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What Is Cost and Is It Always a Bad Thing? Furthering the Discussion Concerning College-Aged Students' Perceived Costs for Their Academic Studies

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Abstract

In this article, we present 2 studies with the primary objectives of (a) identifying college-aged students' perceived costs for their academic studies and (b) exploring college students' descriptions of "beneficial" aspects of costs. In Study 1, 10 cost concepts were identified from 2 focus groups, including stress, lost opportunities, effort, financial, and lost interest, to name a few. In Study 2, 98 undergraduates were surveyed on their perceptions about possible "beneficial" aspects of cost. Some of the beneficial aspects of costs that were reported included gained rewards and the development of time management skills. Implications of our findings are further discussed, along with avenues for future research.
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1891/1945-8959.15.3.368
Journal of Cognitive Education and Psychology
Volume 15, Number 3, 2016
What Is Cost and Is It Always a
Bad Thing? Furthering the
Discussion Concerning College-Aged
Students’ Perceived Costs for Their
Academic Studies
Marcus Lee Johnson
University of Cincinnati, Ohio
Nayssan Safavian
University of California, Irvine
In this article, we present 2 studies with the primary objectives of (a) identifying
college-aged students’ perceived costs for their academic studies and (b) exploring
college students’ descriptions of “beneficial” aspects of costs. In Study 1, 10 cost
concepts were identified from 2 focus groups, including stress, lost opportunities,
effort, financial, and lost interest, to name a few. In Study 2, 98 undergraduates were
surveyed on their perceptions about possible “beneficial” aspects of cost. Some of
the beneficial aspects of costs that were reported included gained rewards and the
development of time management skills. Implications of our findings are further
discussed, along with avenues for future research.
Keywords: expectancy–value theory; cost; motivation; subjective task value
Theory of achievement motivation and choice behavior tell us that students’ expec-
tancy–value (E–V) beliefs are key contributors to their achievement choice behaviors
and academic performance (Eccles, & Wigfield, 1995, 2002; Wigfield & Eccles, 2000).
The bulk of the contemporary educational research within this framework and pertaining
to “value” has focused on the positive aspects of engaging in a task (i.e., interest, attain-
ment, and utility). Although scholarship situated in the areas of early E–V theory, attribu-
tion theory, fear of success and failure, and negative affect and anxiety have all approached
the subject of the negative consequences of engaging in a task (for review, see Barron &
Hulleman, 2015; Eccles et al., 1983; Eccles & Wigfield, 1995, 2002; Wigfield, Rosenzweig,
& Eccles, in press; an expanded review of the literature is beyond the scope of this manu-
script), the negative consequences of task engagement referred to as cost has regenerated
Copyright © Springer Publishing Company, LLC
Costs for Academic Studies 369
research interests (Barron & Hulleman, 2015; Battle & Wigfield, 2003; Berger & Karabenick,
2011; Conley, 2012; Flake, Barron, Hulleman, McCoach, & Welsh, 2015; Perez, Cromley, &
Kaplan, 2014). Furthermore, both the components of cost and its assessment have varied,
as well as its interaction with the other E–V constructs. Accordingly, further studies of cost
are warranted, including how students perceive the role of cost to inform academic choices
and achievement.
Elucidating students’ experiences of costs associated with their ongoing academic endeav-
ors can be key in identifying behaviors that predict or thwart persistence, choice, and success.
This investigation into the E–V construct of cost can inform the development of preventative
strategies that can be used by educators, learning specialists, and student affairs personnel to
target and ameliorate the potential detrimental effects of decreased motivation. We attempt
to advance our understanding of cost and elucidate some different ways in which college stu-
dents experience and identify cost. We also explore whether all costs are perceived as negative
(or maladaptive) as theoretically conceptualized or, alternatively, whether there can be positive
(or beneficial) aspects of cost.1
THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK
Our research is inspired by the Eccles et al. (1983) E–V theoretical framework. Eccles and
colleagues purport that motivation to engage in a task is a function of the individual’s ex-
pectation to do well (expectancy) and/or the valence of the task—the net value of the task to
the decision maker as to whether or not to engage with the task (subjective task value [STV];
i.e., is it worth it?). Research indicates that STV is an important predictor of the selection
of academic courses, time invested in learning, and educational and occupational aspira-
tions, all of which are also predictive of later achievement (Meece, Wigfield, & Eccles, 1990;
Simpkins, Davis-Kean, & Eccles, 2006; Updegraff, Eccles, Barber, & O’brien, 1996; Watt,
Eccles, & Durik, 2006). Within the E–V literature, task values encompass four components:
utility (usefulness of the task or relevance), attainment (perceived importance of the task),
interest (enjoyment or intrinsic value), and cost (see Eccles, 1987; Eccles et al., 1983; Wigfield
& Eccles, 1992).
Task values are generally associated with adaptive motivated strategies for learning in-
cluding elaboration, critical thinking, metacognitive strategies, time management, and effort
regulation (Berger & Karabenick, 2011; Crede & Phillips, 2011; Pintrich, Smith, & Garcia,
1993; see also Bembenutty & Karabenick, 2013). Cole, Bergin, and Whittaker (2008) along
with Johnson and Sinatra (2013) investigated the role of task values in cognitive processing
and learning outcomes; in both studies, utility and attainment were reported as most predic-
tive of deep cognitive processing, effort, achievement, and even conceptual change learning.
In Johnson and Sinatra (2013), students primed with utility values yielded high cognitive
engagement and experienced the greatest amount of conceptual change in comparison to at-
tainment value and control conditions. In another study, Hulleman, Godes, Hendricks, and
Harackiewicz (2010) showed gains in students’ utility and interest through a series of inter-
ventions that positively boosted performance. Gaspard and colleagues (2014) demonstrated
that relevance interventions that targeted the connection of learning materials to personal
goals (e.g., anticipated future careers) bolstered students’ task values over time. These studies
illustrate that task values may influence the processing of information and be associated with
achievement-related behaviors and outcomes.
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370 Johnson and Safavian
Conceptualizing Cost
Where interest, utility, and attainment are identified as positive contributors of task value,
cost detracts from the value of a task (i.e., diminishes overall STV by counteracting the attrac-
tive features of a task; Eccles & Wigfield, 1995; see also Gorges, 2015). Cost is broadly inter-
preted as a maladaptive motivator (e.g., loss of interest, anxiety, and fear; Eccles & Wigfield,
1995, 2002), and essentially antimotives or antivalues in that they diminish the overall value
to engage in a task. In other words, if a learner has a high utility value for mastering algebra
but the amount of effort that it would take to learn algebra is perceived as too great of a cost,
then theory presumes that the task of engaging in algebra will be devalued by the learner.
Thus, cost inversely relates to utility, attainment, and interest such that higher costs reduce/
counter the overall subjective value of a task (Eccles & Wigfield, 1995; Luttrell et al., 2010;
see also Murdock & Anderman, 2006). A decrease in cost will presumably increase utility,
attainment, and interest, and vice versa.
Eccles and colleagues describe cost in various ways, including psychological cost (i.e., stress),
anxiety, negative affect, fear of failure, lost opportunities, perceived effort needed for success, and
boredom as well as the cost of success or failure (see Eccles et al. 1983; Eccles & Wigfield, 1995,
2002). The costs of success could include the forgone time or energy for a task, whereas the
costs of failure could include feelings such as embarrassment or anxiety (Barron & Hulleman,
2015). Battle and Wigfield (2003) operationalized cost as perceptions of effort, loss of time, and
the psychological cost of failure. Flake et al. (2015) operationalized cost as “what is invested,
required, or given up to engage in a task.”
Luttrell and colleagues (2010) operationalized cost as “subjective estimate of loss” the
individual experiences in striving for mastery and termed it “personal cost” (p. 146). In their
study, cost was operationalized using survey items to assess students’ perceptions of negative
psychological cost (e.g., “Trying to do math causes me a lot of anxiety”) and effort (e.g., “I have
to study much harder for math than for other courses”; Luttrell et al., 2010). Students’ percep-
tions of time committed to the task, difficulty, and threat to self-esteem, were presumed to
increase costs. Costs reflect the “devaluing” of a task, and therefore, cost items were reverse-
coded within their analyses such that higher scores signified greater value of tasks. Chiang,
Byrd, and Molin (2011) measured cost among children by examining the degree to which
children reported feeling like they were missing out on doing other things (i.e., foregone
valued activities). Conley (2012) operationalized cost as the foregoing of a valued alternative as
a result of engaging in mathematics.
