ETS Study of Higher Education Outcomes Assessments Shows Student Motivation Has Significant Impact on Results


Princeton, N.J. (September 25, 2012) —

With increasing pressure for accountability in higher education, outcomes assessments have been an important resource in evaluating learning and informing policy. Today, a report produced by ETS researchers titled "Measuring Learning Outcomes in Higher Education: Motivation Matters" provides evidence that simply modifying the pre-test instructions to increase motivation has a significant impact on scores on a commonly used higher education outcomes assessment, the ETS® Proficiency Profile. The report has been accepted for publication in the journal, Educational Researcher.

"The findings in this report provide institutions with strong empirical evidence that motivation matters. The report also demonstrates various practical strategies that, at low cost, could improve student performance by increasing motivation," said David Payne, Chief Operating Officer of the Higher Education Division at ETS.  "The ETS Proficiency Profile has an established history of measuring program effectiveness and assessing student proficiency in core academic skill areas through its multiple choice format."

The key findings in the report include evidence that

  • motivation has a statistically significant and substantial impact on scores,
  • motivational strategies used in this study are effective in improving students’ motivation and test scores, and
  • conclusions about college learning gains (value-added learning) could change dramatically depending on the levels of motivation of the test takers and  the format of the test (i.e., multiple-choice or constructed-response).

"Prior to this study, there was little empirical evidence supporting the claim that motivation matters in the use of standardized, general outcomes assessments," said Ou Lydia Liu, Research Scientist at ETS and Project Director of this study. "Policymakers, in particular, will find value in the results of this report because it demonstrates how prior research that reported limited college learning likely underestimated student performance by not considering the low motivation of some students in taking low-stakes tests. With the implementation of motivational strategies used in this report, institutions are likely to see more accurate and higher estimates of their students’ performance."

For some time, researchers, institutional administrators and policy makers have questioned the role of motivation on outcomes assessments. This study has identified the magnitude of effect of motivation on test scores and provided practical strategies that institutions can use to boost student performance.

To read the executive summary for the report, visit

About ETS

At ETS, we advance quality and equity in education for people worldwide by creating assessments based on rigorous research. ETS serves individuals, educational institutions and government agencies by providing customized solutions for teacher certification, English language learning, and elementary, secondary and post-secondary education, as well as conducting education research, analysis and policy studies. Founded as a nonprofit in 1947, ETS develops, administers and scores more than 50 million tests annually — including the ETS Proficiency Profile, the TOEFL® and TOEIC® tests, the GRE® tests and The Praxis Series™ assessments — in more than 180 countries, at over 9,000 locations worldwide.