Motivate, but why and how?

By vy768 April 9, 2018 | Category: Lead Story.
Tags: education. motivation.

With the increased (and now, near-constant) access to the internet via desktops, laptops, tablets, and smartphones, there has been a recent boom in educational technology. Many products out there boast flashy images, attractive and “relatable” hosts, fun facts, and funky soundtracks–a smorgasbord for the eyes, ears, and hopefully, the mind. The rhetoric is to make learning fun and easy; motivate students and they will learn.

Motivation alone, however, is not enough. Rather, over a century of research from cognitive psychology demonstrates that learning is a result of the processes that are engaged by the learner. For instance, actively retrieving information from their own memory rather than passively accepting information from a textbook, instructor, or computer screen. In fact, recent research by Kang and Pashler (2014) shows that testing yourself (versus rereading information) enhances learning equally for learners who are and who are not motivated.

To use a real-world analogy, let’s say you are forced to do 50 push-ups a day for 10 days. It doesn’t matter if you are motivated or not, you will get stronger because of that work you put in. Conversely, let’s say that you are extremely motivated to get in shape and lose weight. If you are using the wrong method–for example, wiggling your toes–then it doesn’t matter how much you want it and how much you wiggle those toes, you are not going to lose that weight.

I’m not arguing that motivation is not important. Motivation for learning is exceedingly important, especially for long-term, lifelong learning. But the source of that motivation is also very important. Students may be motivated to learn because the process of gaining new knowledge, new skills, finding new connections is exciting and satisfying (i.e., intrinsic motivation).

Or are learners motivated by external, extrinsic sources, for instance, being rewarded with treats for completing homework, or introducing a new topic through a fun game or song. But what happens when the rewards are taken away? Or after continued learning stops getting dressed up in song and games? Research suggests that the net effects of external motivation supports could even be negative: Lepper, Greene, and Nisbett (1973) conducted a study in which promised  children a ribbon for doing a task that they intrinsically enjoyed–coloring with felt tip markers. Compared to a second group of children who were simply allowed to color and did not receive a reward, the children who were rewarded for coloring noticeably lost intrinsic interest in coloring.

The Tiger Mom gets a lot of flack for placing high demands on her children, forcing them to learn and practice instruments for hours or demanding long study hours. Yet, there is a very important point that often gets lost: Motivation and enjoyment can arise out of learning. It is not necessary that motivation precedes learning, or be external and separate from the process of learning itself. Learning and fun do not need to, nor should they, be on opposite ends of a spectrum.

So, if you are trying to motivate your learner, think carefully about how you want to structure that motivation. Sure, creating a fun introductory song or game or promising post-study treats might get them “in the door” early on, but the longer-term effects may be worse than doing nothing at all. And finally, even if you have the right motivation, your work isn’t done–the right strategies (e.g., desirable difficulties) for learning need to be engaged for lasting learning to take place.
TL;DR – Motivation isn’t everything; external rewards may backfire; allow learning itself to lead to enjoyment and be rewarding.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.