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Journal of Advanced


High Ability Students' Voice on Learning Motivation

Alex C. Garn and Jennifer L. Jolly
Journal of Advanced Academics 2014 25: 7 originally published online 16 December
DOI: 10.1177/1932202X13513262
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JOA25110.1177/1932202X13513262Journal of Advanced AcademicsGarn and Jolly


High Ability Students Voice

on Learning Motivation

Journal of Advanced Academics

2014, Vol. 25(1) 724
The Author(s) 2013
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/1932202X13513262

Alex C. Garn1 and Jennifer L. Jolly1

This study used a self-determination theory lens to investigate high ability learners
motivational experiences. Participants were 15 high ability youth involved in a summer
learning camp for gifted students. Two major themes emerged from qualitative data
analysis: (a) The Fun Factor of Learning and (b) The Rewards and Pressures of Good
Grades. Fun learning experiences (i.e., intrinsic motivation, identified regulation)
occurred when parents and teachers tailored learning activities to personalized
interests and goals. Likewise, learning choices helped increase intrinsic motivation
and identified regulation. Motivational experiences were decreased when parents
exerted high levels of pressure on academic outcomes (e.g., grades): therefore,
introjected regulation could be especially relevant in understanding motivation in
high ability learners.
autonomy, interest, self-determination

Many researchers suggest that high ability students face barriers to reaching their
learning potential (Reis et al., 2004). Potential obstacles include a combination of
school factors such as unchallenging curriculum and unresponsive pedagogy
(Colangelo, Assouline, & Gross, 2004) as well as family factors such as unrealistic
expectations and high levels of achievement pressure (Garn, Matthews, & Jolly, 2010;
Mudrak, 2011). Peers can also present learning barriers (e.g., social rejection, bullying) to high achieving students (Phillips & Lindsay, 2006). In all likelihood, high


State University, Baton Rouge, USA

Corresponding Author:
Alex C. Garn, School of Kinesiology, Louisiana State University, 112 Huey Long Field House Room 127,
Baton Rouge, LA 70803, USA.

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Table 1. Continuum of Motivation in Self-Determination Theory.


Action governed by internal rewards
Action governed by external reward
internalized into self-systems
Action governed by external reward
internalized as valuable
Action governed by internal or external
Action governed by external reward or
External reward or punishment does not
inspire action

I study because I enjoy it
I study because I am a good
I study because I want to go to
I study because my parents
expect it
I study to get my allowance
I am grounded because I did
not study


level of self-determination.
forms of extrinsic motivation; self-determined forms of motivation promote high levels
of engagement and volitional behavior.

ability students encounter a range of experiences that enhance and hinder their motivation to learn.
Motivation is considered a key discriminating factor between high ability students
who maximize learning potential and those who underachieve (McCoach & Siegle,
2003). Self-determination theory (SDT) is a comprehensive framework of motivation
that can enhance understanding of high ability students learning motivation (Deci &
Ryan, 2000). In SDT, motivation acts as the primary regulating mechanism of behavior. Deci and Ryan posit that motivation is a multi-dimensional construct that resides
on a continuum of self-determination ranging from intrinsic motivation to different
types of extrinsic motivation to amotivation (see Table 1).

Motivation in SDT
Learners who are driven by internal processes such as interest, enjoyment, and satisfaction regulate their behaviors through intrinsic motivation (Ryan & Deci, 2000). For
example, an intrinsically motivated student engages in learning activities to fulfill his
or her interests and curiosity (Niemiec & Ryan, 2009). Learning is regulated effectively by intrinsic motivation because behavioral engagement is considered a reward
in and of itself. Thus, because motivation comes from within the individual, external
contingencies are unnecessary to regulate behavior. Intrinsic motivation to learn is a
natural tendency that facilitates high levels of cognitive, emotional, and social development (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Students who are intrinsically motivated focus more on
the process of learning than learning outcomes; however, intrinsic motivation is linked
to high levels of achievement (Soenens & Vansteenkiste, 2005). Intrinsic motivation
is more likely to be fostered or enhanced over time in school environments that are
viewed as focusing on task mastery, individual improvement, and personal effort
(Corpus, McClintic-Gilbert, & Hayenga, 2009). Intrinsic motivation represents the