Following the work of Eccles et al. (1983), Perez et al. (2014) evaluated the multidimen-
sionality of cost and conceptualized three dimensions of cost: effort cost (i.e., the perceived
effort required to be successful in the task), opportunity cost (i.e., the forgone opportunity to
engage in alternative valued tasks), and psychological cost (i.e., the perceived emotional and/
or psychological costs associated with engaging in the task). These three costs differentially
related to undergraduates’ intentions to remain within their STEM (science, technology, en-
gineering, and mathematics) majors, with opportunity cost and effort cost being most associ-
ated with students’ intentions to leave their STEM majors. Perez et al. questioned whether
alternative conceptions of cost exist and encouraged further investigations on the multidi-
mensionality of cost.
Guided by the theoretical and empirical works of Eccles and colleagues (1983), as well as
Perez and colleagues (2014), Gaspard et al. (2014) also evaluated the dimensionality of cost.
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Costs for Academic Studies 371
Perceptions of cost within the domain of mathematics was examined in a sample of German
high school youth using 11 items: effort required (e.g., “Doing math is exhausting to me”),
emotional cost (e.g., “Doing math makes me really nervous”), and opportunity costs (e.g., “I have
to give up a lot to do well in math”). Factor analyses supported the three factors model cost.
These findings (Gaspard et al., 2014; Perez et al., 2014) lend support to what Eccles et al.
(1983) initially postulated to influence the cost of an activity, namely effort, opportunity cost,
and psychological cost.
Alternatively, Barron and Hulleman (2015) advocate that the role of cost within the Eccles
et al. (1983) E–V model requires some restructuring. Specifically, Barron and Hulleman ref-
erence Eccles and Wigfield’s (1995) work in that the analyses supported a structure of three
task values (utility, importance, and intrinsic), another expectancy factor, and two “difficulty
factors.” Barron and Hulleman then suggest that if task difficulty were used as a proxy for cost
in this research, then there is support that instead of negatively loading onto other values or
expectancy factors, cost separates into its own factor. They proposed that cost be positioned as
a separate factor to task value and thus creating the expectancy-value-cost model of achieve-
ment motivation (see Barron & Hulleman, 2015; Flake et al., 2015; Kosovich, Hulleman,
Barron, & Getty, 2014).
The inverse association between cost values and interest, utility, and attainment are dis-
cussed in the Eccles et al. (1983) E–V literature and are supported in a handful of studies
(Safavian, Conley, & Karabenick, 2013; Battle & Wigfield, 2003; Chiang, Byrd, & Molin, 2011;
Conley, 2012; Luttrell et al., 2010; Townsend & Hicks, 1997). For example, Townsend and Hicks
(1997) found that children reported lower cost when utility, attainment, and interest were high.
The work of Luttrell et al. (2010) found that cost is inversely related with utility and interest in
mathematics, suggesting that when cost is diminished, utility and interest increase. Chiang
et al. (2011) have also found children’s perceptions of cost are negatively related to their per-
ceptions of importance and interest in physical activity. Researchers have recommended that
educators consider minimizing cost as a strategy to facilitate deeper cognitive processes and
learning (Chiang et al., 2011; Luttrell et al., 2010). Whether costs can truly be minimized, or
which types of costs are best minimized, is an empirical question that warrants further inquiry.
To understand children’s participation in recess activities, Watkinson, Dwyer, and Nielsen
(2005) interviewed third graders to elucidate their rationale for engaging with select activities
and avoiding others. Themes of activity-related costs emerged from the students’ explana-
tions of why some recess activities were least favored and thus avoiding the activity entirely.
Watkinson and colleagues offered the following three categories of costs: physiological, psy-
chological, and social costs. Experiences of fatigue, stress, and physical discomfort were in-
terpreted as physiological costs. Psychological and social costs were identified by feelings of
victimization, embarrassment, perceptions of threat to security or safety, and being subject
to social judgment or facing scrutiny (Watkinson et al., 2005; also see Ryan & Pintrich, 1997,
on costs of help-seeking).
Perceived costs have also been identified as important consideration factors in under-
standing engagement and disengagement decisions (Fredricks et al., 2002). Fredricks and
colleagues’ (2002) study of adolescents’ high school extracurricular activity experiences inter-
viewed students about their rationale for disengaging from their extracurricular involvement
over time (e.g., quitting the activity). Cost emerged as a consistent theme across the inter-
views as students reported feeling too little (too easy) or too much (too hard) challenge relative
to their ability, perceiving not enough opportunity for participation, and feeling pressured
Copyright © Springer Publishing Company, LLC
372 Johnson and Safavian
and stressed (Fredricks et al., 2002). Experiencing stress was attributed to “feeling dejected
when their performance did not match expectations” (p. 85), feeling stressed “over trying to
balance their activities with other interests and obligations in their lives” (p. 85), as well as
perceiving a lack of time (or “time consuming” [p. 85]), including difficulty finding time to do
school work, to be with friends who were not involved in the same activities (e.g., sport team),
and forgone opportunities to try other activities. Other perceived costs related to the physical
and financial consequences of participation, such as feeling tired or fatigued, physical injury,
or the financial expenditures associated with the activity (e.g., purchasing equipment or the
cost of private coaching; Fredricks et al., 2002). Fredricks and colleagues concluded that when
it comes to factors that support or stifle extracurricular activity participation amongst high
school youth, that both perceived costs and benefits were considerably meaningful to under-
stand, and that the decision to continue or quit stemmed from the balance that students were
able to negotiate between the costs and benefits.
Chen and Liu (2009) also studied perceived costs in college physical education and activity
(i.e., loss of motivation) among Chinese youth (see also Zhu & Chen, 2013). The research-
ers used two open-ended questions aimed to capture students’ construal of cost (disliking
physical education) and choice decisions (engaging in physical activity). Students were asked
“If there is anything that would make you dislike physical education, what is it? Why?” and
second, “If you have a choice whether to take physical education, would you rather not take it
or you still want to take it? Why?” (Chen & Liu, 2009). Chen and Liu extracted four themes of
cost from the interviews: a curriculum that students’ perceived as irrelevant to them (can also
be interpreted as low attainment value), a learner-unfriendly context, irresponsible teachers,
and decontextualized assessments. For example, students expressed sentiments as “too much
discipline destroys my motivation” (p. 14), “makes a pretty exciting activity boring” (p. 15),
and regarding their teachers, “irresponsible, with low energy, expressionless in instruction,
and lazy” (p. 15). Despite the aforementioned costs students identified various motivating
reasons for participating in physical education (even when they didn’t have to participate). For
example, “Physical education can boost our energy for daily life, which is important for my
work and study. It helps release mental tension, stimulate thinking, and energize my body,
which increases my motivation to learn in the classroom” (p. 16). “While students indicated
that costs “distanced and alienated them from the content and learning” (p. 17), Chen and Liu
found that cost perceptions did not detrimentally influence students’ future physical educa-
tion participation. Chen and Liu concluded that their findings suggest “a possibility that the
cost is likely to be over-ridden by emphasizing positive values in the content” (p. 19). In other
words, task values (namely, attainment and utility for physical education [in this study]) “over-
ride the impact of cost on motivation” (p. 19).
Correlates of Cost
Several psychological, behavioral, and achievement outcomes have been linked with cost,
including negative affect, goals, educational aspirations, self-regulatory strategies, partici-
pation, social satisfaction, and achievement. Battle and Wigfield (2003) found cost to nega-
tively predict women’s intentions of pursuing graduate school. Berger and Karabenick (2011)
found cost to correlate with the use of rehearsal as a shallow learning strategy in mathematics
among high school youth. Perez and colleagues (2014) found that college students’ intentions
to drop their studies in STEM were associated with the high cost attributed to their college
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Costs for Academic Studies 373
major (i.e., requiring much effort and foregoing valued opportunities) and found no relation
with psychological costs (i.e., stress).
Regarding the association between cost and achievement-related behaviors, Safavian et al.
(2013) found that high costs were associated with lower course grades among early adoles-
cents. Safavian et al. (2013) also found that cost inversely relates with importance and utility
among Hispanic high school youth. In the study, Hispanic youth completed more courses and
advanced farther when they expected to succeed, perceived math as important, interesting,
useful, and associated it with low costs (controlling for prior achievement, gender, and socio-
economic status). Specifically, cost perceptions reduced the odds of advanced course-taking
by 17% (Safavian et al., 2013). Luttrell et al. (2010) reported similar findings with college-aged
populations such that increased course-taking was associated with higher interest, utility, and
reduced cost. Costs have been associated with reducing the odds of graduating high school
and satisfying university eligibility requisites among Hispanic youth (Safavian et al., 2013;
Safavian, 2015). As concerns goals and affect, Conley (2012) found performance-avoidance
goals (i.e., strivings to avoid appearing incompetent) were at their highest for students at-
tributing high costs to learning math despite reporting average levels of math competency;
performance-avoidance goals tend to be associated with maladaptive outcomes (i.e., disorga-
nization) according to achievement goal literature (see Elliot & McGregor, 2001). Negative
effect was also higher among students who attribute a high cost to learning math (Conley,
2012). Studies have also linked high social satisfaction among early adolescents with reduced
cost beliefs (Townsend & Hicks, 1997) and increased participation in physical activity among
children with low cost (Chiang et al., 2011).
