Non-formal motivational focuses for potential early school leavers

Thursday 23 July 2015, by Klaudija Šterman Ivančič

It is possible to foster the learning motivation of potential ESLrs already in mainstream education by applying non-formal and informal educational principles to teaching and learning processes. The teacher has two main pathways for enhancing the motivation of at-risk students: by recognising their informally gained knowledge and by organising non-formal learning environments and learning experiences.

Motivation for learning is an important predictor of ESL (e.g. Caprara et al., 2008; Fan & Wolters, 2014; Hardre & Reeve, 2003). Students at risk of ESL often report low levels of learning motivation or even amotivation. Amotivation is a state in which individuals cannot perceive a relationship between their behaviour and the behaviour’s outcome and perceive their behaviour in a school context as outside of their control (Deci & Ryan, 2002). As such, ESLrs perceive low self-competence and self-determination (autonomy) in school settings. Non-formal and informal education addresses this issue as the core of the problem. The primary goal of this article is to discuss principles of non-formal and informal learning that could serve as a good example for teachers to foster the motivation of ESLrs already in mainstream education. According to the literature review in the article, two main pathways through which teachers can enhance a student’s motivation for learning in terms of including non-formal and informal learning principles in their teaching practices are identified: recognising a student’s interests and informally gained knowledge (e.g. knowledge and skills related to sports, music, arts, manual crafts, cooking etc.) and organising non-formal learning experiences (field trips, visits and collaboration with different community organisations, museum visits, simulating a laboratory in the classroom etc.). In this way, students have a chance to express themselves, feel accepted and supported in the learning process, gradually build their self-esteem and feeling of autonomy by gaining recognition in areas they are successful in, and have a chance to connect knowledge and skills through experience-based and social learning. Non-formal and informal learning therefore successfully addresses important aspects of ESLrs’ amotivation for learning and is as such a good example of encouraging motivation for learning and subsequently preventing ESL already in mainstream education (European Commission 2013; Bills et al., 2015; Black et al., 2012; Hill & Jepsen, 2007; Lagana-Riordan et al., 2011; Polidano et al., 2015).


In the last few decades, a significant body of research has emerged that focuses on explaining psychological and contextual factors of educational outcomes such as dropout behaviour, where one of the most important ones is motivation for learning (e.g. Fortier, Vallerand, & Guay, 1995; Vallerand, Fortier, Daoust, & Blais, 1995). The theoretical concept of motivation that has proven useful and is the most widely used for explaining ESL behaviour is self-determination theory (Alivernini & Lucidi, 2011; Deci & Ryan, 1991; Shih, 2009). According to this theoretical concept (Deci & Ryan, 1991), there are three forms of motivation which can be ordered along a self-determination (autonomy) continuum: intrinsic motivation, extrinsic motivation and amotivation. Students at risk of ESL often report low levels of learning motivation or even amotivation. Amotivation is a state in which individuals cannot perceive a relationship between their behaviour and the behaviour’s outcome and perceive their behaviour in a school context as outside of their control (Deci & Ryan, 2002). As such, ESLrs perceive low self-competence and self-determination (autonomy) in school settings. This means they do not have a feeling of control over their learning and decisions connected to it, and engage in learning for external reasons (e.g. to attain positive consequences, avoid negative consequences, to obtain rewards etc.).

A growing body of literature (e.g. Broda, 2007; Evans, Meyer, Pinney, & Robinson, 2009; Hayes, 2012; McGregora, Mills, Riele, & Hayes, 2015) in the last few decades addresses different ways for increasing ESLrs’ motivation for learning. One of the identified areas is to include non-formal and informal educational principles already in mainstream education. Non-formal learning refers to any planned and goal-oriented but highly adaptable programme in institutions, organisations, and situations of personal and social education for young people or adults designed to improve a range of skills and competencies outside the formal educational curriculum (AEGEE, 2007; Babajeva, 2011; Cedefop, 2008; Eshach, 2007). While formal learning environments are characterised by their highly structured nature, non-formal learning environments are semi-structured (non-formal does not imply unstructured). Non-formal learning is intentional from the learner’s point of view. Informal learning is defined (AEGEE, 2007; Cedefop, 2000; Eshach, 2007) as learning resulting from an individual’s daily life activities related to work, family or leisure. It is even less structured than non-formal learning. It is often referred to as experiential learning and accidental learning and is mostly non-intentional. In this article, we are interested in the connection between non-formal and informal learning principles and a student’s motivation for learning.