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Garn and Jolly

highest form of self-determination in SDT and results in consistent and volitional

learning behaviors (Deci & Ryan, 2000).
In their Fullerton Longitudinal Study, Gottfried, Gottfried and colleagues have
investigated the intrinsic motivation of gifted students over time since 1979 (see
A. E. Gottfried & Gottfried, 2004, for a review). This seminal work has produced
robust evidence for the adaptive nature of intrinsic motivation in gifted learners academic achievement after controlling for a host of potential confounding variables
including IQ. For example, Gottfried and Gottfried found positive relationships
between intrinsic motivation at an early age in gifted learners and increased achievement in mathematics, science, reading, and social studies during adolescence. More
recently, Cho and Lin (2011) reported positive relationships between intrinsic motivation and performance on creative problem solving in mathematics and science in gifted
Korean students. Intrinsic motivation also appears to enhance achievement-related
emotions in gifted students as well (Phillips & Lindsay, 2006).
Not all learning activities are enjoyable and fun. SDT researchers delineate four
types of extrinsic motivation that reside between intrinsic motivation and amotivation
(Deci & Ryan, 2000; Ryan & Deci, 2000). Integrated regulation is the highest form of
extrinsic motivation in SDT because the learner internalizes the external rewards of
behavioral engagement into her or his self-concept (Deci & Ryan, 2000). For example,
a high ability student may not find learning science interesting, but enjoys getting
praise from teachers and parents for her academic achievement. She sees herself as a
good student and remains highly engaged in science to fulfill her academic selfconcept. Identified regulation is also considered a self-determined form of extrinsic
motivation and occurs when an individual internalizes the importance of an external
contingency (Ryan & Deci, 2000). For example, a high ability student works hard to
obtain good grades for the primary reason of getting into the university he covets.
Empirical evidence suggests that integrated regulation and identified regulation predict learning engagement (Jang, 2008). Similarly, Kusurkar, Croiset, Kruitwagen, and
ten Cate (2011) revealed positive relationships between college students identified
regulation and their willingness to make sacrifices to study and report persistence in
overcoming study barriers.
Introjected regulation and external regulation are the final two forms of extrinsic
motivation theorized in SDT. In both cases, external rewards or contingencies are not
fully internalized; hence, levels of self-determination are lower in these two forms of
regulation (Deci, Eghrari, Patrick, & Leone, 1994). Introjected regulation is focused
on obtaining external sources of approval through behavioral engagement or avoiding
outside sources of disapproval (Vallerand & Ratelle, 2002). For example, a high ability student whose primary motivator for academic achievement is to reduce parental
pressure is an example of introjected regulation. Although introjected regulation may
produce short-term learning engagement, motivation is not fully internalized which
often leads to inconsistent long-term engagement (Vallerand & Ratelle, 2002).
External regulation occurs when the underlying motive for behavior is solely based on
the external contingency (i.e., reward or punishment). For example, a high ability student completes her homework to avoid punishment from her parents. Removal of the

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punishment, or threat of punishment, would likely cease homework behavior during

external regulation.
Finally, amotivation represents the lowest form of self-determination where neither
internal processes nor external contingencies inspire behavioral engagement. For
example, an amotivated student resists learning engagement, even when presented
with external rewards or threatened with punishment. It is theorized that amotivated
students do not internalize the importance and value of learning in a particular context
or believe they lack the ability to be successful in that context (Legault, Green-Demers,
& Pelletier, 2006).
Researchers investigating the motivation of high ability students have rarely differentiated motivation along the SDT continuum. Previous studies have focused on personality traits associated with motivation (e.g., Schick & Phillipson, 2009), intrinsic
motivation (e.g., A. W. Gottfried, Gottfried, Cook, & Morris, 2005), or made the general distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation (e.g., Gagne, 2010; Phillips
& Lindsay, 2006). Extrinsic motivation in most of these gifted studies is aligned with
external regulation in SDT. Work examining integrated regulation and identified regulation of gifted students is non-existent. There are similarities between integrated regulation and identified regulation in SDT and attainment value and utility value in
expectancy-value theory (Wigfield & Cambria, 2010). Researchers in the field of gifted
education have highlighted the importance of developing attainment value and utility
value in gifted learners (Peters, 2012; Rodgers, 2008; Siegle & McCoach, 2005).
Investigations using SDT could add to current theoretical and practical understanding about the motivation of high ability learners. For example, a better grasp of how
different types of extrinsic motivation facilitate diverse learning engagement outcomes could be gained.