THE PRESENT STUDIES
The reemergence of research interest around the cost component of the Eccles et al. (1983)
task value construct is reflective in the surge of scholarship on the modifiability of value
beliefs (e.g., Gaspard et al., 2014; Hulleman et al. 2010; Hulleman & Harackiewicz, 2009).
Within the contemporary literature, we know more about what attracts students to an activ-
ity (or increases the value of a task) and disproportionally less about the factors that detract
today’s students from the learning task (or diminish value). The role of cost within contempo-
rary E–V theory could benefit from more empirical attention as research assessing cost value
is limited, and we believe it should be subjected to further evaluation before classifying cost
as its own unique and separate component, an independent mediator of choice, that goes
beyond the Eccles et al. E–V STV configuration (see Barron & Hulleman, 2015). Task values
are reasons to engage in a task (both positive and negative) and theoretically, costs weigh
into one’s decision making to persist in a task. Whether costs are always demotivating (i.e.,
diminish the valence of the task, reduce task value) or can be reinterpreted as a motivating
asset is of curiosity. For example, Chen and Liu’s (2009) interview findings suggest that stu-
dents may also identify positive outcomes that accommodate some perceived costly invest-
ments (e.g., recognizing the health benefits of participating in physical education despite the
costs). This underscores the importance of better understanding cost beliefs. However, only
so much of this information can be parceled out using quantitative survey methods, and thus,
we adopt a qualitative approach to explore and understand cost.
We acknowledge that previous literature has articulated multiple facets of cost includ-
ing opportunity cost, effort cost, and psychological cost (e.g., Eccles et al., 1983; Gaspard
Copyright © Springer Publishing Company, LLC
374 Johnson and Safavian
et al., 2014; Grund & Fries, 2012; Perez et al., 2014). But, we also wish to respond to Perez
and colleagues’ (2014) calling for further investigations to explore the possibility of alterna-
tive costs that have not been thoroughly expressed in E–V literature. We expect to find at least
some convergence of evidence between our samples’ concepts of costs for their academic
studies (e.g., studying for an exam, working on homework, staying engaged in class), and
the definitions of costs reported in previous literature. Simultaneously, there is the potential
to find new and unique cost concepts that emerge from students’ responses to how they per-
ceive cost for their academic studies.
In this article, we pursue two research objectives across two studies: first, to identify
college-aged students’ perceived costs for their academic studies and second, to explore col-
lege students’ descriptions of the “beneficial” aspects of costs. Study 1 attends to the first
research objective and involves focus groups to explore college students’ perceptions of cost
as it relates to their academic endeavors. Study 2 attends to our second research objective and
involves surveying college students on their perceptions of costs and their perceptions of the
beneficial aspects of cost. The intent of this article is to further the conversation on cost by
identifying and confirming concepts of costs that learners perceive and entertain the notion
of whether learners perceive any beneficial aspects of cost that would situate the cost con-
struct as a task value rather than an antivalue. We think that it is essential and worthwhile to
qualitatively investigate whether multiple and new concepts of cost emerge before attempting
to conduct more quantitative analyses on conceptions of cost that are, to date, inconsistent.
At the end of our two studies, we hope to offer a more streamlined operationalization of cost
that is inclusive, consistent, and which researchers can employ and test in their future inves-
tigations of cost.
Study 1
College students have a plethora of choices vying for an investment of their time and en-
ergy. Costs will indubitably arise with greater frequency within the decision-making process
of whether to engage or disengage with their academic tasks (i.e., managing time for work
and studying, financially affording higher education, etc.) amidst the ongoing juggling of
competing academic, familial, and personal responsibilities (e.g., balancing work and school
schedule). To identify college-aged students’ perceived costs for their academic studies, focus
groups were employed. This method was selected to garner participants’ views (emic per-
spectives) and allow participants opportunities to listen to others’ conceptions of cost while
generating their own responses. One advantage of focus groups is that it allows “flexibility
to explore unanticipated issues as they arise in the discussion” (Marshall & Rossman, 2006,
p. 114).
Methods
Participants. In accordance with an approved institutional review board (IRB) protocol,
participants were provided a consent form. Two independent focus groups were conducted
consisting of 10 (8 females, 2 males) and 14 (10 females, 4 males) undergraduates within a
school of education research subject pool at a large, public, urban university in the Midwest-
ern region of the United States. At the time of data collection, the subject pool consisted of
3% freshmen (first year college students), 59% sophomores (second year college students),
27% juniors (third year college students), 7% seniors (fourth year college students), and with
3% not reporting their year in school. The mean age of subject pool participants was 20 years
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Costs for Academic Studies 375
(SD 5 2.49) with a range of 18–33 years and mean cumulative grade point average (GPA)
of 3.56 (SD 5 .31).2 The ethnic make-up of the subject pool was 90% White, 2% Hispanic/
Latino, 3% Black/African American, and 5% identified as “other.” Most participants were
studying (majoring in) education, nursing, or other health-related subjects.
Instrument
Focus group protocol. The focus group protocol consisted of a semistructured inter-
view guide that included a framework to generate discussion along with four key questions
(Table 1). Focus groups were provided a definition of cost (from E–V theory as the “negative
aspects of engaging in the task”; see Eccles & Wigfield, 2002, p. 120) at the onset of the session
to stimulate conversation around the theoretical construct. This definition provided a guiding
yet broad framework for conversation. Participants were instructed that their responses did
not need to be constrained by the literal, or more colloquial, interpretation of the term cost
(i.e., a discussion of financial expenditures) and encouraged to freely elaborate.
Four open-ended questions followed this definition (see Table 1); beginning with
Questions 1 and 2 to stimulate participants’ thinking of what they perceive as being some
negative aspects of engaging in an academic task (i.e., attending class, participating in discus-
sion, giving a presentation, etc.) and definitions of cost. To facilitate an in-depth and elab-
orated discussion of participants’ responses, focus group facilitators used probe questions
(e.g., “can you elaborate on that”) and asked for clarity (or confirmation) of responses that may
not have been readily understood by the group. Of these four focus group questions, students’
responses to Question 3 were assessed to help us (with addressing our first research objec-
tive) in identifying cost concepts for their academic studies. Question 4 was also assessed for
the purposes of exploring possible student responses that may be further expressed in later
survey data (see Study 2 in the following text) and to help us later address our second research
objective pertaining to the potential for perceiving “beneficial” aspects of cost.
Results
Coding and Analysis. Responses were analyzed using inductive analysis (see Marshall &
Rossman, 2006; Patton, 2002), specifically coding and analyzing for common cost concepts
that emerged naturally from participants’ discussion. Participants’ responses from the two
focus groups were transcribed, combined, and reviewed holistically in lieu of coding for pre-
determined themes—allowing concepts of cost to emerge authentically and ensuring flexibil-
ity in responses without constraints. The agreement between two coders approximated 91%
for all concepts coded as costs before discrepancies were resolved. Participants across both
focus groups shared many conceptualizations of cost. In both focus groups, participants were
asked probe questions for clarification of why they perceived their cost concept as being a cost
to their academic studies.
TABLE 1. Focus Group Questions
1. What are some negative aspects of engaging in an academic task (i.e., attending class,
participating in discussion, giving a presentation, etc.)?
2. How would you define cost?
3. What kinds of “costs” do you think there are when it comes to education?
4. Are there any circumstances in which these costs can be beneficial to your educational
experiences? OR learning? Is there anything “positive” about costs?
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376 Johnson and Safavian
Focus Groups
Question 1. When asked about negative aspects of engaging in an academic task (Question 1),
participants responded with “giving up free time with friends,” spending time on academic
work instead of other ventures, “sacrifice” of effort and/or expended energy, feeling stressed
about the academic task, “being vulnerable to failure” and making mistakes, financial costs
of education (e.g., tuition, books, transportation), “being judged by others (e.g., classmates)
when speaking out in class,” wanting to do well for others (i.e., parents, academic advisors,
etc.), fear of not getting a job or into graduate school, and “failure to maintain interest.” These
interpretations of the negative aspects of engaging in an academic task were much aligned with
previously reviewed conceptions of cost value, including psychological stress (e.g., anxiety),
lost or foregone opportunities, and expended effort (e.g., Conley, 2012; Eccles et al., 1983;
Gaspard et al., 2014; Perez et al., 2014).
