What Motivates Students To Study A Particular Subject? | HE Research Snippet #7

HE Thinking | 24 Jun 2013


University choices are often complex, multi-faceted decisions, but the decision on what subject to study at undergraduate level often boils down to a few key factors. Our Higher Expectations study measures the primary reasons why students choose their course subject.


Does 'Passion' for a subject always come out on top? It depends...

We wanted to use this month’s Research Snippet to show a few examples of how reasons compare across subject areas (at a broad subject level), and assess the extent to which ‘passion’ trades off against other motivations. Subscribers to the study are able to break down subjects at a far more detailed level and can analyse data by a range of different variables.We have traditionally found a ‘love of the subject’ to be the key motivation in subject choice for students at an overall level.

As shown in Figure 1 (below), students across all subject areas are most likely to choose their course subject because they love it (70% cited this as a reason). Following this, though of far less significance, students are most likely to choose their course subject because they need it to enter their chosen career (35%).

Fig. 1 - Students across all subjects
Fig. 2 - Creative Arts and Design students
Fig. 3 - Business and Admin students
Fig. 4 - Medicine and Dentistry students
COR8. What were the primary reasons you chose the course subject you are currently studying?
Base: Higher Expectations 2012/13: Students across all subjects (12,344); Creative Arts and Design students (1,119); Business and Administration students (905); Medicine and Dentistry students (512)

For students who study a subject in Creative Arts and Design, ‘passion’ is of particular significance. As shown in Figure 2 (above), almost nine in ten students (87%) studying a subject in this area chose their course subject because they love it. In contrast, and as you might expect, salary considerations are of far less importance; only 16% chose a subject in Creative Arts and Design because it leads to a well-paid job.

On the flipside, students who study a subject in Business and Administration attach most importance to salary levels upon graduation; over half (55%) chose their course subject because it leads to a well-paid job, as shown in Figure 3 (above). However, a love of the subject still plays a significant role; 48% chose their course subject for this reason, though this is significantly lower than the overall average (70% - as shown in Figure 1).

Finally, students studying a course in Medicine and Dentistry demonstrate yet again a very different set of motivations. Like students overall, a love of the subject is the most important reason for choosing their course subject, as shown in Figure 4 (above). However, a similarly high proportion chose their course subject because they need it to enter their chosen career (62%), significantly higher than the overall average (35%).



Despite the increasing importance of ‘return on investment’ in these times of high fees, a love of a subject still clearly dominates course subject decision making, but the extent to which other factors play a role depends on the subject area of interest. Indeed, in some subject areas, factors relating to a future career actually outweigh passion for the subject area in terms of importance.

Of course, the subject analysis in this Snippet provides illustrative, though not wholly unexpected, examples of how motivations compare. Our Higher Expectations survey offers far more comprehensive analysis of course and university decision making at a more detailed subject level, over time and at the level of the individual institution.

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