Clemson University: Engineering and Science Education

Learning pays off: Clemson researchers find that the most productive scientists are those that love learning about science

A study by two Clemson researchers, Drs. Zahra Hazari and Geoff Potvin, recently published in Physical Review Special Topics - Physics Education Research (1) and highlighted as an "Editor's Choice" in Science (2) emphasizes the importance of individual students' motivations towards graduate studies in science and science as a career. Working with collaborators at the University of Virginia, Drs. Hazari and Potvin studied professional chemists and physicists who hold doctorates in their respective disciplines in order to investigate the long-term impacts of students' graduate school experiences on their career success and scientific productivity. They collected data from over 3000 individuals across the country who had either completed doctorates, were currently working towards doctorates, or had begun but not completed doctorates.

Survey respondents were asked to indicate the primary reasons that they entered graduate school. Those that indicated that "Getting good grades" or "Receiving scholarships/fellowships" were primary reasons were considered to exhibit a "performance orientation". Such individuals were found to be no more productive (in terms of the number of publications that they produce or the grant funding they garner) than average. Those individuals that indicated that they "Loved thinking about science" were considered to exhibit a "learning orientation". This group of scientists were found to produce significantly more publications and grant funding than average. Going further, Hazari and Potvin found that, given equal salaries, "learning oriented" individuals were significantly more productive than "performance oriented" individuals.

"The importance of these findings is that it underlines the importance of taking into consideration students' motivations as they progress through their education," said Hazari. "Often, students' motivations are considered to be somewhat outside the scope of an educator's domain, or that students 'should' have plenty of motivation towards science by default. This work shows that educators should, in fact, be paying attention to the motivations of their students and trying to cultivate beneficial motivations."

One way that student motivations have been marginalized is through the widespread use of performance assessments to evaluate students' preparedness for advancement, whether at the K-12 level, during the college application process, and throughout post-secondary education. Such reliance on performance assessments can send subtle messages to students that their performance is the only thing that matters. "Students who are constantly assessed through standardized testing become oriented around the process of testing and assessment, and can neglect to consider that their intrinsic interests in a subject are a potential reason to pursue it further," said Dr. Potvin. "Thus, the very motivations that lead scientists to be the most productive in their careers can wither on the vine, rather than flourishing."

(1): Phys. Rev. ST Phys. Educ. Res. 6, 10107 (2010).
(2): SCIENCE 329:5989, 259 (16 JULY 2010).