Participants’ elaboration on what they identified as the cost of being “judged by others”
was particularly novel to us. Members of the group expressed the possibilities of gaining an
unpopular social reputation (i.e., being seen as a “teachers’ pet,” wasting class time by having
the instructor repeat things, and not giving other students opportunities to participate). This
alludes to a social cost or a cost that carried with it social implications, which has seldom been
considered in previous cost literature (see although Watkinson et al., 2005).
Question 2. “How would you define cost?” Personal definitions of cost included “some-
thing to give up,” “an equivalent exchange,” “something to sacrifice,” “consequences,” and
“payment.” Both focus groups brought up monetary issues (i.e., tuition, housing, books, and
commute) as a cost concept that is very much on their minds when it comes to their education.
Question 3. “What kinds of ‘costs’ do you think there are when it comes to education?”
Details about the financial costs or monetary concerns were expanded on in response to
Question 3. Financially speaking, participants mentioned parking, gas, tuition, books, meals,
rent, clothing, school supplies, loans, and even the monetary cost of health care. Aside from
the financial or monetary cost, students also expressed concerns about future employment
prospects and lost social opportunities. Several participants briefly mentioned that the time
spent attending classes takes time away from hours working for pay; yet, when asked to elabo-
rate, these participants characterized this cost concept as one of finances and time needed to
work on the academic task, as opposed to a lost opportunity like losing time that could be
spent with friends/family (see list of cost concepts in Table 2). Participants also elaborated on
TABLE 2. Cost Concepts Identified From Study 1 Focus Groups
1. Lost opportunities to spend time with family/friends
2. The amount of time needed to work on academic tasks
3. The amount of effort needed to work on academic tasks
4. The amount of stress that results from doing academic tasks
5. The chance of being judged by others when speaking up in class
6. The amount of finances needed for college
7. Having to do well academically for others
8. Losing interest in classes
9. Fear of not doing well in classes
10. Fear of not getting a job or moving onto graduate school
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Costs for Academic Studies 377
their fear of not getting a job or into graduate school by expressing concerns over delayed gradu-
ations, not securing an internship, or not being able to gain a study abroad experience.
Although some of these cost concepts appear to overlap (e.g., fear of not doing well in
class and fear of not getting a job/into graduate school share the characteristic of fear), focus
group participants spoke about each one in a distinct manner. To be consistent with how
the focus groups naturally responded, we report 10 different cost concepts as each of these
were qualitatively different according to participants’ responses (see Table 2). For example,
one could argue that the “amount of time needed to work on academic tasks” and the “lost
opportunities to spend with friends/family” could be grouped into a common concept of
cost as a loss of valued alternatives. Yet, participants spoke about the time needed to work on
academic tasks as a distinct commodity. Time in itself was valued and the anticipated loss of
time was thus identified as a cost. Participants did not express what exactly they would spend
their time doing if they weren’t working on academic tasks, and thus, this cost concept was
identified separately from lost opportunities to spend with friends/family where the cost of a
forgone opportunity to spend time (a limited resource) with friends and family was explicitly
distinguishable from all other aforementioned cost concepts because friends and family were
specified. The fear of not getting a job or into graduate school was also identified as a cost
concept. Fear of not getting a job or into graduate school was not discussed by focus group
participants in light of their financial implications but rather described as being potential
missed experiences.
Psychological stress, lost opportunity, effort, and loss of interest have been used to de-
scribe cost in previous literature (see Chiang et al., 2011; Conley, 2012; Eccles et al., 1983).
However, being judged by others (e.g., distracted or judged by classmates) and financial cost
are more unique conceptualizations of cost that are seldom addressed in the contemporary
E–V literature (for more on college students’ coping with financial strain and financial deci-
sion making; see Serido, Shim, Xiao, Tang, & Card, 2014; Soria, Weiner, & Lu, 2014). For
clarity, students’ responses were probed further with follow-up questions to elaborate on what
exactly they identified having given up or how it is perceived as a cost to them. Some partici-
pants explained that “cost” meant that they are giving up valuable attention (i.e., expending
valuable mental effort or mental focus) that they could otherwise be investing in a learning
task. In lieu of attending to their academic endeavors, participants shared preoccupations
with the fear of not succeeding or fear of failure (Number 9), not getting a job or into gradu-
ate school (Number 10), and not meeting the expectations of others (Number 7). In regards
to the cost of being judged by others (e.g., classmates; Number 5), what is potentially being
given up is social status.
Question 4. Across the limited literature, cost is situated as a counterinfluence of posi-
tively valenced constructs—in other words, cost reduces overall value. However, when asked
if there are “any circumstances in which these costs can be beneficial to your educational
experiences? Or learning? Is there anything ‘positive’ about costs?” participants expressed
that some of the costs that accompany an education (e.g., effort and stress) can be positive for
multiple reasons, including “forces one] to study . . . prioritize and persist,” fosters time man-
agement and financial responsibility (e.g., manage budget and financial expenses), “builds
character” (i.e., coping strategies), and gain rewards (i.e., “making sacrifices now may pay
off down the road [in terms of better jobs, higher pay, etc.]”; see Paglieri, 2013, for more
on costs of delay [of gratification]). In addition, some expressed that cost can be positive in
that it encourages one to “find out what [they] value” (meaning that perceiving cost brings
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378 Johnson and Safavian
into focus what is cherished). Several also mentioned that the psychological cost of being
stressed activates them to work harder because they “work better under pressure.” We ex-
plore participants’ responses concerning beneficial aspects of costs further in Study 2 (in the
following text).
Discussion.
The objective of Study 1 was to identify college-aged students’ perceived costs
for their academic studies, and to that respect, several qualitatively different interpretations
of cost emerged from our focus groups. We recognize that thinking about the costs of stu-
dents’ academic studies is much broader than a task-specific cost (e.g., doing homework) as
intended by the STV construct with the E–V literature. Nonetheless, we believed it to be an
important consideration and valuable first in understanding how students’ are construing
costs associated with their academic pursuits. Most of the cost concepts that emerged are sup-
ported in previous literature (see Chiang et al., 2011; Conley, 2012; Eccles et al., 1983; Eccles &
Wigfield, 1995, 2002; Perez et al., 2014; Townsend & Hicks, 1997), whereas others are unique
in that they have received little to no attention in contemporary “motivation in education” lit-
erature. Students’ interpretation of cost as “lost opportunities to spend time with friends and
family, amount of time needed to work on academic tasks” align with Eccles and colleagues
(1983) discussion of “loss of valued alternative” (p. 94). In this case, the valued alternative in
both statements is “time.” Nonetheless, students repeatedly differentiated between time fore-
gone with family/friends and time invested elsewhere. In certain circumstances and certain
populations, it would be valuable to keep this in mind when thinking about overall STVs from
an E–V framework. For members of communities that place a high premium on the collective
interest of the group (as opposed to their individual interests) the cost of foregoing time with
friends and family may be of significantly higher cost.
Cost defined as “the amount of effort needed to work on academic tasks” aligns with
Eccles et al. (1983) and Battle and Wigfields’s (2003) discussion of the perceived effort needed
to succeed. This is also supported by participants’ initial comments on the negative aspects
of engaging in an academic task (Question 1)—namely, “sacrifice” of effort, expended energy,
and feeling stressed about the academic task. Similarly, interpretations of cost as “stress that
results from doing the academic task, fear of not doing well in classes, fear of not getting a
job or moving onto graduate school” align with both negative affect and the psychological
cost of failure (Eccles et al., 1983; Perez et al., 2013). The fear of “not doing well” is a theme
that is echoed consistently throughout the literature (Battle & Wigfield, 2003; Eccles et al.,
1983; Luttrell et al. 2010; Perez et al., 2014). It is important to note that students explicitly
differentiated between “not doing well” in short-term endeavors (e.g., coursework) versus
long-term aspirations (e.g., getting a job or moving onto graduate school). This implies that
interpretations of costs potentially differ based on students’ time perspective or time orienta-
tion. It could be that in some cases, although the undertakings of some activities are costly in
the moment (e.g., the stress associated with the upcoming exam), for a student that is think-
ing about future endeavors (e.g., graduate school eligibility), the short-term costs are less
costly relative to the long-term costs of not getting into graduate school. Because some studies
have suggested that being future-oriented is adaptive (e.g., de Bilde, Vansteenkiste, & Lens,
2011), it may also be that short-term costs can appear more or less costly in light of the big-
ger picture. Whether or not future-orientation and cost perceptions are related is unclear but
certainly worth considering.
