Autonomy and Motivation: The Keys to Successful Learning and Goal Attainment

A recent article from Useful Knowledge published by the Harvard Graduate School of Education examines the relationships between self-control, autonomy and learning in teen and tween populations. The researchers (Robinson, Duckworth and Rodgers, 2017) examined whether “commitment devices” which are voluntary agreements that can “limit choices through restrictions or penalties for failing to accomplish a goal” to measure goal attainment. The teen and tween participants in the study had to be willing to impose a personal restriction or punishment, in this case the loss of 20% of a paycheck, for not meeting the intended goal. The study found statistically insignificant differences in goal changing behavior between control and intervention groups, and no evidence that commitment devices effected student behavior.

So why is this so?   Commitment devices (in this case) act as negative reinforcers. They are viewed a punishments for not meeting a goal. Considering the age and maturity level of the population…the study recognizes that tween and teen students who are asked to engage in high levels of self regulation must be able to identify and apply self regulation strategies that are developmentally accessible. Goal attainment for any age requires high levels of self regulation. More importantly, reaching a goal is contingent upon other factors related to self regulation including attention and focus, intrinsic and extrinsic motivators and autonomy. Autonomous learning opportunities serve to enhance intrinsic motivation (Ryan and Deci, 2000). When we are engaged in self regulated learning, perceptions of academic competence and self-efficacy beliefs increase (Zimmerman, 1989). Students who are intrinsically motivated become goal oriented and are able to sustain goal-oriented behavior that meets their needs for competence, relatedness and autonomy (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

From a goal setting perspective, we need to consider whether we have the drive needed to attain a goal. Why is this goal important to me? Without a driving passion or positive outcome associated with the goal, its attainment may be unlikely. Goals are more easily attained if we believe there is a high probability that we can achieve them.

Consider these three factors that are linked to reaching our goals:

  • Proximity – Is the goal within reach? Is there a moderate expectation that it can be achieved? If the goal is not time bound, it may be too far off to be attainable. Setting a goal for a year is hard to meet. Try setting short-term goals that can be achieved today or by the end of the week.
  • Difficulty – Is the goal realistic? Sometimes we expect too much of ourselves. For instance, if I want to run a 5-minute mile I would need to practice daily. If that practice is not sustainable, then I will not likely reach the goal.
  • Specificity – Is the goal specific and measurable? I want to be able to do 10 pull-ups.   Now I have to increase my capacity to reach this goal through sustained effort and practice. Reaching this goal will make me feel stronger, which may be a motivating behavior.

An ideal goal is specific, measurable, attainable and achievable, relevant, and time-bound. The acronym SMART goals illustrates each of these words and helps to construct a situation where the time between the initiation of behavior and the end state is close and thus provides the necessary structure to meet the goal.

Here is a short YouTube video that describes SMART goals:

When setting goals, ask yourself, “Is the goal motivating enough to challenge me to grow and improve?” “Am I passionate about reaching this goal? Is it within my ability to reach it? If you bring passion and meaning to your goals, you will have a much greater ability to reach them.

If you need assistance with goal setting or motivation strategies, please reach out to the staff at the Academic Support Office.


Donald D. Matthews, PsyD



Robinson, Carly. (2018). Some Middle School Students Want Behavior Commitment Devices (But Take-up Does Not Affect Their Behavior).

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American psychologist, 55(1), 68.

Shafer, Leah (2017). Learning to Self Manage: For tweens and teens, self-control is connected to autonomy and other intrinsic motivators. Useful Knowledge, Harvard Graduate School of Education. Retrieved from

Zimmerman, B. J. (1989). A social cognitive view of self-regulated academic learning. Journal of Educational Psychology 81(3), 329-339.




What do you like to do in your spare time? (Yes, I do realize asking medical students what they like to do in their “spare time” is kind of ridiculous, but hear me out anyway). I like to bake (especially if it involves chocolate and/or butter). And I tend to not follow recipes when doing so; I might glance at one for the basics, but I’m more prone to tweaking the ingredients as I go along—dropping X and adding in Y, for example—until I come up with a finished treat. Through process, trial (and sometimes error), good things come to those who bake. And the same concept can be applied to writing, I think. Writing, like baking, requires trial and error, process and patience.

In previous posts on this topic, we discussed the writing process and its first stage (prewriting). In this post, we’ll discuss the second stage—drafting—in greater detail. When you draft a paper, you take the jumble of ideas that you developed in the prewriting stage and start to add some sense and order to them.  You begin to organize the information more logically into separate paragraphs, and you create connections between these paragraphs and your thesis statement (the overall point of your paper).