The Social Environment

Where one resides on the continuum of motivation is based on how well the learning
environment supports feelings of autonomy, competence, and relatedness, which are
considered basic psychological needs in SDT (Reeve, 2002, 2006). Social environments that satisfy feelings of (a) self-endorsed actions (i.e., autonomy), (b) personal
capacity for achievement and success (i.e., competence), and (c) reciprocal care for
and with others (i.e., relatedness) produce high levels of self-determination. In such
environments, behaviors are generally self-regulated through intrinsic motivation,
integrated regulation, or identified regulation. However, social environments that
thwart feelings of autonomy, competence, and relatedness produce low levels of selfdetermination. Behaviors in this type of environment are typically regulated through
external means (e.g., rewards, punishments, control, pressure) and facilitate introjected regulation, external regulation, or amotivation.
Learning environments that focus on giving high ability students meaningful
choices and freedom to pursue personal learning interests represent common characteristics of an autonomy supportive atmosphere (Reeve, 2002). On the other end of
the spectrum, learning environments that emphasize controlling structures such as
external rewards and pressures represent characteristics that diminish high ability

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Table 2. Demographic Characteristics of Participants.










Household income




Note. English was the first language of all participants. GC = type of gifted program; SC = self-contained
gifted program; PO = pullout gifted program; GCMS = gifted classes in middle school setting.

students feelings of autonomy. Feelings of competence are promoted when learning

environments differentiate tasks at the appropriate level of challenge for high ability
students. When high ability students are faced with inappropriate levels of challenge
on a consistent basis, whether too high or low, feelings of competence are negatively
affected. Finally, learning environments that focus on cooperation, encouragement,
and inclusion are more likely to produce feelings of relatedness than those that concentrate on social comparison, competition, and exclusion.
Researchers to date have provided meaningful insights about the motivation (e.g.,
McCoach & Siegle, 2003; Phillips & Lindsay, 2006) and social environment (e.g.,
Kao, 2011; Mudrak, 2011) of high ability youth. SDT provides a comprehensive
framework that could add to the current understanding of high ability students motivation and social environmental factors that cultivate or degrade it. The use of SDT
with high ability students could help bridge previous studies on motivation and the
social environment and provide a clear direction for future investigations. Therefore,
the purpose of this study was to explore high ability students experiences with learning motivation. Specifically, the goal was to obtain high ability students subjective
meaning of learning motivation.

Participants and Setting
Participants were (N = 15) high ability students involved in a summer learning program from the Southeastern United States (see Table 2). There were 10 boys and

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5 girls with a mean age of 9.13 (SD = 1.19). Twelve of the participants identified their
ethnicity as Caucasian/White and 3 as African American/Black. Participants were
identified as gifted by their school district prior to entrance into the summer program.
Identification for giftedness was based on state law requiring students to score at least
two standard deviations above the mean on a standardized measure of intellectual ability (e.g., Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children) or a combination of aptitude and
achievement scores between 1 and 2 standard deviations above the mean in reading
and/or math (e.g., WoodcockJohnson III Normative Update Tests of Cognitive
The summer learning program was an all-day week-long program for identified
gifted students in grades 3 to 8. Students self-select to participate in the summer programming that is offered through the local university. Students engaged in an independent study project focused on historical aspects of the state and state, and their work
was facilitated by teachers who were enrolled in their capstone course for gifted education certification. While students work on their independent study project, they are
offered opportunities to socialize with one another during snack and lunch breaks. The
independent study project is driven by students choice of topic and final product.
Teachers guided students through the research process and helped prepare their
independent study project using primary resources that included field trips to local
historical sites and archives.

Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis (IPA)

We used IPA as the qualitative framework to guide this study. Smith and Osborn
(2008) defined IPA as a qualitative approach designed to investigate how social experiences shape an individuals personal meaning toward phenomena. IPA emphasizes
the importance of subjective perceptions in shaping ones reality. A two-step interpretation approach was used (Smith & Osborn, 2008). First, the participants interpreted
their thoughts, feelings, and experiences about learning motivation through conversations (i.e., interviews). The second level of interpretation occurred as we interpreted
and made sense of the students dialog about their experiences related to learning

Role of the Researchers

In accordance with the assumptions of IPA (Smith & Osborn, 2008), we were active
agents in the interpretation process of understanding participants subjective meaning.
We acknowledge an SDT bias in our interpretations of students subjective meaning
based on our subjective meaning of learning motivation. Independent coding measures
and member checks were used as two specific strategies to reduce bias. We have
extensive knowledge of qualitative methodologies and experience conducting and
publishing qualitative research.