The article has three main goals. The first is to further discuss studies that examined the amotivation of ESLrs and its important aspects, the second is to identify the main principles of non-formal and informal learning, and the third is to identify ways in which teachers can enhance a student’s learning motivation by implementing those principles in mainstream educational and learning processes.


In the process of reviewing the available literature in fields of learning motivation of ESLrs and aspects of non-formal education that could foster their learning motivation, we first conducted a literature search of the scientific EBSCOhost online research databases (Academic Search Complete, ERIC, PsycARTICLES, PsycBOOKS, PsycINFO, and SocINDEX with full text databases). Since our focus was also on investigating project reports of non-formal educational practices, we additionally searched for related results online. The main keywords initially used in both cases were: ESLrs and motivation for learning, ESLrs and engagement in education, motivation for learning in non-formal education, principles of non-formal education, recognition of informal knowledge, and motivation of adult learners. Since we found limited results regarding motivation in non-formal educational settings, we extended the search by stating specific forms of adult education, e.g. motivation for learning in community-based programmes, second-chance programmes, evening schools etc. In addition, we examined references cited in doctoral dissertations, reviewed articles, and project reports. Texts taken into account had to address the motivation of ESLrs in general in order to identify good practices that can be applied in mainstream education.

ESLrs and their learning motivation

In the introduction we already defined a theoretical concept of academic motivation that is important for describing the motivation of ESLrs. In the following section, we further describe study results that address the link between different aspects of a student’s academic motivation, i.e. perceived self-determination and competence, with ESL. Since different studies (e.g. Deci & Ryan, 1991; Hardre & Reeve, 2003; Reeve, 2002; Shahar, Henrich, Blatt, Ryan, & Little, 2003) confirm the importance of considering social support for those aspects when addressing the amotivation of ESLrs, and since this aspect is greatly supported in non-formal education settings, we also discuss study results from this field.

The link between a student’s motivation for learning and ESL is already well established. Various studies (e.g. Caprara et al., 2008; Fan & Wolters, 2014; Hardre & Reeve, 2003) show that academic motivation is an important psychological factor that helps predict whether students are at greater risk of ESL or not. Longitudinal studies (e.g. Caprara et al., 2008; Fan & Wolters, 2014; Hardre & Reeve, 2003; Vallerand, Fortier, & Guay, 1997) reveal there are two aspects of learning motivation that are particularly important when addressing the issue of ESL: a student’s perceived self-determination (autonomy) and perceived competence. Students who report lower levels of autonomy and perceive themselves as less competent in school activities have less intention to stay in school and complete their schooling, and vice versa. Such a relationship has also been established in different cross-sectional studies (e.g. Alivernini & Lucidi, 2011; Eccles et al., 1993; Patrick, Skinner, & Connell, 1993; Peguero & Shaffer, 2015). Students who were most detached from school had little belief in their academic ability and perceived themselves as non-autonomous in educational settings. On the contrary, students who perceived themselves as more autonomous pursued more ambitious challenges and reported greater commitment to finishing school.

Another important aspect of ESLrs’ motivation is the broader social context of learning. Different studies (e.g. Deci & Ryan, 1991; Hardre & Reeve, 2003; Reeve, 2002; Shahar, Henrich, Blatt, Ryan, & Little, 2003) show that academic attitudes and behaviours are strongly influenced by key social agents in the student’s environment, i.e. teachers, parents and friends. In their longitudinal study, Hardre and Reeves (2003) established there are three dimensions of social support that affect motivation: autonomy support, competence support and interpersonal relatedness. Results revealed that all dimensions of social support are negatively related to amotivation and positively related to intrinsic motivation for learning.

Cross-sectional studies (e.g. Alivernini & Lucidi, 2011; Reeve et al., 1999; Vallerand et al., 1997) also support these findings. Students who perceived their social support networks (e.g., parents and teachers) as supportive in the sense of their autonomy and competence were also more intrinsically motivated for school work. Authors (e.g. Assor, Kaplan, Kanat-Maymon, & Roth, 2005; Reeve, 2002) who studied the effects of the teacher’s controlling behaviour on a student’s self-determination showed that teachers who exhibit controlling behaviour in the form of rigid directions or orders, supervising and monitoring too closely, and not giving students the opportunity to propose choices and opinions, affect a student’s self-determination in a negative way. Moreover, practices such as letting students choose from various alternatives, listening to them, and asking them for their points of view support a student’s self-determination. Further, supportive relationship also proved to be an important predictor of ESL (e.g. Alivernini & Lucidi, 2011). Students who reported to be in a classroom with autonomy-supportive teachers were more likely to stay in school than students in classrooms with controlling teachers.