Some things to keep in mind as you draft:

1.) Writing begets more writing: As you write, you’ll likely discover (and write down) additional ideas or thoughts connected to your topic. Some writers find it best to focus on the body of the paper prior to drafting an introduction/finalized thesis statement.

2.) You still don’t have to worry about the little details: As with the previous two stages, when drafting, don’t worry too much about spelling, grammar, or sentence structure. Focus on building your ideas into supportive body paragraphs.

3.) You can (and probably will) change your mind: Drafting is just that: a preliminary version. You will likely go through several drafts before you consider a piece of writing “final.”

In the next post, we’ll go over the final stages of the writing process: proofreading and editing. In the meantime, happy writing, or baking…or whatever it is that you do in your spare time.

Need help? Stop by Academic Support: 690 Walnut Ave, #215.


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College Stress and Mindfulness

No doubt about it….graduate school is stressful. The American College Health Association (ACHA) administers a yearly survey to students to collect data about student habits and behaviors and their perceptions about health related topics (ACHA National College Health Assessment, Spring 2015.) The ACHA survey reports on many aspects of student perceptions of stress.

Here are a few not-so-surprising findings…

85.6% of all students who took the survey self reported feeling overwhelmed by all they had to do within the last twelve months. 

56.9% of all students felt overwhelming anxiety within the last twelve months.

45.1% of students surveyed identified “academics” as being traumatic or hard to handle within the last twelve months. Academics were higher scoring than other items on a list of traumatic or difficult situations students face including finances (33.5%), intimate relationships (30.2%), family problems (27.0%), career related issues (26.4%), other social relationships (25.4%), personal appearance (25.5%) and personal health issues (20.5%).

Overall stress levels were also self-reported ranging from “no stress” to “tremendous stress”. 53.5% of students self reported more than average stress to tremendous stress.

Source: ACHA National College Health Assessment, Spring 2015 Reference Group

In an effort to combat the daily stressors encountered by students, colleges and universities are beginning to explore mindfulness and meditation as a coping strategy for stress reduction and to enhance mood, regulate emotions and improve attention. Mindfulness meditations, yoga, therapy dogs, and exercise are just a few strategies that build resilience and help students to combat the stress of academic life. The goal being to increase the number of self-regulating tools that students can use during college and to develop practices that can be sustained into life after grad school.

0300501350697119904835071458388To learn more about Mindfulness, check out my blog at or mindful

Donald D. Matthews, PsyD



American College Health Association – National College Heath Assessment II: Reference Group Executive Summary Spring 2015. Hanover, MD> American College Health Association; 2015. Retrieved from

James, S.D. (2017). Mindfulness Meditation Mindfulness Meditation May Help Students Combat High Levels of Stress, Depression. NBC News. Retrieved from


In this post, we’re going to take a closer look at prewriting (you might want to read the first post in this series by clicking here).

Prewriting describes the work you do before you begin to write; these strategies can help you generate ideas. What are good prewriting strategies? Consider the following:

Brainstorming (Listing): Quickly jot down your thoughts and ideas as they come to you. Some writers like to use bullet points or list their ideas in short phrases. When you brainstorm, don’t worry about connecting or clearly expressing your thoughts. You’ll clarify what you’re trying to say later on. In the prewriting stage, it’s important to just RELAX and let your ideas flow without judgment or worry. (By the way, if you have a couple of minutes, try this technique for calming your mind prior to beginning your work).

Freewriting (Journaling): This strategy is similar to brainstorming in the sense that you’re focusing on getting your ideas and thoughts down on paper. While brainstorming resembles a list of short phrases, however, freewriting usually consists of full sentences. Think of freewriting like a journaling exercise. Don’t worry about grammar, spelling, or punctuation. Again, relax and let your ideas flow without judgment, worry, or censorship. If you can’t think of what to write, put that phrase down on your paper: “I can’t think of what to write.”

Clustering (Concept Mapping): Clustering helps you form associations between thoughts and ideas. Usually, you begin clustering with a single thought or idea in a circle in the middle of your paper. You then create a “map” of associated words/thoughts/ideas in other circles around the middle circle and draw lines to show the associations between the different words/thoughts/ideas. Take a look at the following example:



So there you have it: three different prewriting strategies to try out on your next writing assignment. In our next installment, we’ll take a closer look at the next stage of the writing process.

Need help? Have some other ideas you’d like to try out? Stop by Academic Support at 690 Walnut Ave, #215.


