What's My Motivation?

Medical student's summer research project leads her to reflect on learning journey and start planning for the future.

Danica Erickson - 20 August 2019

Each summer, the research program in the Department of Family Medicine hosts summer students working on various research projects; an opportunity that enables promising students to experience quality research in a family medicine setting. Janelle Sloychuk, one of the 2019 summer students with the research program, is hoping to use her experience and newly-acquired knowledge to positively influence change in the undergraduate medical education program at the University of Alberta.


Sloychuk, who will begin her second year of medical school in the Fall of 2019, was interested in becoming a doctor from early childhood but took an unconventional path on the way to medical school. She began her post-secondary studies in a pre-medicine program at Red Deer College, studied environmental science at the University of Northern British Columbia and eventually earned a Master of Science degree in fisheries biology from the University of Saskatchewan. She worked as a fisheries biologist for the Alberta Government in Cold Lake, and came to Edmonton to work in fish and wildlife policy prior to making the leap to fulfill her childhood goal of becoming a doctor.


Her work over the summer was with Oksana Babenko and Olga Szafran, who are both faculty as well as researchers in the Department of Family Medicine research program. Along with Babenko and Szafran, Sloychuk researched motivation for learning of residents trained in competency-based education. Her research was grounded in Achievement Goal Theory, a theory that describes internal and external motivations for learning and acquiring new skills. Achievement Goal Theory has been studied a lot in the field of education, and has been successfully applied to many domains including sport and workplace. However, there is limited research about how learning in the context of competency-based education and assessment may be shaping medical trainees' motivation, specifically achievement goals. Sloychuks' work aims to start addressing the void. In simple terms, Achievement Goal Theory suggests there are two approaches to learning: mastery goal orientation and performance goal orientation. Mastery goal orientation is an internal, intrinsic desire for learning, while performance goal orientation is the desire to demonstrate and measure one's performance against that of others. Because mastery approach has been shown to influence deeper learning and create a love of lifelong learning, it is beneficial to family medicine residents as well as practicing family physicians, who are tasked with providing care to patients with increasingly complex needs in the era of technological advances. Performance goal orientation, on the other hand, focuses more on comparing knowledge or skills against that of others. "The performance avoidance orientation in particular is not ideal, because it doesn't promote people trying to learn or develop new skills out of fear of demonstrating their incompetence relative to others. You might miss out on learning or clarifying a topic out of desire to not look incompetent to others " explains Sloychuk.


The research involved the 2015-2017 family medicine resident cohort. These residents took the In-Training Examination (ITE) during both the first year and the second year of their residency program and completed an Achievement Goals survey mid-way through their training. The results were unexpected: mastery approach should help with knowledge acquisition, but the results indicated a negative relationship. Sloychuk suggests reasons for this include residents not viewing the exam as useful to them in mastering clinical competencies and, perhaps as with any traditional assessments, its performance, not mastery, that kicks in. The researchers have presented the findings at scholarly events and are in the process of writing up the results for publication.


Her time with the research program has exposed Sloychuk to the wide range of career options open to those pursuing a career in medicine, and the opportunities to continue with research once in clinical practice. Her involvement in this research has also piqued Sloychuk's interest in motivation goal theory in relation to her own educational journey, which she has been reflecting on throughout her work on this project. "People take on different goal orientations throughout life; even this sort of research is making me think about my own motivations and goal orientations and which ones I am favouring at certain moments and certain times in my academic career".


In addition, Sloychuk has become interested in how systems affect achievement goals, as orientation can be affected by both curriculum and learning environment. "It's not just your own mentality that affects this, it's curriculum as well, and the learning environment. So you could be in a situation where a leader or preceptor is really encouraging in making sure everyone understands the topic before carrying and that would alleviate some of that performance avoidance". Making a change from the approach needed to get into medical school to what is expected of students once they are in medical school is very different, Sloychuk notes. "It's a huge undertaking, switching your mindset to the collaborative, competency-based education". She suspects some students struggle adjusting to this new mindset once they begin the undergraduate program.


Sloychuk intends to use her own acquired knowledge from this research to make a positive contribution to the medical school curriculum and learning environment when she returns to her studies in September. The opportunities to evaluate the undergraduate medical education program and give feedback exist and the program is receptive to feedback, so now she can continue with greater understanding of the goals the program is trying to achieve. Equipped with her knowledge about Achievement Goal Theory as well as other motivation theories she can now contribute to making changes to the system by using her knowledge and making recommendations based on science and research on how to produce better students and, ultimately, better physicians.