The amotivation of ESLrs is therefore a complex concept that reaches beyond an individual’s characteristics and academic achievement and is closely linked to his/her social environment, interpersonal climate in the educational setting and teaching methods; namely, factors that can to some extent be systematically supported and encouraged in the process of teaching and learning. Non-formal educational settings are a case of such supportive learning environments. In the following section, we describe the main principles of non-formal and informal learning and consider ways in which they can foster the learning motivation of ESLrs and, as such, represent ESL prevention practices.

Principles of non-formal and informal learning

According to Maier (2011), a central feature of non-formal and informal learning is learning from and through life experience. Both concepts derive from a participant’s needs and aspirations and are linked to self-education and personal development. Non-formal education programmes are based on lifelong learning principles and student-centred teaching and learning approaches. It is a humanistic approach to learning where students are considered as individuals possessing their own personal qualities, traits, abilities, values, experiences and worldviews that are important to their learning process.

Falk and Dierking (2000) propose a contextual model (see Figure 1), i.e. principles of non-formal and informal learning. The model is based on theories of cognitive and social constructivism (Piaget, 1971; Vigotsky, 1979) which imply that meaningful learning occurs when a person idiosyncratically restructures knowledge through their own understanding of experience and social interaction, actively basing it on their prior knowledge. The authors (Falk & Dierking, 2000) suggest there are eight factors influencing learning in non-formal learning environments and they occur within three contextual domains: personal, social and physical context. In terms of the individual’s personal context (light-green shapes in Figure 1), i.e. personal and genetic history that an individual carries into the learning situation, non-formal learning is influenced by a learner’s motivation and expectations, previous knowledge, interests and beliefs, his/her choice of participation, and a feeling of control over their learning. Since learning is also constructed through social interaction, social factors (dark-green shape in Figure 1) that influence non-formal and informal learning are within-group socio-cultural mediation and facilitated mediations by teachers and other members of a learning group. The last assumption within this model is that, because learning occurs within the physical environment (blue shapes in Figure 1), it is always a dialogue with the environment. Thus, according to the authors in order to be successful it is important for the non-formal learning situation to be influenced by environmental factors such as advance organisers and orientation proposed by teachers before entering into the non-formal learning environment, the design of the environment, and reinforced events and experiences outside the environment that enhance the learning experience gained in the non-formal education setting.

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Figure 1: Contextual model of the principles of non-formal and informal learning proposed by Falk and Dierking (2000)

Besides understanding knowledge as a construct of the individual’s integration of newly gained experience and their prior knowledge, another important aspect of Falk and Dierking’s (2000) contextual model of non-formal learning is the affective aspect of learning. They state that non-formal learning situations encourage an individual’s sense of wonder, interest, enthusiasm, and eagerness to learn (Pedretti, 2002). They provide opportunities for individuals to be active learners in non-evaluative and non-threatening environments and include the enhancement of positive attitudes to learning. In his review of six studies conducted in non-formal settings, Falk (1983) found that such learning experiences generally result in higher learning motivation and enjoyable and long-lasting memories, and that those students also outperform others who did not take part in such learning.

In the following section, we further investigate ways in which teachers can encourage a student’s motivation for learning through the implications of non-formal and informal learning principles.

