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January 23, 2018

Student researches classroom motivation

We can make one assumption about Nora Johnson: She’s Theory Y all the way.

Johnson, a recent finance graduate at Florida Gulf Coast University, fits the definition of the employee who goes above and beyond on her own initiative — as defined some 60 years ago by MIT professor Douglas McGregor in his Theory X and Theory Y assumptions about human motivation and management in the workplace.  Theory Y workers such as Johnson are self-motivated, in contrast to Theory X workers who require external motivation and intense supervision, according to McGregor’s formula.

photo is of FGCU alumna Nora Johnson
Nora Johnson

In the case of Johnson, who grew up in Lithia, near Tampa, her Theory Y work ethic came into play during an independent research project she did with Dr. Bryan Schaffer, assistant professor of management in the Lutgert College of Business. It was during Theory X/Theory Y discussion in Schaffer’s “Principles of Management” class that Johnson got the idea to “study student motivation versus faculty perceptions of student motivation through a survey series.”

“I applied this theory to the academic setting, suggesting that professors with stronger Theory Y assumptions believe that students want to complete their work for the sake of learning rather than simply for the grade,” Johnson said. “In contrast, professors with stronger Theory X assumptions believe the opposite; they feel the students complete their work for the grade, not because they have a strong desire to learn the material.”

So that’s how then-undergraduate student Johnson again demonstrated that you don’t need to be doing postgraduate work to be a researcher at FGCU. With Schaffer’s guidance, Johnson would present and publish the findings of the survey at the 2016 National Conference on Undergraduate Research in Asheville, N.C.

The results of that research? “Students of professors with stronger Theory Y assumptions developed stronger Theory Y perceptions of that professor over time,” Johnson said. “Students of professors with stronger Theory X assumptions developed stronger Theory X self-perceptions of their own work ethic over time.”

And the significance of the findings? “We believe this is the first study that seeks to analyze students’ and professors’ Theory X/Theory Y assumptions in a longitudinal design, with the hopes of identifying links between professors’ expectations and student sources of motivation,” Schaffer said in an abstract about the work. “This research is critical in that identified correlations between professors’ views of students and subsequent student assumptions about their own work may give credence to the idea of a Pygmalion effect (higher expectations lead to an increase in performance) taking place in the classroom.”

For Johnson, who left Southwest Florida immediately after graduation this fall to begin her new career as a green coffee financial analyst with Massimo Zanetti Beverage USA in New Jersey, the chance to do undergraduate research was “invaluable.”

“This experience really gave me my first taste of data analysis — and I loved it,” Johnson said. “While actively researching this topic, Theory X/Theory Y really became a part of me and of my life.

“Thanks to the intimate learning environment that FGCU allows, you can have opportunities like this, to study one-on-one with professors, identifying novel conclusions to questions that nobody else in the world has studied,” Johnson said.

Now that’s a Theory Y attitude if ever there was one.