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Data Collection
Approval for this study was granted by the Universitys Institutional Review Board.
We explained the study to all participants and parents during a pre-camp orientation.
Parental consent and participant assent were obtained during the orientation. Semistructured interviews were conducted in a one-on-one format during a 2-week period
following the end of the camp (Patton, 2002). All interviews took place in a quiet room
in the same building as the camp. This site was chosen because it represented a familiar but neutral context. Smith and Osborn (2008) posited that semi-structured interviews are the exemplary method for IPA because they allow the researcher and
participant to engage in structured conversation that can still be tailored to the participants responses. The interview guide was based on SDT principles. The final interview guide consisted of 10 questions about learning motivation (see the appendix).
Informal prompts were used for each question based on participants responses.

Data Analysis
All interviews were recorded and transcribed verbatim. Once there was a full written
transcript, we used a process of inductive analysis and constant comparison to develop
themes (LeCompte & Preissle, 1993). The first step consisted of reading and rereading
the interview transcripts. During this process, we wrote interpretive notes on the document. Next, an open coding procedure was utilized to generate meaning categories
throughout the transcripts. Both of these procedures were initially performed independently. We then met and went through the coded transcripts and discussed the meaning
of categories. In many cases, categories with the same meaning were labeled with different names. For example, a transcript passage was labeled as intrinsic motivation
by one of us and enjoyment by the other; however, after a short discussion it was
agreed that the meaning was the same and enjoyment was the appropriate category
name. Disagreements were debated until consensus or compromise was reached. For
example, ego and performance goal orientation were two examples of categories
that were only coded by one of us. After discussion, we agreed that we were talking
about unique categories that were both important enough to be included. Similarities
across categories were then investigated to reduce and refine categories into more general subthemes. Subthemes represented more encompassing and abstract connections
across categories. Finally, we clustered subthemes into higher order themes, which are
considered superordinate concepts in IPA (Smith & Osborn, 2008). Multiple rounds of
reduction, refinement, and discussion were conducted until the final higher order
themes were generated. For example, we initially discussed creating a third theme
focused on social influences of motivation and debated the potential overlap with the
parental focus of the Rewards and Pressures of Good Grades higher order theme. It
took three separate discussions over a period of 2 weeks for us to decide that the social
influences theme did not stand on its own and was therefore discarded. Table 3 provides
a visual representation of our final categories, subthemes, and higher order themes.

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Table 3. Description of Thematic Development.

Higher order
The fun
factor of


Rewards and
of good

Extrinsic reward
Parental grade

Interesting content; Boring content; Success; Enjoyment;
Positive emotions; Self-esteem; Personal judgment;
Personal goals; Self-pacing; Meaningful content; Knowing
interests and disinterests; Active learning; Social
opportunities; Passive learning.
Learning responsibility; Autonomy; Active learning;
Passive learning; Effort; Creativity; Authority; Challenge;
Fear of failure; Career aspirations; Social connections.
Grade bribes; Token incentives; Punishment; Positive/
negative emotions; Privileges; Threats.
Family comparisons; Internal/external guilt; Pressure;
Social comparisons; Praise; Getting fussed at; Effort;
Making parents proud; Perceived parental anger;
Parental support; Performance goal orientation;
Control; Punishment; Disappointment; Gifted label; Ego.

Note. In some cases, categories were relevant to more than one subtheme. For example, Active Learning
was described as a learning preference by students (i.e., Personalized Learning) and students also discussed
how learning choices often facilitated more active types of learning activities, which they liked.

Data Credibility
Member checks were used as a procedure to help establish data credibility (Smith &
Osborn, 2008). The member check strategy consisted of sending each participant a
one-page summary of the thematic interpretations. Each participant was given an
opportunity to examine the summary and provide feedback. One minor adjustment
related to thematic terminology was made. Specifically, the subtheme Empowering
Choices was originally termed Locus of Learning; however, many participants
wanted clarity on what that meant. Although the general meaning of the subtheme did
not change, we decided to rename the subtheme Empowering Choices based on this
feedback. Negative case analysis was also used to ensure data credibility (Patton,
2002). Specifically, instances of thematic disagreement in the transcripts were investigated throughout the data analysis process.