The interpretation of cost with respect to financial matters, although not entirely unique
(e.g., see literature in economics), is less frequently discussed within the educational
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Costs for Academic Studies 379
psychology literature. Battle and Wigfield (2003) assessed financial cost with the items such
as “graduate school would not be worth it if I had to work hard after I got out to re-pay a
long-term tuition loan.” Flake et al. (2015) also found some minor support for students’ con-
sideration of financial matters in their construal of cost. For college students, and particularly
nontraditional student populations, the financial element may be a very significant factor in
their evaluation of academic value and the costs associated with their academic efforts (see
King, 2003).
Particularly novel to the literature that we have extensively reviewed were students’ inter-
pretations of cost as “being judged by others” and “having to do well academically for others.”
The commonality between these themes was the social nature of the statement. In each of
the statements, responses indicate that the participants are referencing someone outside the
self in their evaluation of cost. In the first statement, cost is the perception of threat (being
judged) and implied is the threat against the individual self. Social perceptions (i.e., how oth-
ers perceive us or the impressions that we perceive we are giving) and social acceptance are
modifiable, negotiable, and valued commodities that arguably serve as an indicator or social
currency to their identity. In following this rationale, if social acceptance is coveted then the
threat of judgment by others (e.g., classmates) or a failure of not meeting the expectations of
others could be interpreted as a cost because what is potentially being exchanged, or given up,
or threatened is perhaps social approval or a threat to one’s social status or identity. As social
approval and peer acceptance becomes increasingly valued, social costs may become more
salient in the decision-making process. For example, fears of success may also be apropos
to understanding social costs if success means gaining an unpopular social reputation (i.e.,
being seen as a “teachers’ pet,” wasting class time by having the instructor repeat things, and
not giving other students opportunities to participate). Relevant to this discussion of social
cost is the notion of social utility (i.e., utility of the task for the purposes of realizing one’s so-
cial goals). Gaspard and colleagues (2014) included a measure of social utility that they found
to closely relate with attainment value. More exploration in this area of work is warranted
such as elucidating the relations between perceived cost and fear of success and failure and
their links to social identity.
In the second statement, the emphasis of cost is projected outwards—do well academically
for others. Returning to the E–V work of Eccles and colleagues (1983), we echo the sentiment
that it is important to consider the lens with which the individual subjectively experiences a
“cost.” The ways young people are socialized, and respectively, orient toward cultures of indi-
vidualism or collectivism, inform their values (e.g., Eccles et al., 1983; Markus & Kitayama,
1991). Students from communities that emphasize the collective experience to a greater de-
gree than the individual experience may be more likely to orient their evaluation of cost with
such a lens. For example, studies have suggested that among Chinese youth, familial obli-
gations include the expectation to do well academically with the goal of bringing pride and
honor to the family (Chao, 2000; Schneider & Lee, 1990). According to Chao (2000), Asian
youth are socialized to recognize that their responsibility to the family is to do well in school
(Kao & Thompson, 2003; Schneider & Lee, 1990). The pressure that Asian immigrant par-
ents place on their youth to achieve academically can translate into high attainment value or
a greater relevance to their sense of identity (Eaton & Dembo, 1997). It could also be argued
that the opportunity cost of time foregone with friends could be perceived as less costly rela-
tive to the anticipated shame associated with poor performance. Following this logic, students
who more strongly orient themselves toward the collective experience may be less likely to
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380 Johnson and Safavian
interpret cost (when interpreted as detractors of the task) as loss of time, foregone opportu-
nity, or negative affect. Those particular costs are possibly less salient in their decision mak-
ing as opposed to the social costs discussed earlier. Alternatively, perhaps it is not a matter
of likelihood of identifying costs in those aspects (e.g., loss of time, forgone opportunity) but
rather the way in which costs are weighted against each other (e.g., doing well academically
for others vs. loss of time) as well as the values that attract them toward the activity. It would
be interesting to examine whether students’ culture of individualism-collectivism and their
self-construal of values differ in their translation of cost. Further research is greatly needed
in this domain.
One particularly novel discussion that was presented by our participants was the experi-
ence of being distracted for various reasons, including being distracted by others (e.g., receiving
phone calls in the middle of class from family members) or by other tasks (e.g., doing another
class’ homework; see Ortner, Zelazo, & Anderson, 2013, for discussion on cognitive costs of
emotion regulation). In particular, participants to a great extent in response to Question 3 dis-
cussed experiencing being distracted as a cost. Although it could be argued that cognitive atten-
tion is what is being given up in the learning task when being distracted (e.g., generating to-do
lists while in class, working on another class’s homework, worrying about sick family mem-
bers at home), this concept of being distracted could perhaps better be classified as a barrier
to learning rather than an actual cost because focus group participants spoke about in-class
distractions as preventing them from staying on task rather than as something being given up.
The consistent emergence of the varying cost concepts across our focus groups indicates
that college students perceive several differing costs for their academic studies. Although pre-
vious literature had partially elaborated to three types of cost (i.e., opportunity cost, effort cost,
and psychological cost; Perez et al., 2014), it was unknown whether any additional or alterna-
tive types of cost would naturally emerge from the focus groups. We believe that the qualita-
tive approach we used here in Study 1 not only allowed us to identify multiple costs but also
allowed us to identify cost concepts that have been absent from much of the contemporary E–V
literature. In spite of the novelty of some of the cost concepts, such as being judged by others, we
believe that future research can further the conversation on the construct of cost by testing the
reliability and validity of the cost concepts we identified. Future research may consider the con-
solidation of cost concepts (i.e. consolidating being judged by others and doing well for others as a
social cost) as well as examining how social norms inform the interpretation of perceived costs.
Study 2
To address our second research objective, Study 2 involved surveying college-aged students
on perceived beneficial aspects of cost; for which findings can enrich the conversation on the
nature, valence, and fit of cost as a task value in E–V theory. Although the survey questions
in Study 2 mirror the focus group questions in Study 1, the data collection methods differ
between the two studies. The decision to employ focus groups in Study 1 was because of
the objective of identifying college-aged students’ perceived costs for their academic studies,
reaching saturation (Creswell, 2015) in cost concepts. One advantage of collecting survey
data, over focus groups, is that data can be collected with a larger sample, strengthening
the generalizability of a study’s findings. Therefore, the decision to collect survey data in
Study 2 was deemed appropriate to help verify/support the findings in Study 1 and to inves-
tigate how college-aged students perceive any beneficial aspects of cost with a larger sample.
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Costs for Academic Studies 381
The findings from Study 1 informed our analysis of participants’ survey responses in Study 2
because multiple cost concepts had been identified, along with understandings of how some
college-aged students experience cost.
Methods
Participants. Study 2 involved 98 (69 females, 25 males, and 4 not reported) undergradu-
ates, who were recruited during the second half of an academic calendar and from the same
institution and subject pool as those in Study 1. Study 2’s sample had an average age of 19.4
years (SD 5 2.05), with an age range of 18–33 years and average grade point average (GPA)
of 3.30 (SD 5 0.49). Approximately half of this sample were freshmen, followed by 31%
sophomore, 13% junior, 3% senior, and 5% not reported. More than half of this entire sample
was majoring in education. The ethnic distribution was 85% White, 5% Hispanic/Latino, 5%
Black/African American, and all remaining participants did not report their ethnicity and/or
designating “other.”
Survey Instrument
Defining cost. The Study 2 survey used three open-ended questions to explore partici-
pants’ perceptions (or definitions) of cost. These questions were (a) “What are some negative
aspects of engaging in an academic task (i.e., attending class, participating in discussion,
giving a presentation),” (b) “Psychologists define ‘cost’ as the ‘negative aspects of engaging in
a task.’ How would you define cost,” (c) “What kinds of ‘costs’ do you think there are when it
comes to education?” These questions were placed at the beginning of the survey to stimulate
participants’ thinking about the notion of cost and make them aware that their responses
need not be isolated to discussions about financial cost only. Although these three questions
are used to confirm and/or expand our findings about the cost concepts we identified in
Study 1, the “beneficial aspects of cost” discussed in the following text are the main focus of
Study 2.
Beneficial aspects of cost. Participants’ beliefs about the positive or beneficial aspects of
cost were explored using two open-ended questions. These questions were “Are there any
circumstances in which these costs can be beneficial to you educationally?” and “Is there any-
thing positive about costs?” Albeit negative or positive, task values are reasons to engage in a
task, and should Study 2 participants confirm/identify beneficial aspects to costs, then there
may be reason to maintain cost as task value, as opposed to categorizing cost as an antivalue
or antimotive. Discussions and interpretations concerning beneficial aspects of cost may also
identify students for future studies who are able to perceive what is typically theorized as a
detractor, as an attractor (i.e., optimistic and resilient students).
Procedure and Design. An electronic survey was used, consisting of the aforementioned
open-ended questions. In accordance with an approved IRB protocol, participants were first
provided information concerning the purpose of the study at the start of the survey. This was
followed by the open-ended questions and finally demographics.
