From the late 1980s to the late 2000s, psychologists analyzed personal qualities other than intelligence that predict accomplishments such as success in school. Qualities such as dependability and conscientiousness, which lead to high levels of competence, were recast in information processing terms. What underlies conscientiousness, for example, are wishes and desires that become goals and intentions, which must be implemented and protected from competing goals and other distractions (Kuhl, 1984). Duckworth and colleagues (2007) refer colloquially to a quality they call “grit,” which they define as “perseverance and passion for longterm goals.” Their “Grit Scale” reliably distinguishes students who attest to finishing tasks, persisting under difficulty, and overcoming obstacles from those students who say they tend to vacillate or are easily distracted on tasks. These authors find that “grit” plays a key role in leadership and other long-term achievements.
Cognitive-motivation researchers and positive psychologists alike recognized that there is something in the notion of purposive striving that cannot be captured within the concept of motivation, so they put a new interpretation on the old idea of willpower by returning to serious study of the psychological concept of volition. Volition is that quality of the will that takes a student from implementation to follow-through, reflecting an ability to persist in the face of difficulty. Whereas motivation denotes a process of goal setting leading to commitment, volition denotes a process of implementation leading to goal accomplishment. To the extent that volition helps a student to protect established goals and follow-through on tasks, it is highly important for success in academic settings such as classroom learning.
The key processes that define volition are the management, protection, and maintenance of attention, motivation, and emotion in tasks: Breaking a task into smaller pieces; beginning without procrastinating; resolving to avoid distraction and concentrate; thinking of the satisfaction completion will bring. Evidence of the ability for selective control of attention and emotion even in very young children has been shown to predict school performance later on (Shoda, Mischel, & Peake, 1990).
Psychologists offer a wide array of models that describe volitional processes. Some of the most cited are models of action control (Kuhl, 1984), effortful control, impulse control, emotion control, learned industriousness (Eisen-berger, 1992), implementation intentions (Gollwitzer, 1999), and self-regulated learning or SRL (Corno, 2007). According to Boekaerts and Corno (2005), who reviewed research on self-regulation in education, there are several self-regulation processes that reflect volitional control; these include managing learning tasks, coping with distractions, focusing attention, and productively channeling emotions. In addition to these aspects of volition, SRL models highlight the role of motives and goals in strategy use and academic achievement (Zimmerman & Schunk, 2007).
Although volition theorists emphasize the conscious effort that a student makes to better manage learning, some go on to develop the idea that volitional processes can become automatized with repeated use and associated conditional feedback. Automization frees up mental resources for tasks over time, suggesting that volitional processes can be transferred to new situations. Transfer across situations, as when there is evidence of automatically applied control on novel tasks, can lead students toward a volitional style of learning (a work style or work ethic) that again is suggestive of traits such as dependability.
To better understand how volition develops, scholars identified the variety of explicit strategies used by students to manage, protect, and maintain their work efforts. For example, Corno and Kanfer (1993) adapted a list generated by Kuhl (l984) into two categories of covert and overt strategies used by students in educational settings. Both covert and overt (easily observable) strategies are aimed at protecting targeted goals from competing goals or other distractions, and managing negative affect.
The covert strategies studied by these authors included (a) metacognitive controls such as planning and self-monitoring; (b) motivation controls such as self-reinforcement, self-instructing, adapting tasks to make them more meaningful, and prioritizing target goals; and (c) emotion controls such as working out a timeline, controlled breathing in the face of difficulty, imagining rewards and satisfactions, and using available resources for conditional feedback. The overt strategies studied by these authors included controlling the task situation and others in the task setting. To control the task setting, students can create manageable sub-tasks, gather information and materials in advance, and avoid distractions. To control others in the task setting, students can take actions such as seeking assistance from teachers and supportive peers and asking bothersome peers to remove themselves. All of these strategies, whether overt or covert, are proactive, again aimed at managing, protecting, and maintaining focus on tasks.
