Date of Award

May 2020

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Engineering and Science Education

Committee Member

William Bridges

Committee Member

Lisa Benson

Committee Member

Eliza Gallagher


Calculus I occupies a gatekeeper role for STEM majors nationwide. The Mathematical Association of America (MAA) investigated this issue and found that the use of active learning strategies was one important characteristic of successful calculus programs across the country. This sequential explanatory mixed-methods study explores this issue further by examining the relationship between student motivation and course structures for introductory calculus. Calculus I course structures with differing levels of active learning were examined. The theoretical framework of self-determination theory (SDT) guided this study, which defines three basic psychological needs that are essential to fostering students’ motivation: competence, autonomy, and relatedness.

The quantitative phase of this study consisted of analysis of student survey data to investigate the difference in students’ perceptions of these motivational components between the three course types (traditional lecture, large active learning, and hybrid online). The findings showed that students in the hybrid online course had significantly lower autonomy, competence, and relatedness perceptions, as well as lower autonomous motivation scores, compared to the traditional and large active learning courses. Next, students were purposefully selected based on the survey results to participate in semi-structured interviews with two members of the research team. The qualitative analysis of our interview data revealed specific aspects of each course type that were contributing to students’ perceptions of their competence, autonomy, and relatedness. Specifically, the large active learning course structure provided the most opportunities to support students’ motivation. Implications for mathematics faculty include incorporating active learning experiences in the classroom, since this study revealed that having opportunities to consistently interact with their peers and the instructor supported students’ basic psychological needs.



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