Results
Defining Cost. In response to the question “What are some negative aspects of engaging
in an academic task (i.e., attending class, participating in discussion, giving a presentation)?”
some student responses included “stress, anxiety, social rejection, emotional trauma, aca-
demic rejection, failure”; “loss of free time”; “time consuming, judgment by peers, schedule
conflicts”; and “time spent in class could instead be spent working or at home with family.”
These responses align with what we found in Study 1. Social cost again emerged in responses
such as “judgment by peers,” supporting its consideration as a cost concept.
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382 Johnson and Safavian
In response to the question “Psychologists define ‘cost’ as the ‘negative aspects of engag-
ing in a task.’ How would you define cost?” students’ responses included “I define cost as
what I give to get something. Whether what I give is good or bad, it is still a cost,” “the money
and effort put into something,” “the sacrifice people make to obtain a goal,” and “what I give
up in order to engage in the task.” Again, these responses aligned with those reported in
Study 1.
In response to the question “What kinds of ‘costs’ do you think there are when it comes
to education?” time, money, effort, and stress emerged as the most prevalent interpretations
of cost. Some student responses included “financial, time, and stress are costs of education”;
“time and money are the two biggest costs that come to mind when thinking of college edu-
cation”; “some of the costs are embarrassment and discomfort”; “sitting in a class you don’t
like”; “stress, lack of sleep, no free time, lack [of] time to eat right and work out and make
yourself happy”; and “social time and time that could be spent working and earning money.”
Beneficial Aspects of Cost. Survey responses from Study 2 participants added details about
what they perceived to be positive and beneficial aspects of cost that were not elaborated on in
Study 1. For example, Study 2 participants who provided reward-oriented responses (i.e., put-
ting a lot of effort into getting good grades) mentioned that not having to repeat classes can be
a reward. One participant noted that short-term costs could be rewarding in the instance that
completing one’s academic work early affords one more time with friends. Additional positive
or perceived reward-like benefits to costs included the notion that the sacrifice of time (i.e., the
time spent in school, studying, or pursuing an education) is worthwhile because one gains
mastery and expertise as well as avoids engaging in maladaptive activities (e.g., procrastinat-
ing, playing video games, partying, experimenting with drugs); one student stated, “If you put
in the time, you can become very good at your area of expertise.” The sacrifice of time (cost)
was also perceived as rewarding when accompanied by the relief from stress once a challeng-
ing and/or stressful task is completed. One respondent stated, “A hard-fought reward at the
end is much more satisfying than a reward that came easily and without cost.”
Other perceptions of cost as a positive motivator included making family members proud
of persistence and sacrifices, securing a fulfilling career that helps others, “doing something
I love,” heightened awareness and concentration for tasks, and not having to get a full-time
job (yet). Being perceived as persistent and/or resilient to peers and employers was also a
positive motivator of cost. Study 2 participants also discussed how costs can serve as a positive
motivator in that they force students to become more efficient with their time management,
practice patience, develop coping strategies for stress, gain a sense of responsibility (taking
on adult responsibilities), develop confidence (or resilience) in persisting through struggles,
develop skills to work under pressure, and be better prepared for the workforce (including
doing a volunteer internship to be more competent and competitive for the job market). One
student stated that educational costs can be beneficial because they facilitate “time manage-
ment, character building, and experiencing the ‘real world,’ as in tough choices are made and
we learn from them.” Students mentioned that financial cost could be perceived as beneficial
when it forces them to budget their finances better.
Other participants also added that costs could be positive in that they stimulate one to re-
flect on their priorities. Students explained that they appreciate their time with friends more,
maintain awareness of the goals more important to them, and gain a better sense of appre-
ciation for money whenever they reflect on the sacrifices they have made to “earn” such op-
portunities and experiences. Some respondents explained cost as an investment opportunity
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Costs for Academic Studies 383
(i.e., bettering oneself through education) that they did not want to waste (and they felt ob-
ligated to see things through to make it worthwhile). One student stated that “financial cost
makes me want to perform better because I don’t want my money to be going to the school
and not being able to get anything out of it,” whereas another student stated that “by spend-
ing time, money, and putting in effort to their academic studies and your education, you are
enhancing your knowledge and appreciation for the time and money that you have.”
Last, Study 2 participants made statements such as “stress is beneficial to me because I
work well under stress,” and implied that stress can be a sign that they care more about a task (or
more strongly value a task), especially when that task is relevant to their career. Among some
of the more novel and atypical responses on the benefits and positive aspects of costs, some
students stated that experiencing costs such as stress and hardship would allow them to empa-
thize and better understand others going through hardships (i.e., students and/or patients).
DISCUSSION
In this article, we used qualitative approaches to pursue two research objectives across two
studies: (a) identify college-aged students’ perceived costs for their academic studies and
(b) explore college students’ descriptions of the “beneficial” aspects of costs. First and fore-
most, understanding how the negative characteristics of a task are factored into the decision-
making process are not always clear-cut. Our findings suggest that understanding perceived
costs is quite complex and distinguishing between the costs and benefits are subjective and
circumstantially dependent.
We found that students in our samples perceive multiple costs to their academic studies,
which allowed us to specifically identify 10 cost concepts in Study 1. One interesting finding
that is novel to the contemporary literature on cost is the social component of cost that we
discussed in Study 1. This theme was reiterated by participants in Study 2 with definitions of
cost that included comments such as “social rejection” and “judgment by peers.”
In terms of positive and beneficial aspects of cost, we can report that many students in
our samples from both Study 1 and Study 2 believed that the end rewards would be worth
the costs they had invested in their academic work—echoing the underlying presumption
of STVs as described within the Eccles et al. (1983) E–V theoretical framework. Making sac-
rifices, giving up something, and/or delaying gratification may all be costs; however, indi-
viduals can stay engaged, be motivated, and persist in a task because they are invested in a
desired outcome. Other responses to our survey questions regarding the positive and benefi-
cial aspects of costs included the development of time management and budgeting skills and
heightened awareness of what they prioritize. Based on our results, we conclude that not all
costs are negative, at least in the sense of being detrimental and maladaptive to all learning
behaviors and circumstances.
One key finding in Study 2 was that students in our sample expressed finding stress (to a
certain degree) to be a beneficial aspect of cost. Although a great deal of literature would suggest
that stress should be detrimental to learning and achievement (Lavasani, Khezriazar, Amani, &
Malahmadi, 2011; Liu & Lu, 2011), an explanation for students’ perception of stress being bene-
ficial may perhaps stem from the affective motivation literature which suggests that an optimal
level of stress (arousal) may facilitate greater activity/performance (see inverted-U curve hy-
pothesis of arousal; Arent & Landers, 2003; Atkinson, 1963; Munz, Costello, & Korabik, 1975;
Yerkes & Dodson, 1908; see also Pekrun, 2006, regarding activating/deactivating achievement
Copyright © Springer Publishing Company, LLC
384 Johnson and Safavian
emotions). Too much or too little stress may hinder engagement. So, in spite of cost value being
defined as negative and associated with many maladaptive behaviors/outcomes (see Battle &
Wigfield, 2003; Eccles & Wigfield, 1995; Luttrell et al., 2010), students in our samples stated
that a degree of stress can activate them to take action toward whatever it is that is causing them
stress (see Pekrun, 2006).
Our findings illustrate that cost value is a very complex component of E–V theory that
warrants further investigation. Participants’ responses across the two studies imply that not
all costs are always deactivating. Rather, from what we gather, it depends on the individual’s
subjective interpretation and experience of that particular cost relative to other values (cul-
tural, economical, etc.) and their future goals. Our interpretation is aligned with the Eccles
et al. E–V formulation of cost in that our findings support the conclusion that we must take
into consideration the social, cultural, and contextual factors that inform students’ values.
Thereby, the valence of cost (as positive or negative) may be subjective and situational.
Implications
Theoretical Implications.
We believe our findings have both practical and theoretical impli-
cations for educators and educational scholars. Literature concerning the role of cost within
the contemporary E–V theory is limited and exploring the many kinds of costs that today’s
college students perceive can be used to help educational researchers operationalize cost in
contemporary and diverse ways and be used by E–V theorists to more thoroughly investigate
the influence of certain costs on student learning/achievement outcomes and choice behav-
iors. Our results indicate multiple types of costs, thereby expanding what is known about
the multidimensionality (Perez et al., 2014), as well as the highlighting the complexity and
subjectivity of cost. E–V theorists may consider investigating and adding to the theoretical
models of student motivation that account for different types of perceived costs.
