The relationship between academic motivation and basic psychological needs within the freshman year context: a longitudinal person-oriented approach


Freshman year is a major life event in emerging adulthood requiring adaptation (Shim & Ryan, 2012). During this crucial period of transition, self-determination processes are engaged (Amiot et al., 2008). Motivation and basic psychological needs, as self-determination processes (Deci & Ryan, 2000), have been associated with different levels of adaptation for freshmen (e.g., Petersen et al., 2010; Ratelle et al., 2007). An in-depth understanding of the relationship between motivation and basic psychological needs can provide useful insights into the development of self-determination and adaptation. Literature showed that this relationship is context-dependent (Deci & Ryan, 2008) and varied according to the type of motivation and need (Martinent et al., 2015).

The purpose of this study was to analyze the way that academic motivation and the satisfaction and frustration of the basic psychological needs were interrelated over the freshman year within a longitudinal person-oriented approach. Such a perspective allows for the identification of patterns and configurations that account for each individual’s dynamic nature (Bergman & Andersson, 2010).


The participants were 246 freshmen (84.55% women; Mage = 18.41; SDage = 0.64) recruited from various academic programs in French universities. All participants had obtained their high school diploma the semester prior to data collection. The whole sample was followed longitudinally through two waves at key milestones of the freshman year: back-to-school season and announcement of the results of the biennial exams (Dupont et al., 2015; Wasylkiw, 2015).

Academic motivation was measured with the Academic Motivation Scale (Vallerand et al., 1989) and satisfaction and frustration of the basic psychological needs with the Basic Psychological Needs Satisfaction and Frustration Scale (Chen et al., 2015). First, two longitudinal cluster analysis using k-means with Euclidian distance procedure were conducted to investigate academic motivation profiles and basic psychological needs profiles across time. Second, a chi-square test was performed to examine the relationship between these profiles.


Longitudinal cluster analyses emphasized a diversity of patterns and heterogeneity of evolution. For academic motivation, it revealed four profiles (i.e., combined stable; low autonomous with an increase of amotivation; demotivated stable; amotivated with decrease) and four profiles of basic psychological needs (i.e., satisfied stable; autonomy frustration becoming undifferentiated; undifferentiated becoming frustrated; frustrated with decrease). Next, a chi-square test revealed typical relations associating the most and the least adapted profiles. Stable profiles were linked underlying a joint experience of academic motivation, needs satisfaction, and needs frustration.


Our results showed the importance of identifying academic motivation profiles and basic psychological needs profiles at a person level. Identifying profiles leads to consider the specificity and the multiplicity of university experience, and to propose better-adapted interventions. Our findings revealed that when one dimension of academic motivation was high, academic motivation was linked to satisfaction or frustration of the three needs simultaneously which suggest that university adaptation could be fostered by promoting both need for autonomy, relatedness, and competence. Overall, these findings highlight the importance of considering academic motivation, needs satisfaction and needs frustration in emerging adult students’ adaptation in the freshman year context.


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