Two higher order themes emerged from data analysis procedures: (a) The Fun Factor
of Learning and (b) The Rewards and Pressure of Good Grades. All of the students
involved in this study reported the importance of making learning fun and provided
advice for teachers and parents. Students also revealed the high grade expectations,
and at times pressure, associated with being gifted and detailed reward systems that
parents and teachers commonly used to inspire the attainment of good grades. Below,
we have used pseudonyms for all participants.

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The Fun Factor of Learning

Students wanted learning at school or home to be as fun as possible. Fun, however,
often means different things to different people. Analysis of students interview
responses revealed the following elements that appeared to be at the heart of making
learning fun: (a) personalized learning and (b) empowering choices.
Personalized learning. Participants reported that practices that personalized learning were an important factor in making learning fun. Specifically, it was suggested
that teachers and parents should know and cater to personalized learning interests
and goals. For example, Kathryn noted, Its pretty cool when I learn about subjects that I really like; in science [we learn about] different things, like space,
volcanoes, the Earth. Good teachers get to know what I like (individual interview, June 28, 2012). Arthur relayed a similar message: I love art class because
ever since I was a little kid I wanted to draw stuff and create all sorts of pictures
and we get to do that in class (individual interview, June 25, 2012). According to
Eric, his parents understood the importance of getting to know his personal learning interests:
My parents are very effective at motivating me because they really know what I like to
learn about and let me focus on them [learning interests]. Its good for parents to know
what their kids like if they want to motivate them. (individual interview, June 29, 2012)

Students liked teachers who got to know what they enjoyed doing outside of school
and matching learning experiences in the classroom and reported that teachers who
were able to do this made learning more personalized and ultimately fun. Timothy
stated, Im going to a 2-week serious college camp for music. I always love playing
music so Im motivated to learn in music class. My teacher found out about it and we
got to talk about it in class (individual interview, July 6, 2012).
Students also revealed that learning experiences that aligned with personal goals
also made learning more enjoyable and meaningful. Statements made across participants suggested that the group as a whole had long-term academic goals that focused
on attending college or getting good jobs and viewed educational experiences as a
means to meet these goals. For example, Teresa said,
In general, I think Im motivated to do well in school because when I grow up, I really
want to have a successful career, and so I know the way to have a successful career is
through education. I really try to do well in social studies because when I grow up I want
to be a politician, so a social studies background would be good for me. (individual
interview, June 27, 2012)

Many of the students articulated long-term learning goals despite their young ages
(i.e., mean less than 10 years old). For example, although Tristan was still in elementary school, he noted, Im really motivated in school because it will help me further
my goals. I want to become a scientist when I grow up so I can do all sorts of experiments (individual interview, June 25, 2012).

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Empowering choices. Students revealed that having choices in what they learned was a
strategy that made activities more fun and personalized. For example, Teresa noted, I
really like having a say in my education. So if the teacher asks us, would you rather
learn by guided notes or Power Point? I really like being able to voice my opinion on
what we do (individual interview, June 27, 2012). Ann reported that having choices
helped customize activities to fit me and what I like (individual interview, June 26,
2012). Timothy had a similar opinion:
A lot of projects in English, you know, if she tells me she wants a paragraph, blah, blah,
blah, I just want to get it over with. But if she lets me choose a project I want, like when
I did a Jack Dog project, I went all out and gave like 110% on it. (individual interview,
July 6, 2012)

Daniel also appreciated having choices and suggested more teachers should capitalize on this strategy: teachers should give projects where you can really kind of get
your own personality into it, thats always helped motivate me. I think giving choices
would help motivate the whole class (individual interview, July 6, 2012). Karen suggested that having choices allows me to be creative instead of just having to follow
directions or rules. I get to learn more about myself (individual interview, June 29,
2012). Jasmine stated that,
Having choices in class allows me to learn that things I really want to learn about. One
time I was trying to understand poetry and the teacher said I could pick my favorite book
of poetry and I remember getting a lot out of it. (individual interview, June 25, 2012)

Students reported that having choices made learning experiences more fun and ultimately results in higher levels of engagement. Arthur thought that choices were more
appropriate for high ability students: Choices are good for my gifted friends because
they would pick very hard subjects: however, I think some of my friends who arent gifted
would pick really easy projects if given the choice (individual interview, June 25, 2012).