To exemplify, imagine students who have decided to buckle down, pay attention, and do their schoolwork. Their challenge then is to avoid the idea of doing something else instead (e.g., to spend time with friends), however tempting and potentially more satisfying that alternative act might be. By prioritizing goals to get their work done over and above their competing social goals, and by regulating their emotional reactions to tasks (keeping negative affect at bay), students are using volitional control to manage an inner conflict. They are protecting their targeted goals and maintaining their efforts to achieve those goals. Imagine further that this scenario becomes automatic for more students in more academic task situations, so that the script for “concentrate—got to” gets used adaptively by students whenever it is needed. That is the goal for educators who seek to help students move toward better volitional control.
Researchers have also studied the individual and contextual factors that support or impede students' abilities to exercise volitional control adaptively. They find that some students are predisposed, by orientation or developmental experience, to be more or less conscientious in their academic endeavors. For example, Snow and Loh-man (1984) related volitional strategy use to cognitive ability; using a variety of indicators, they found that college students who score highly on standardized tests of cognitive ability consistently use effective organization and control strategies that maintain concentration while they complete the items. Kuhl (1984) found that a self-reported orientation to take action rather than procrastinate when confronted with decision-making tasks was also predictive of volitional strategy use and task completion in adults. In a different vein, research by Dweck (see Dweck & Master, 2007) linked children's early understandings of the relationship between ability and effort to expressed beliefs about their own capabilities (their “self-theories”); Dweck found that even intellectually able students may have underdeveloped volition if they doubt their own capabilities.
In regards to aspects of the learning context that support and promote self-regulation in students, researchers highlight the importance of teacher modeling (many different explained examples) of self-regulation processes and strategies, with reinforced use in appropriate class assignments. The earlier and more frequent such explanation, the better; like metacognition, volitional control develops experientially (Corno, 2000). This means that parents, too, can serve as role models, particularly in the early grades and when working with children on homework (Xu & Corno, 1994). In general, the evidence supports the idea that acquiring higher-order skills such as self-regulation demands a co-constructive or social learning process that includes evaluative feedback.
In the early 2000s teachers commonly use various forms of collaborative learning activities to create cohesion in the classroom community. Cooperative work and projects are situations in which students with good work habits can model and encourage their peers. These same settings can disadvantage students, however, if poor work habits are being modeled instead, or if there is no conditional feedback. When tasks are carefully structured to maximize opportunities for learning about, carrying out, and receiving reinforcement for self-regulation and co-regulation (as when pairs of students work together in cooperative tasks), there is a positive influence on volitional control. Classrooms in which students share in planning decisions about what material will be covered, when, and in what venues will also support volitional control because this creates an “implementation intention” (Gollwitzer, 1999).
Volition influences continued motivation and affect as well as learning and long-term performance. There are potential downsides as well as upsides to volitional control. Gollwit-zer's 1999 research on intention suggests, paradoxically, that people tend not to look back once they have firmly established goals that they value. Although this is good for keeping students on task, it also implies that letting go of goals that are impossible to accomplish will be difficult. The person so focused uses volition as a form of denial. Another potential downside of particularly strong volition is the development of an over-controlling or compulsive learning style that can induce a stress response to schoolwork. Stress of course can also trigger related negative affect. Finally, particularly strong volition can mask a sense of inadequacy, just as an easy sense of agency can fuel movement toward goals. There are advantages if students can learn to self-regulate in natural, almost playful, ways, using volitional control automatically under many tasks and circumstances.
