More useful, or not so bad? Evaluating the effects of interventions to reduce perceived cost and increase utility value with college physics students

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In the present study I developed and evaluated the effects of two interventions designed to target students’ motivation to learn in an introductory college physics course. One intervention was designed to improve students’ perceptions of utility value and the other was designed to reduce students’ perceptions of cost. Utility value and cost both are central constructs from Eccles and colleagues’ expectancy-value theory of motivation (Eccles-Parsons et al., 1983). Students (N = 148) were randomly assigned to receive the cost intervention, the utility value intervention, or one of two control conditions. Compared to a survey control condition, neither intervention impacted overall students’ motivation, measured at 3 time points over the semester, or their course outcomes. In moderation analyses, neither intervention impacted any students’ perceptions of utility value. However, both interventions impacted some students’ perceptions of cost, competence-related beliefs, and course outcomes positively while impacting these variables for other students negatively. The cost intervention benefitted consistently and in different ways students who had low baseline competence-related beliefs, low prior achievement, strong malleable beliefs about intelligence, or who were female. However, the intervention showed consistent undermining effects on motivation and/or achievement for students with strong fixed beliefs about intelligence. The utility value intervention benefitted consistently the course outcomes of students who had low baseline competence-related beliefs, low prior achievement, or who were female. The intervention showed less consistent undermining effects on motivation for students with strong fixed beliefs about intelligence, high baseline competence-related beliefs, or high prior achievement. Prior researchers have shown that utility value interventions improve course outcomes for some students who are at risk for underachievement. The present study extends prior work by showing that utility value interventions benefit similar students in college physics courses. It also demonstrates that a cost intervention is a viable way to impact at-risk students’ physics course outcomes. Future researchers should consider carefully moderating variables and how to mitigate potential undermining effects for some students when implementing future expectancy-value-theory-based interventions in college physics courses.