The Rewards and Pressure of Good Grades

The gifted students of this study were highly aware of their grades. The emphasis
placed on grade or test outcomes appeared to be linked with extrinsic reward systems
or family pressure. Thirteen of the 15 participants underscored the use of external
rewards or punishments as a motivating system associated with getting good grades.
For example, Timothy reported, If I get straight As on my report card, then my parents or sometimes my uncle will give me like $200. Im already motivated, but you
know, I like the money as a reward, too (individual interview, July 6, 2012). Similarly,
Ann said,
There was a time when I was having a little trouble so my parents said that if I got straight
As, they would get me the toy I wanted and take me out to eat at my favorite restaurant.
But after I got a handle on it and was getting straight As for a while, they stopped having
to bribe me. Sometimes theyll tell me theyre really disappointed when I get a bad grade

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and I try to do better because it makes me sad. I like being bribing better. (individual
interview, June 26, 2012)

Tristan reported: Getting straight As is important because it means I get my

allowance (individual interview, June 25, 2012). Jasmine suggested that,
My family is really important and influential to me getting good grades because they
offer me rewards and stuff when I do. Like, if I do really well on a test, my parents will
take me out for ice cream or yogurt. (individual interview, June 25, 2012)

Eric suggested that, I dont like being punished for when I dont get good grades so
thats a real motivator. I love to play baseball and when I dont get good grades, my
parents dont let me go to practice (individual interview, June 29, 2012). Teresa was a
negative case, she noted that, My dad does the Army thing, you know, says hell punish me if I dont get good grades. Like take away my video games. But Im motivated
to learn and do well, so its pretty pointless (individual interview, June 27, 2012).
High grade expectations by parents often manifested into feelings of pressure and
anxiety to get perfect grades in advanced classes. In other words, there was clear academic pressure to get As. Gerald revealed,
My parents put some pressure on me to do well. They tell me that my grades are starting
to count for like college. I mean I took two high school credit courses this year. They were
pretty hard, but my goal was to still get straight As. (individual interview, June 29, 2012)

Daniel expressed powerful feelings about his fear of displeasing his parents: If I
make a B, its hard for me to even show my face to my parents. I mean, if they see that
B, they are going to get upset and push me really hard (individual interview, July 6,
2012). Tristan noted, Im gifted so Im expected to get As. I know my dad would
punish me if I got more Bs than As. He would really make me work hard (individual
interview, June 25, 2012). Jasmine suggested that,
My mom and dad want me to get As. They dont freak out if I get a B every now and
then, but I know theyd get mad if I got a lot of Bs. Theyd really freak out if I ever got
anything lower than a B! (individual interview, June 25, 2012)

Brent said, I want to get 100% on every report card because both my parents were
straight A students. You have to be very smart to do that. Its hard sometimes, but I
dont want to let them down (individual interview, July 2, 2012). High expectations
from family members were not attached to how much learning was taking place at
school according to these participants; rather, the measuring stick was the outcome
grades that were achieved.

The purpose of this study was to explore high ability students experiences with learning motivation through an SDT lens. These high ability students discussed a range of

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Journal of Advanced Academics 25(1)

positive and negative learning motivational experiences. Interpretation of themes