The strong upside of adaptive use of volitional control is that it tends to result in the display of good academic work habits. These are the strategies and tactics for effective completion of academic tasks that are honed through experience (Corno, 2007). Work habits studied by psychologists include class participation, using feedback and other available resources, managing a workload, planning, and studying (i.e., habitual use of volitional control strategies). Students with good work habits tend to perform well in school, in part because they are putting in the dedicated learning time. But they also excel because they are recognized and given status as full participants in their academic communities; this recognition fosters a sense of efficacy for academic work that then has its own momentum (Zimmerman & Schunk, 2007). When students are viewed by teachers and parents as responsible and diligent workers, they are likely, ultimately, to benefit in other ways as well. Appreciation and rewards for hard work are given all along the age range (e.g., teacher recommendations, academic awards, nominations for leadership positions). Such acknowledgements are influential in decisions about college admissions and employment because they are predictive of success in these settings (see Willingham, 1985).
With respect to the combinations of instructional events that can promote development of volitional control in students, techniques range from simple manipulations to school-wide programs. An example of the former is illustrated by Oettingen, Honig, and Gollwitzer (2000) who taught students an algorithm for making an action plan: determine when, where, and first steps for doing homework. Results showed significantly more of these students actually completed homework relative to comparable peers in a control group. As already stated, individual teachers can use a variety of techniques for teaching students about self-regulated learning. Perry (1998) provides examples of strategies for teaching young children; Randi and Corno (2000) offer a secondary-level curriculum based on a quest theme in which literary characters are shown to embody self-regulation. Counseling psychologists and special educators have refined cognitive-behavior modification procedures such as self-monitoring to make them useful with children who have impulsivity and behavioral control issues or learning disabilities (Butler & Cartier, 2004). Programs for time management have been adapted from the workplace (Corno & Kanfer, 1994). Even students who are temperamentally or stylistically less self-regulating can learn to use the management aspects and many other strategies of volitional control, particularly if they are motivated by feedback and incentives (Zimmerman & Schunk, 2007).
A more ambitious effort is evident in an after-school program designed to support the self-regulation and academic performance of middle school students (Oyser-man, Terry, & Bybee, 2002). In this program, adults helped students plan for their futures and construct paths for achieving their goals; they thought about obstacles and how to work past them and had students learn from interviews with others who followed a similar path. The authors' evaluation of this program with inner city students found increased emotional engagement with school and better attendance and behavior as a result of the experience, particularly among troubled boys. Boekaerts and Minnaert (2003) report on a similarly comprehensive program aimed at vocational secondary schools in the Netherlands. In all of these education efforts, it remains important for teachers to encourage students and provide opportunities for them to practice volitional control in regular class work as well, that is, to afford and reward rather than constrain volitional control.
Educational researchers define volition as a quality of human functioning that takes a student from commitment to follow-through in academic tasks. Volition reflects an ability to avoid procrastination and to persist in the face of difficulty. To the extent that volition helps a student to accomplish school tasks, it is important for success in academic learning and performance.
The key processes that underlie volition are the management, protection, and maintenance of attention, motivation, and emotion, aspects of self-regulation that tend to mark the efforts of exceptional students. Volitional control is evidenced in strategic task management, coping with obstacles and distractions, efforts to focus attention, and productive channeling of emotions. In addition to conscious regulation of thinking as they work, students often have implicit, habitual or automatized processes in place to maintain their effort. Volitional control has been measured reliably in children and adults by observation, interview, and self-report, and the research confirms that it can be manipulated experimentally.
When students use volitional control to manage conflicting goals, they work strategically to protect targeted goals and maintain efforts to achieve those goals. Adaptive use of volitional strategies as needed comes easier for some students than for others. Predisposing orientations that have been identified include high cognitive ability, an action orientation, “grit,” and what Dweck (Dweck & Master, 2007) calls an “incremental theory of intelligence” (an understanding that personal efforts will aid improvement after failure). Students with these and similar characteristics or experiences are also likely to develop good academic work habits from the exercise of volition.
Volition affects continued motivation and affects as well as school learning. A moderate level of volitional control used flexibly appears to be the best target for educators, because then students are viewed by teachers and parents as responsible and diligent workers who can benefit emotionally as well. Other motivation processes, such as expectations of success, a goal to get the most from the material, even a hope to earn a better grade, can benefit from protecting goals and follow-through. These motivators, in turn, help to reinforce volition.