Katie Brundage

The Write Stuff

One of my favorite grammar jokes goes, “The past, the present, and the future walk into a bar. It was tense.” As you join me in my overly-unbridled enthusiasm deep appreciation for the subtle witticisms that are grammar jokes like this one, you might wish to consider a related topic: verbs (and the time and action that they convey) are not the only sources of tension in your lives as graduate students. It has come to my attention that writing, in general, is a big headache for a lot of you. Thus part of my job as a Learning Specialist is to help you overcome these headaches by providing you with the necessary resources and strategies. And hey, I might even get you to like the writing process.

The key word here is process. Writing is—and should be—regarded as a process. It is rare that any person can sit down in front of his or her computer, tablet, or phone and construct a perfectly-crafted piece of writing on the first take. Many students fail to consider that the writing process is just that: one of drafting and revising…and drafting and revising again…and again…and (lastly) editing and proofreading.

You might think of the writing process like this:


Or this:wp2

Or this:



Which writing process is best? Whichever one works for you.  Each student’s writing process is unique. You will need to experiment to find what works best for you. Regardless of the process you use, there are similarities between each: drafting, revising, and editing. Some students find it extremely helpful to prewrite before they actually begin writing. Your last step in the process should be proofreading.

In the next post, we’ll go over these steps in greater detail. In the meantime, think about your own writing process: what works? What would you like to improve?

If you are needing assistance with strategies for efficient learning or writing, please feel free to contact the Academic Support Office at Touro University, California for a consultation or support.

Active Learning


Are you familiar with the concept of Active Learning? When we study, we often approach the learning task passively by simply reading the textbook information with no intentional goal beyond comprehension. While retention or comprehension may be the desired effect of studying, it is not always an effective learning strategy. Previous research suggests that we retain only about 15-20% of what we read passively.

Recent research by Augustin (2014) suggests that we don’t fully retain information unless it is followed by an intentional process that supports retention. One method of retaining information is through self testing.

The Testing Effect.
The testing effect is enhanced when we receive feedback about what we have read in the form of active recall.  Active recall is a term applied to the repetition of information. As a retention strategy it is significantly more effective than passive reading or studying. Testing is a form of active recall that can be applied in different ways.  Giving yourself a short quiz after reading a chapter or section of text has the ability to enhance your retention by 10%. Testing as a form of delayed feedback given at the end of a study session has the greatest impact on enhancing learning.  Self testing can be used as a metacognitive strategy for enhancing retention through working memory.

Some active recall strategies you might consider after a study session…….

1.  Create a test to give yourself at the end of the chapter.

2.  Write down the five main adverse effects of beta blockers.

3.  Draw a picture that illustrates the Kreb’s cycle.

Each example demonstrates how factual knowledge can be actively retained after the study session through active recall. Active Learning methods enhance retention through intentional feedback.
Cognitive neuroscience continues to inform our understanding of how to be more efficient learners. We can use testing and feedback as active recall methods during our study sessions to make the retention of complex information more efficient.

If you are needing assistance with strategies for efficient learning, please feel free to contact the Academic Support Office at Touro University, California for a consultation or support.

Donald D. Matthews PsyD

Augustin, M. (2014). How to learn effectively in medical school: test yourself, learn actively, and repeat in intervals. Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine 8-7 (2014) pp. 207-212.

Diary of an intern’s night shift

Diary of an Intern On Her First All Nighter Lauren photo

by Hope Olzewski

First Night Shift on Family Medicine Inpatient Rotation at Arrowhead RMC

(Note, not all nights have been this challenging, and this is an abbreviated form of the entire night.)
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Not a Crammer, Nonetheless I’m Cramming

Cartoon crammingDear Dr. J,

How do I prepare for the lectures during the week of block exams? Sometimes I don’t get the lectures until a day before the exam.

Not a Crammer

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Enhance Study Strategies-Use Apps

Apps imageStudent Panel Describes Apps That Have Helped Enhanced Academic Success

Study Apps Student Panel Synopsis: 8/29/2017

Study Apps:

  • Quizlet: Quizlet is a mobile & web-based study app where you can search millions of study sets or create your own. Improve your grades by studying with flashcards, games and more.

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Practice Beyond Mastery: Study For Mastery

How to activate your brain’s ability to learn:

Photo of practice and masteryIn music, you have scales. In Jiu Jitsu, it’s drilling. Most of us just call it practice. Whatever you label it, many believe that greatness, heck even mere competency, requires training a skill well past proficiency. It’s continuing to practice your free throw even after you’ve nailed every shot. It’s playing through that song one more time even though you’ve made no mistakes. Scientists call this training past the point of improvement ‘overlearning.’ And a recent study in Nature Neuroscience suggests that it might improve performance by altering chemicals in the brain that “lock” in training.

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