revealed that intrinsic motivation, identified regulation, introjected regulation, and
external regulation were the most salient forms of learning motivation to these participants. Furthermore, social interactions with teachers, parents, peers, and the learning
atmosphere were closely associated with these four types of motivation.
The Fun Factor of Learning theme revealed that many of the high ability students
in this study viewed learning experiences that tapped their intrinsic motivation and
identified regulation as optimal. Specifically, the high ability students wanted learning
experiences to be tailoring to their personal interests (i.e., intrinsic motivation) or
learning goals (i.e., identified regulation). Motivation was at its peak when students
were able to investigate school-related topics that matched their interests outside of
school. For example, Timothy noted how learning about music in school was highly
motivating, because it was something he loved to do outside of school (e.g., playing
music on his own; attending music camp). There were numerous references to the
motivating nature of school-based learning experiences that tapped into real world
interests. The internal rewards these students experienced when pursuing their learning interests was a clear example of intrinsic motivation (Deci & Ryan, 2000), which
has consistently been associated with achievement in high ability learners (A. E.
Gottfried & Gottfried, 2004; McCoach & Siegle, 2003).
Identified regulation was also highlighted in the Fun Factor of Learning theme.
Despite the relatively youthful nature of this sample, many of these high ability students had clear long-term learning goals. These ranged from entering professional
fields such as engineering and basic science to gaining entrance into preferred colleges. Thus, learning experiences that were deemed relevant to achieving long-term
personal goals were reported to be motivating. In other words, when students internalized the importance of certain learning experiences perceived to help reach their goals,
deeper levels of motivation were reported. From an SDT perspective, goals framed
within autonomous forms of motivation (i.e., intrinsic, integrated, identified) are associated with a host of positive outcomes including adaptive functioning in school
(Mouratidis, Vansteenkiste, Lens, Michou, & Soenens, 2013). Niemiec and Ryan
(2009) suggested that identified regulation is especially important for the development
of learners self-regulation skills for uninteresting educational content. Therefore,
gaining a better understanding of identified regulation use in high ability learners
could add the accumulating research on self-regulation in high ability populations
(Neber & Schommer-Aikins, 2002; Yoon, 2009).
Participants revealed that social factors associated with intrinsic motivation and
identified regulation were (a) parents and teachers who knew and facilitated their
learning interests and goals and (b) learning environments that provided choices.
Many of the high ability students suggested that teachers who were most effective at
motivating them at school were the ones who took the time to know their learning
interests and goals. Reeve (2006) acknowledged the importance of building personal
relationships with students (i.e., relatedness support) in facilitating self-determined
forms of motivation in the classroom. Learning motivation was also supported when
parents catered to their learning interests and goals. It was implied that parents typically had a better grasp of their learning interests and goals compared with teachers.

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Garn and Jolly

This supports previous research in which high ability mothers perceived to know and
understand their childs academic motivation better than teachers (Garn et al., 2010).
Learning environments that provided students with choices was also recognized as
a facilitator of intrinsic and identified types of experiences described in the Fun Factor
of Learning theme. Providing students with structured choices provides learning
autonomy, which is considered a facilitator of self-determined forms of motivation
(Niemiec & Ryan, 2009; Reeve, 2002). These high ability students reported that
choices allowed them to take ownership of their learning (e.g., get my own personality into it), be more creative, and focus on personally relevant content. It was interesting that Arthur, a negative case, perceived that students without high ability would
likely choose unchallenging learning activities. Gentry and her colleagues (e.g., Chae
& Gentry, 2011) have provided robust evidence that high ability students and those in
the general population prefer learning activities with appropriate challenge.
Experiences with introjected regulation were also reported by many of these high
ability students in the Rewards and Pressures of Good Grades theme. Specifically,
reports of parental pressures to get good grades and live up their giftedness as well
as the internal pressure of showcasing their high ability to others were discussed.
Grades (e.g., getting As) were often identified as the markers used to make judgments. In many cases, these participants suggested that external rewards were given by
their parents for good grades while punishments and guilt were used for poor grades.
Other researchers have underscored the parental pressures and at times unrealistic
expectations for school achievement that high ability students often face (Garn et al.,
2010; Mudrak, 2011). The role of introjected regulation in high ability students clearly
needs more investigation. On one hand, introjected regulation could potentially exert
a push to increase ones internalization for a particular behavior (Deci et al., 1994). On
the other hand, introjected regulation could contribute to problems such as perfectionism (McArdle & Duda, 2004). Introjected regulation has been considered a controlling
form of motivation in SDT that limits students learning autonomy (Reeve, 2006).
Furthermore, when parents continually exert pressure on academic outcomes and
introjected regulation becomes the primarily motivator of the high ability child, the
possibility of self-esteem becoming contingent on parental approval could develop
(Deci & Ryan, 1995). Relying on outsides sources for self-esteem development and
maintenance could degrade high ability students self-esteem and facilitate a host of
academic and mental health problems.
Motivational systems that utilized external rewards were highlighted by almost all
of the high ability students in this study. Most of the references were made about
receiving rewards or punishments from parents, although a couple reports focused on
teachers. Specifically, participants enjoyed getting rewards such as food, money, or
toys for getting good grades from parents. Motivational systems commonly focus on
the use of basic external contingencies to shape behavior. The implementation of these
types of externally based reward systems have been reported by parents of high ability
students in previous research (Garn et al., 2010). From an SDT perspective (Deci &
Ryan, 2000), social environments focused on shaping behavior through external contingencies instead of personal internalization limit feelings of autonomy and often fail
to produce long-term compliance and transfer. Likewise, using external contingencies