To promote the development of volition directly, teachers can encourage students and provide opportunities for them to practice volitional control in regular classroom tasks where they can receive pointed and constructive feedback. Practitioners can enlist competent peers to model self-regulated learning and use collaborative activities that allow students to feel they are active participants in the learning process. Just as in many other endeavors, to reach high levels of competence learners need an understanding of the concept and guided practice using volitional strategies over extended periods of time.
See also:Self-Regulated Learning
Boekaerts, M., & Corno, L. (2005). Self-regulation in the classroom: A perspective on assessment and intervention. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 54, 99–232.
Boekaerts, M., & Minnaert, A. (2003). Measuring behavioral change processes during an ongoing innovation program: Scope and limits. In E. DeCorte (Ed.), Powerful Learning Environments: Unraveling Basic Components and Dimensions (pp. 71–87). Amsterdam: Pergamon.
Butler, D., & Cartier, S. (2004). Promoting effective task interpretation as an important work habit: A key to successful teaching and learning. Teachers College Record, 106, 1729–1758.
Corno, L. (1994). Student volition and education: Outcomes, influences, and practices. In B. Zimmerman & D. Schunk (Eds.), Self-regulated learning and academic achievement: Educational applications (pp. 229-254). New York: Springer Verlag.
Corno, L. (Ed.). (2000). Conceptions of volition: Investigating theoretical questions; Studies of practice [Special double issue]. International Journal of Educational Research, 33(7, 8).
Corno, L. (2007). Work habits and self-regulated learning: Helping students to find a “will” from a “way.” In B. Zimmerman & D. Schunk (Eds.), Motivation and Self-Regulated Learning: Theory, Research, and Applications (pp. 197–222). New York: Erlbaum/Taylor & Francis.
Corno, L., & Kanfer, R. (1993). The role of volition in learning and performance. In L. Darling-Hammond (Ed.), Review of Research in Education (Vol. 19, pp. 301–341). Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association.
Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087–1101.
Dweck, C., & Master, A. (2007). Self-theories motivate self-regulated learning. In D. H. Schunk & B. J. Zimmerman (Eds.), Motivation and self-regulated learning: Theory, research, and applications (pp. 31–52). New York: Erlbaum/Taylor & Francis.
Eisenberger, R. (1992). Learned industriousness. Psychological Review, 99, 248–267.
Gollwitzer, P. M. (1999). Implementation intentions: Strong effects of simple plans. American Psychologist, 54, 493–503.
Kuhl, J. (1984). Volitional aspects of achievement motivation and learned helplessness: Toward a comprehensive theory of action control. In B. A. Maher (Ed.), Progress in experimental personality research (Vol. 13, pp. 99–171). New York: Academic Press.
Oettingen, G., Honig, G., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (2000). Effective self-regulation of goal attainment. International Journal of Educational Research, 33, 705–732.
Oyserman, D., Terry, K., & Bybee, D. (2002). A possible selves intervention to enhance school involvement. Journal of Adolescence, 25(3), 313–326.
Perry, N. (1998). Young children's self-regulated learning and contexts that support it. Journal of Educational Psychology, 90, 715–729.
Randi, J., & Corno, L. (2000). Teacher innovations in self-regulated learning. In P. Pintrich, M. Boekaerts, & M. Zeidner (Eds.), Handbook of self-regulation (pp. 651–685). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
Shoda, Y., Mischel, W., & Peake, P. (1990). Predicting adolescent cognitive and self-regulatory competencies from preschool delay of gratification: Identifying diagnostic conditions. Developmental Psychology, 26, 978–986.
Snow, R. E., & Lohman, D. F. (1984). Toward a theory of cognitive aptitude for learning from instruction. Journal of Educational Psychology, 76, 347–376.
Willingham, W. (1985). Success in college. New York: College Board.