Non-formal motivational focuses

Different studies and project reports (e.g. Big Picture Education Australia, 2014; Broda, 2007; Evans et al., 2009; Hayes, 2012; McGregora, Mills, Riele, & Hayes, 2015) confirm that an important point at which teachers can enhance a student’s motivation for learning is their recognition of the student’s non-formally and informally gained knowledge. The point of such an approach lies in giving students the opportunity to express themselves and experience success that does not rely on traditional reading, maths and science literacy skills. Students thereby gain self-confidence and a feeling of autonomy in learning situations. A student’s informally gained knowledge usually derives from different areas of the student’s interests, e.g. sports, music, arts, manual work, gardening, cooking etc. A good example of acknowledging a student’s interests and increasing their motivation for learning is, for example, Australia’s Boronia second-chance school (McGregora et al., 2015) where students were very interested in making music; teachers set up a music studio in which students could write their own lyrics, make music, prepare for live performances etc. Students in this school were given the opportunity to learn, express themselves, collaborate and gain recognition through something they value highly and are good at. They also reported that they felt cared about because the teachers offered them such learning opportunities. The teacher’s essential role in such settings is that they recognise the student’s potential and afterwards through systematic support (mentoring, setting educational goals, supportive evaluation practices) transform the student’s gained self-confidence, perceived self-effort and autonomy to other more formal fields of learning.

Another point at which teachers can make use of non-formal learning experiences in order to enhance a student’s motivation is by adjusting the environment and conditions in which students learn. Different studies (e.g. AEGEE, 2007; Babajeva, 2011; Broda, 2007; Eshach, 2007; European Commission, 2013) show that enabling a student’s real-world opportunities and simulations both provide useful settings for this process to occur. In this way, students are given the opportunity to connect learning to their personal experiences and make personal meaning out of it, which results in higher understanding and thus perceived autonomy and learning motivation. Teachers can thereby lead the student through a semi-structured learning process that connects both: increases the student’s motivation and enables the student to acquire specific knowledge and learning goals. Good examples of such learning are different museum visits, school trips, site visits, community learning and simulations of the outside world in the classroom (e.g. market, laboratory, kitchen, workshop).

Eshach (2007) even proposes a model for enhancing a student’s motivation for learning by implementing learning in non-formal environments. He describes the following steps in planning such a learning experience:

  1. defining the purpose of the non-formal educational setting (the teacher should decide whether his aim is to introduce a learning topic, deepen it, extend it);
  2. teachers should visit the location in advance (talk with people in charge about the purpose of the visit, ask for suggestions);
  3. share the purpose of the visit with students beforehand (talk about their expectations, prior knowledge, and define the aims of the visit);
  4. give students the relevant background knowledge about the topic they wish to address already before the visit so they can connect the skills acquired in the field to this knowledge;
  5. provide some (not too many) tasks to be conducted in the field (in this way students notice things they might otherwise ignore, they should also be given freedom to create their own experience); and
  6. share the activity with parents and invite them to join, discuss the newly gained knowledge through active teaching methods (group work, project work, role playing etc.).

The outcome of implementing non-formal and informal educational principles in the educational process therefore increases a student’s motivation for learning. Individuals can therefore take an active role in the education process where they are given the possibility to develop their interests, values, skills and competencies. It is a process of learning by doing in a flexible environment, where it is right to make mistakes. It touches upon emotions and attitudes, areas where formal education does not usually reach and as such goes to a deeper level of a student’s personality. It also takes into the account the student’s personal, social and cultural characteristics when planning the process and tends to integrate disadvantaged youth who were unable to engage in learning in mainstream education for several reasons.


Low motivation for learning or even amotivation is one of the primary characteristics of students at risk of ESL. Important aspects of their amotivation are perceived low competence and self-determination (level of autonomy) in mainstream educational settings. Those students also report negative ability and effort beliefs, and also place a more negative value on academic tasks (Caprara et al., 2008; Fan & Wolters, 2014; Hardre & Reeve, 2003; Vallerand et al., 1997). Two main pathways are identified in the literature concerning how teachers can enhance a student’s motivation for learning by considering the principles of non-formal and informal learning. The first is recognising a student’s interests and related informally gained knowledge and experience, and the second is organising learning situations in non-formal supportive environments (such approaches often take place in community-based education programmes, evening schools, study circles, second-chance education programmes etc.). In this context, students are perceived as autonomous individuals, with their own interests, aspirations and needs, who are capable of planning and actively participating in the educational process. As such, informal and non-formal education principles address the key motivational shortages of ESLrs. It points to the fact that a shift in students’ perceptions as competent and capable of self-determination in the mainstream educational process is crucial for supporting their motivation and preventing undesirable learning behaviours such as ESL (European Commission 2013; Bills, Cook, & Giles, 2015; Black, Polidano, & Tseng, 2012; Hill & Jepsen, 2007; Lagana-Riordan et al., 2011; Polidano, Tabasso, & Tseng, 2015).

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