Participants’ responses in part support Eccles and colleagues’ (1983) assertion that inter-
est, utility, and attainment values can compensate for deactivating costs (depending on the
situation). Our findings suggest that although cost is salient throughout students’ academic
experiences, that specifically utility and attainment value, as well as social and cultural val-
ues, may play a larger role in how students evaluate those costs than previously researched.
Having identified multiple costs and explored their beneficial aspects, we believe that E–V
theorists should give careful consideration in their operationalization of cost with current col-
lege-going populations. When defined solely as the negative consequences and/or negative
aspects of engaging in a task, perceived costs are presented as antimotivating, maladaptive,
and detrimental (see Townsend & Hicks, 1997). However, task values are defined as reasons
for engaging in a task, and the negative connotation of cost appears to counter any reason to
engage in a task.
Therefore, we argue that further clarification of cost is needed. Our findings further sup-
port the literature that costs are best situated under the larger umbrella of task values in
that they are contributing reasons for why learners engage in a task. Instead of defining
costs as negative in the sense that they are detrimental and/or maladaptive to learning, we
believe it would be more helpful to use the term negative when defining costs in the sense
that something is being given up (removed). The term negative would be used then much in
the same way that negative reward is used in behavioristic terms: that something unpleasant
is being removed to increase a behavior (i.e., reducing the amount of household chores for
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Costs for Academic Studies 385
good behavior). We propose that the definition of cost be expanded to include defining costs
as the investment (or giving up of something) in an activity for a desired outcome (see Battle
& Wigfield, 2003; Flake et al., 2015, for similar descriptions of cost being conceptualized as
giving up something). Such a definition is broad enough to include the cost of financial ex-
change and one’s persistence in the task because of its financial investment. The same could
be said about the cost of losing interest. Although a learner might be sacrificing their happi-
ness temporarily, they may still persist in a learning task for an end reward. In these cases, the
“negative” part of the cost is that the learner is giving something up, and this does not mean
that they are always disengaging from the task.
Another theoretical implication our findings have for E–V theory is that costs may have
valences of their own to consider (i.e., activating versus deactivating qualities; approach vs.
avoidance qualities). A proportion of our samples, approximately 20% of the survey partici-
pants in Study 2, suggested they were activated by stress and that stress to a degree was a
“good thing.” Although educational literature presents stress as maladaptive for learning, ac-
cording to the inverted-U hypothesis (see Yerkes & Dodson, 1908), there may be an optimal
level of arousal for learning and that too little or too much arousal (stress) can result in low
performance (see also Pekrun, 2006). Costs that have a continuum, ranging from too little to
too much, may be representative or indicative of activating/deactivating costs or approach/
avoidance costs. Again, future research concerning perceived costs will need to further in-
vestigate the many costs we identified in Study 1 to validate whether costs such as stress have
beneficial and adaptive qualities across time, populations, and contexts.
Practical Implications.
Our findings specifically contribute to the conversation of college
students’ perceived costs toward their academic studies. Higher education administrators
should not ignore our findings of students reporting financial cost as highly on their minds
in Study 1. Although financial cost is not typically addressed in E–V literature, our findings
and those of Flake et al. (2015) are indicative of financial costs prevalence in college students’
choice and decision-making behaviors. This theme was also reflected within the Fredricks
and colleagues’ (2002) study in elucidating contributing factors to adolescents’ disengage-
ment from activities. Educators, along with administrators and student services personnel,
should consider adopting strategies to reduce perceived costs, especially those that act as bar-
riers to education and those that are detrimental for learning. Luttrell et al. (2010) reported an
inverse relationship between their measure of personal cost and interest; and our finding of
losing interest
as one of 10 cost concepts identified in Study 1 further heeds our recommenda-
tion for educators and student services personnel to use strategies during interactions with
college students that combat the cost of losing interest. Literature regarding strategies that edu-
cators can adopt to foster situational interest include using original source materials, model-
ing enthusiasm, creating surprise, using variety, involving students in decision making, and
building on students’ personal interest (see Schunk, Meece, & Pintrich, 2014).
Although the cost of stress was perceived by a proportion of our samples to be benefi-
cial, we would caution educators and student services personnel from attempting to enhance
such a cost. We believe that further research is necessary to better determine the degree to
which costs could be optimized. In the meantime, we recommend that educators and stu-
dents services personnel not overreact to small signs of student stress. According to some of
the students in our samples, some stress may be activating and help students develop time
management skills (see Pekrun, 2006, regarding activating/deactivating achievement emo-
tions; see also Gasper & Zawadzki, 2013, for more on “affective costs”), so educators and
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386 Johnson and Safavian
student services personnel need not attempt to eliminate all stressors from students’ aca-
demic experiences.
Limitations and Future Directions
Qualitative approaches were employed across our two studies. We recognize that these method-
ological approaches typically limit the generalizability of research findings; however, we believe
that our findings are informative for E–V theorists and educators working with college-aged
students at large, public, urban institutions. Specifically, the results we present in this article
help lay a foundation from which other E–V theorists can build on to more thoroughly inves-
tigate the ecological, temporal, and population validity of our findings. Future research should
consider even larger and more diverse samples than ours and compare student groups with
differing characteristics on the distribution of perceived costs to identify student populations
who may be at risk for adopting costs that are associated with maladaptive learning outcomes.
Eccles and colleagues (1983) have elaborated on cost both in terms of the cost of failure
but also the cost of success. We did not explore the cost of success in great depth; however,
cost of success would be an important facet of the decision-making process for college-going
students that could be clarified and better understood. Future research would greatly benefit
from exploring students’ perceptions of the cost of success (e.g., what kind of costs come with
success). More research is also needed in examining the relation of cost to other task values;
as the interpretation and weight of cost (as a motivating or demotivating factor in decision
making) may be relative to the importance, utility, or interest in choice behaviors. Eccles and
colleagues theorize the valence of a task is the net (positive and negative) value of the task
(Eccles et al., 1983; Eccles & Wigfield, 1995, 2002).
Furthermore, we believe that fruitful avenues of research with the different types of costs
we report in this article could include investigations with younger student populations to
determine whether certain costs are developmentally specific (i.e., financial costs might not
be of great concern to elementary and high school aged students), investigations with di-
verse populations from varying cultures to determine whether certain costs are valued or per-
ceived to differing degrees, and investigations with longitudinal designs that test the efficacy
of interventions geared toward altering costs. We recognize that many of the cost concepts
reported in Study 1 and reciprocated in Study 2 may overlap or strongly correlate with one
another; thus, we encourage future research to investigate whether certain types of costs can
be grouped into related classifications.
In addition, social costs (i.e., being judged by others, wanting to do well for others, etc.) and
other less attended-to costs should be accounted for in moving E–V theory forward, especially
when it comes to operationalizing cost. Social costs may be especially salient for some popula-
tions who place high value on the community rather than the self. Should that be the case, then
operationalizing cost simply as effort or time would not capture factors that inform value for
those particular populations. Future work would also benefit from furthering the scholarship
on how social identities (e.g., gender roles) and the internalization of socially prescribed norms
influence costs beliefs and the mechanism through which they operate (e.g., through family
socialization practices, cultural messages about appropriate social roles, or attainment value).
Another avenue of research to explore is whether or not cost can add to the overall value of
a task. The classic E–V theory (Atkinson, 1963) that informed the contemporary Eccles et al.
(1983) E–V theory conceptualized value as 1—probability of success. Thus, the higher the cost
Copyright © Springer Publishing Company, LLC
Costs for Academic Studies 387
in terms of effort, the more valuable was the outcome. So too in economics, things that cost
more are perceived as more valuable. When probed about how costs could serve as sources of
positive motivation, it could be possible that our participants where interpreting the increase
in overall value when costs were high—thus providing support for such an interpretation. For
example, one of our respondents had explained to us that “a hard-fought reward at the end is
much more satisfying than a reward that came easily and without cost.” Others perceptions
of cost as a positive motivator included making family members proud of persistence and
sacrifices, being perceived as persistent and/or resilient to peers and employers was also a
positive motivator of cost. Study 2 participants also discussed how costs can serve as a positive
motivator in that they force students to become more efficient with their time management,
practice patience, develop coping strategies for stress, gain a sense of responsibility (taking
on adult responsibilities), develop confidence (or resilience) in persisting through struggles,
develop skills to work under pressure, and be better prepared for the workforce (including
doing a volunteer internship to be more competent and competitive for the job market).
We believe that there are several research questions that can be further pursued based on
the results we present in this article. Investigations concerning perceived costs are underrep-
resented in E–V literature, as well as education literature. We believe many of our findings
contribute to the E–V literature by filling in some of the gaps that exist with defining and con-
ceptualizing cost. This article provides foundational information about the types of costs and
their beneficial aspects for which it is our hope that future research is inspired to build on.