Xu, J. & Corno, L. (1994). Case studies of families doing third grade homework. Teachers College Record, 100, 402–436.
Zimmerman, B. & Schunk, D. (2007). Motivation and Self-Regulated Learning: Theory, Research, and Applications. Boca Raton, FL: Taylor & Francis.
Bennett, W. (Ed.). (1995). The children's book of virtues. New York: Simon & Schuster. [Illustrated anthology of traditional stories and poems that teach the importance of qualities such as perseverance, responsibility, self-discipline, good work habits, and emotion control.]
Cecil, N. L., & Roberts, P. (1992). Developing resiliency through children's literature: A guide for teachers and librarians, K-8. Jefferson, NC: McFarland. [Annotated bibliography of children's books that can be used to teach resiliency, including such strategies as problem-solving, persistence, overcoming fears and obstacles, and positive thinking; contains numerous examples of classroom activities; valuable out-of-print resource worth seeking in libraries and used book outlets.]
Paulsen, G. (1986). Hatchet. New York: Macmillan. [Survival story in which a boy learns to survive in the wilderness after an airplane crash; offers a model for teaching resourcefulness.]
Piper, W. (2005). The little engine that could. New York: Philomel. [Classic tale retold by Watty Piper and illustrated by Loren Long; contains suggestions for reading the book to young children, including using the well-known refrain “I think I can” to reinforce the importance of effort.]
Polacco, P. (1998). Thank you, Mr. Falker. New York: Philomel. [Provides a model of how school children can overcome reading difficulties with persistence and a sense of self-efficacy.]
RESOURCES FOR CLASSROOM TEACHERS
Corno, L., & Randi, J. (1997). Motivation, volition, and collaborative innovation in classroom literacy. In J. T. Guthrie & A. Wigfield (Eds.), Reading engagement: Motivating readers through integrated instruction (pp. 51–67). Newark, DE: International Reading Association. [Includes “A Reference Guide for Addressing Motivational and Volitional Goals in Educational Settings,” a brief synopsis teachers can keep on their desks (pp. 59–61).]
Israel, S. E. (2007). Using metacognitive assessments to create individualized reading instruction. Newark, DE: International Reading Association. [Includes a variety of reproducible student handouts and inventories for assessing students' metacognitive strategies.]
Johnson, E. (2004). The hero in me: Reinforcing self-regulated learning as we connect to literary heroes. Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute. Retrieved April 11, 2008, from http://www.yale.edu/ynhti/curriculum/units/2004/2/04.02.03.x.html. [Curriculum unit written developed by a teacher for use in upper elementary and middle school classes.]
Manning, B. H., & Payne, B. D. (1996). Self-talk for teachers and students: Metacognitive strategies for personal and classroom use. Boston: Allyn & Bacon. [Provides a teacher-friendly overview of self-regulation; includes examples and resources for applying metacognitive strategies for both students' and teachers' learning.]
Sternberg, R. E., & Grigorenko, E. (2000). Teaching for successful intelligence. Arlington Heights, IL: Skylight. [Provides classroom examples for implementing Sternberg's forms of “successful intelligence,” one of which (practical intelligence) focuses on the development of personal traits that promote volition, including perseverance, impulse control, and commitment.]
RESOURCES FOR TEACHER EDUCATION
Snowman, J., & Biehler, R. (2006). Psychology applied to teaching (11th ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin. [Educational psychology textbook with an extensive treatment of self-regulated learning, including several models for promoting self-regulation among learners (see Chapter 9, “Social Cognitive Theory,” pp. 276–308).]
Woolfolk, A. (2007). Educational psychology (10th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon. (Library Course Reserve). [Widely adopted educational psychology textbook; summarizes the research on self-regulated learning and volition, provides guidelines for supporting self-regulated learning in the classroom, and suggests several Web sites that can serve as resources for parents and teachers interested in helping students develop volitional strategies.]
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