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Journal of Advanced Academics 25(1)

when individuals have high levels of internalization could degrade the internal pleasure of learning and reduce overall learning determination (Covington, 2000).
This study is not without limitations. The aim of this study was to generate firsthand accounts of motivation from a select number of gifted learners: therefore, findings cannot be generalized to the broader population of gifted learners. Another
limitation is that we interviewed students during the summer and were unable to
observe their behaviors in the classroom. Future research would benefit from incorporating interviews and observers as a means of triangulation (Patton, 2002). A final
limitation is the retrospective nature of the study. Examining how gifted students perceive motivation over time, especially as they engage in different learning contexts
would advance our current understanding of motivation in gifted learners.
In conclusion, these high ability students reported diverse learning motivation
experiences that ranged along the self-determination continuum. From a theoretical
standpoint, the findings of this study support the continued use of SDT in high ability
research. Specifically, more investigations focused on the different types of external
regulations in SDT, especially identified regulation and introjected regulation could
increase understanding about high ability students learning motivation. Specifically,
future investigators should examine the link between parental academic pressure and
introjected regulation in gifted students. From a practical standpoint, findings warrant
future examination of how teachers and parents support or hinder autonomy, competence, and relatedness and the relationship these have with high ability students selfdetermined motivation at home and in the classroom. In accordance with SDT,
providing choices (i.e., autonomy, competence) and getting to know and supporting
learning interests (i.e., relatedness, competence) were the practices that these participants identified as highly motivating. Putting pressure on academic outcomes such as
grades was a common practice by parents that produced introjected-based motivational experiences. The use of externally based reward systems were viewed as motivating by the high ability students, but the long-term implications of such systems
need more study.

Interview Guide
1. Some kids are motivated to do well in school, while others are not motivated
to do well in school. In general, how would you describe your motivation
toward school?
a. Informal prompts based on responses
2. In your opinion, what has caused you to develop this motivation toward
a. Informal prompts based on responses
3. What classes, if any, are you most motivated to try hard and do well in?
a. What are the characteristics of those classes that make you motivated?
b. What other characteristics can you think of?
c. Informal prompts based on responses

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Garn and Jolly

4. What classes, if any, are you least motivated to try hard and do well in?
a. What are the characteristics of those classes that make you unmotivated?
b. What other characteristics can you think of?
c. Informal prompts based on responses
5. Some kids find the following sources of motivation in school really important,
while others do not find them very important. Please describe how influential
each one is to you.
a. Your teacher
i. Why or why not?
b. Your friends
i. Why or why not?
c. Other students in class or at school
i. Why or why not?
d. Your family
i. Why or why not?
e. Having choices in class
i. Why or why not?
f. Competition
i. Why or why not?
6. What strategies do your teachers use to try to motivate you?
a. Can you provide any specific examples?
b. How effective are your teachers in actually motivating you?
c. Informal prompts based on responses
7. What strategies do your parents/guardians use to try and motivate you to do
your homework or do well in school?
a. Can you provide any specific examples?
b. How effective are your parents/guardians in actually motivating you?
c. Do the strategies that your parents use ever conflict with the strategies that
your teachers use?
i. If so, how do you feel when this happens?
8. If you could give your parents and teachers one piece of advice about how to
best motivate you in school, what would it be?
a. Why did you pick that tip?
b. Informal prompts based on responses
9. There are a lot of different reasons why kids work hard to learn in school. I
have developed a list of six common reasons that I would like to ask you about.
Please think about how well each example fits your reasons for working hard
to learn in school.
a. Because I would feel guilty if I didnt learn in school
b. Because I enjoy learning in school
c. Because I would get in trouble if I didnt learn in school.
d. Because its important to me to learn in school
e. I dont learn in school because I dont value it
f. Because learning in school is a big part of who I am

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Journal of Advanced Academics 25(1)

10. We have talked a lot about your motivation toward learning and school today.Is
there anything that I havent asked you about that is important in understanding your motivation?
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The authors declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship,
and/or publication of this article.

The authors received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this

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