NOTES
1. Although the psychological cost of stress is often deemed to be negative and maladaptive for
learning, some stress may be perceived as activating and beneficial (see inverted-U curve hypothesis of
arousal; Arent & Landers, 2003; Munz et al., 1975; see also Pekrun, 2006, regarding activating/deactivat-
ing achievement emotions).
2. In the United States, students’ GPA is often reported on a 4.0 scale, where the letter grade of
A” is equivalent to 4, “B” is equivalent to 3, “C” is equivalent to 2, “D” is equivalent to 1, and “F” is
equivalent to 0 for each course. GPA is calculated by summing up the values of letter grades and divid-
ing that sum by the number of courses completed (assuming each course is worth the same number of
academic credit units each term).
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... Although they differ somewhat, in models of EVT, the value (also considered subjective task value) of pursuing an outcome is generally comprised of, and consistently assessed as interest, utility and attainment value (e.g., Eccles et al. 1983;Wigfield and Cambria 2010;Wigfield and Eccles 1992, 2000, 2020. Cost, initially considered primarily a function of effort and lost opportunities (Eccles et al. 1983), has expanded to include boredom, and the psychological consequences of failure (e.g., Battle and Wigfield 2003) as well as emotional cost (Flake et al. 2015) and fear of failure (Johnson and Safavian 2016;Perez et al. 2014). Cost has also been elevated to receive a separate designation in an expectancy-value-cost model (e.g., Barron and Hulleman 2015), and other studies have suggested a bifactor value that includes other ways of including cost (Part et al. 2020). ...
... Considering associations at both levels allows for a fuller understanding of how perceived utility and cost are related to strategy use. Likewise researchers cannot assume that associations between utility and cost and subsequent strategy use are uniform across students (c.f., Johnson and Safavian 2016). We therefore examine the degree to which utility-use and costuse associations vary across individual students. ...
... Based on the existing evidence it is also likely that cost would be inversely related to strategy use (H2); the more cost anticipated when using a strategy, the less frequently students would report using it (Battle and Wigfield 2003;Chiang et al. 2011;Karabenick and Berger 2013;Townsend and Hicks 1997). There is less confidence regarding H2, however, since recent analyses suggest that cost may also be perceived as beneficial (Johnson and Safavian 2016), in which case there may be some strategies, and for some individuals, for whom cost would be inverse and others where cost may even be positively related to use. The possibility for such variability requires a within-student analytic procedure, which is based in part on seminal work by Murayama and colleagues (Murayama 2003(Murayama , 2006Murayama et al. 2017) for determining the relations of perceived utility and cost to reported use. ...
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There is substantial evidence that students’ use of self-regulated learning strategies is directly related to their motivation to achieve desired learning outcomes (designated outcome motivation: OM). Further, motivational beliefs about the strategies themselves (designated strategy motivation: SM) may also influence strategy use. In the absence of systematic analyses of SM, we examined beginning U.S. high school students’ (n = 253) appraisals of the utility and cost of using cognitive, metacognitive and resource management strategies and their reported use of those strategies in mathematics classes. Students who appraised a strategy as higher in utility reported greater frequency of use, but perceived cost was only a weak inverse function of reported use. Mixed effects modeling used to examine relations across strategies within students also verified that strategy use was positively related to its perceived utility for most students. However, relations between reported strategy use and perceived cost varied considerably: inversely related, unrelated, and for a sizable proportion of students even positively related. We discuss the necessity of developing a model of SRL that includes SM as well as OM influences on learning strategy use and learning outcomes, and the importance of within-person in addition to between-person analytic approaches to understand self-regulated learning.
... Recent theoretical and empirical research has advanced the conceptualization of cost and its relation to performance and persistence within EVT (Andersen & Ward, 2014;Bergey, Parrila, & Deacon, 2018;Chiang, Byrd, & Molin, 2011;Conley, 2012;Flake, Barron, Hulleman, McCoach, & Welsh, 2015;Gaspard et al., 2015;Johnson & Safavian, 2016;Luttrell et al., 2010;Perez, Cromley, & Kaplan, 2014;Watkinson, Dwyer, & Nielsen, 2005). Though the research base on costs is rapidly expanding, extant literature converges around the perception that costs are multidimensional and can manifest in unique ways depending on the context. ...
... Interestingly, whereas the subscales assessing perceptions of teaching as a highly demanding career includes items that tap on the perceived effort and emotional demands of a teaching career (Watt & Richardson, 2007), the analyses suggested that participants perceived these as phenomenologically distinct from perceived task effort and emotional costs (Flake et al., 2015). This pattern suggests that rather than acting as deterrents, men in our sample perceived the challenges of the profession as implicated in their commitment to the profession, and these demanding aspects of the career choice may support, rather than dampen, motivation for a teaching career (e.g., Johnson & Safavian, 2016). ...
... For example, we were only able to locate one article that examined EVT with undergraduate students in a faculty of education. In their two-part study, Johnson and Safavian (2016) first examined the cost component of EVT and conducted focus groups to examine how students identify cost for themselves. They identified ten components of cost such as stress, loss of opportunities, effort, financial, and loss of interest, suggesting a more nuanced consideration of cost than the three sub-components noted above. ...
... Moreover, it might also be important to highlight some of the benefits associated with managing cost. With that in mind, we highlight the work of Johnson & Safavian (2016) who surveyed students and identified numerous possible benefits associated with having to manage cost, including the development of time management skills, the relief of stress once a task is completed, making others proud, and putting in effort to get good grades or learn something new, just to name a few. Indeed, while many of the students in our sample commented on the cost associated with the course in a negative sense, some students did identify positives, for example, "As the midterm is coming up I've reached my goals of studying throughout this past week and have been very productive […] I have picked up lots of topics that I previously didn't understand." ...
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Expectancy Value Theory (EVT) is a prominent theory on student motivation. To add to the growing research in this area, we investigated students within a large, mandatory course outside of the STEM areas, to examine perceptions of success utilizing an EVT lens. The aim of our study was twofold. First, to examine students' open-ended responses about what makes them feel successful. Second, to determine if students’ indorsement of expectancy, value, and control could predict their feelings of success. The study consisted of 210 students who completed an online questionnaire with items related to demographics, EVT components, and questions about their success in the course. Deductive coding was utilized to examine their feelings of success based on the EVT components. Regression analysis was utilized to predict perceptions of success. Students identified several components of their course that were associated with expectancy, value, and cost. Students' perceptions of success were positively predicted by expectancy and negatively predicted by cost while value was not a significant predictor. Our results speak to the importance of expectancy, value, and cost when designing large, mandatory courses. We provided several recommendations for instructors when designing courses, and also highlight limitations and future research directions.
... Similar to value, cost is hypothesized to predict achievement-related outcomes and choices. Although students' expectancies and values have been studied in-depth, perceptions of cost have largely been understudied until more recently (Flake et al., 2015;Johnson & Safavian, 2016;Perez et al., 2014;Wigfield & Cambria, 2010). Recent work has found students' perceptions of cost to be associated with achievement, avoidance goals, negative classroom affect, and STEM major intentions (Bergey, Parrila, & Deacon, 2018;Jiang, Rosenzweig, & Gaspard, 2018;Johnson, Taasoobshirazi, Clark, Howell, & Breen, 2016;Perez et al., 2014Perez et al., , 2019. ...
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... However, other research has shown that a student can perceive high cost, while still experiencing high expectancies and high value (Conley, 2012;Perez et al., 2014). For example, Johnson and Safavian (2016) conducted focus groups with college students who reported that having high frustration or stress pushed them to work harder in their course. Other researchers have found that perceptions of high cost are negatively correlated with math achievement (Conley, 2012;Jiang et al., 2018;Safavian et al., 2013;Trautwein et al., 2012) and inversely related to interest and utility value (Luttrell et al., 2010). ...
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... Costs refer to what is lost, suffered, or given up as a result of task engagement. In the last decade, research on the conceptualization and measurement of cost has expanded Flake et al., 2015;Johnson & Safavian, 2016) and empirical studies have demonstrated the importance of cost as a predictor of intentions, choice, and achievement (Andersen & Ward, 2014;Bergey et al., 2018;Conley, 2012;Flake et al., 2015;Gaspard et al., 2015;Jiang et al., 2018;Luttrell et al., 2010;Perez et al., 2014;Rosenweig et al., 2020). ...
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... Lastly, our measurement operationalizes value beliefs items as positive and costs items as negative (i.e., something to sacrifice). However, value beliefs and costs could both exist on a spectrum from positive to negative (Wigfield & Eccles, 1992;Johnson & Safavian, 2016;Wigfield et al., 2017). Measures that consider both the positive and negative poles for each of the specific value beliefs and costs constructs could be informative to the factor structure of subjective task value. ...
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