparently generalize the value they assign to school subjects to novel learning content as well.

From higher education to advanced training

The current follow-up study scrutinizes the generalization of school-based motivation. This time, I have used school subjects and fields of study that are less clearly associated with one another: mathematics, German, biology, and history on the school side, and journalism, architecture, ethnology, and mechanical engineering on the field-of-study side. I also used a fictitious course description formulated to emphasize specific content. Finally, to make sure that my findings apply to a broader population, and not just to university students, I replicated one study using a non-student adult sample.

Preliminary analyses of the data confirm that both students’ and non-students’ school-based expectancies and task values also predict their expectancies and values regarding unfamiliar fields of study. These effects depend mostly on the extent of perceived similarity between the respective school subject and field of study. Furthermore, when a course description emphasizes either mathematical or verbal content, either mathematical or verbal school-based motivation turns out to be a better predictor of students’ motivation regarding the course, even though only two sentences in the course description were different.

Much remains to be learned about the role of school-based motivation in adult learning. However, investigating specific relationships and causal effects of school-based motivation will encourage collaboration among researchers who study schools, higher education, and professional development, thereby helping to promote adult learning.


Gorges, J. (2016). Sounds enjoyable-Intrinsic task value regarding novel academic tasks. Learning and Individual Differences, 49, 414-420. doi:10.1016/j.lindif.2016.05.005

Gorges, J., & Göke, T. (2015). How do I know what I can do? Anticipating expectancy of success regarding novel academic tasks. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 85(1), 75-90.

Gorges, J., & Hollmann, J. (2015). Motivationale Faktoren der Weiterbildungsbeteiligung bei hohem, mittlerem und niedrigem Bildungsniveau. Zeitschrift für Erziehungswissenschaft, 18(1 Suppl.), 51-69. doi:10.1007/s11618-014-0595-1

Offerhaus, J., & Gorges, J. (2014). Keine Chance oder keine Lust? Wie lebenslanges Lernen besser verteilt werden könnte. WZB-Mitteilungen.

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