Monthly Archives: January 2018

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.


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