Theses Doctoral

When School Fits Me: The Role of Regulatory Fit in Academic Engagement and Learning

Rodriguez, Sylvia del Carmen

What factors boost student motivation? Three studies were designed to test whether fit (Higgins, 2000) between students' goals or beliefs and the message conveyed by academic tasks increases engagement and learning. Given past research (Rodriguez, Romero-Canyas, Downey, Mangels & Higgins, 2011) showing that fit between beliefs about the interdependence of the self and task framing led to better performance, Study 1 tested the hypothesis that students would be more motivated to select tasks that fit their beliefs about the interdependence/independence of the self. Results showed that students tended to select math tasks consistent with their beliefs and this subsequent selection predicted greater math performance.

Though Study 1 explored how fit affects students' choices, it did not address the learning processes that are influenced by fit. Hence, studies 2 and 3 were undertaken to investigate this issue. Study 2 specifically looked at students' experience studying. Drawing from the persuasion literature, it was explored whether fit can impact persuasion through "feeling right" about one's evaluative response to a persuasive message and can also increase engagement during the act of studying to enhance performance. Students were asked to focus their studying on either the persuasiveness of an article's message or on their opinion of its proposal.

Results indicated that among students who experienced regulatory fit (vs. non-fit) and focused on a science article's persuasive message, the more positive their attitudes were about studying, the more persuasive they perceived the article to be; and the more negative their attitudes about studying, the less persuasive they perceived the article to be. When students under fit instead focused on their opinion of the article's proposal, regulatory fit but not study attitudes predicted perceived persuasiveness. Reading comprehension of the text, which captured their strength of engagement in the studied material, was directly enhanced by fit.

While in Study 2 participants were explicitly told how to focus their attention on the task, it is also important to investigate the role of attention as students progress through a task. Study 3 tested how students naturally allocate attention during a challenging verbal task that resulted in poor performance. It was investigated whether fit between students' achievement goals and task framing helped them correct their errors. In order to identify the attentional mechanisms that explain how fit may help, event-related potentials (ERP) were recorded. Participants completed the initial task with two blocks. One block was framed to emphasize mastery goals (e.g. effort, learning, mastery of knowledge) and another was framed to emphasize performance goals (e.g. outperforming others as to demonstrate one's competency). For each task question, participants received performance feedback (wrong vs. right) and learning feedback (correct answer).

Subsequently, participants were given a surprise retest on all items answered incorrectly from the initial task. Results showed that fit between achievement goals and task framing led to greater correction of items at retest. Furthermore, ERP analyses and structural equation modeling identified different attentional pathways through which fit led to better learning. Whereas in the performance frame model the pathway was through greater sustained attention to negative performance feedback, in the mastery frame model it was through greater processing of the correct answer. Overall, these three studies draw from different literatures to provide a more comprehensive understanding of how regulatory fit can boost student engagement and learning.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Higgins, Edward Tory
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 6, 2013