Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
The posting below looks at factors that impact student motivation to learn. It is by Marilla Svinicki at the University of Texas at Austin, and is from the National Teaching and Learning Forum, Volume 27, Number 6, October 2018. It is from a series of selected excerpts from the NT&LF reproduced here as part of our "Shared Mission Partnership." NT&LF has a wealth of information on all aspects of teaching and learning. If you are not already a subscriber, you can check it out at [http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/10.1002/(ISSN)2166-3327 ] The on-line edition of the Forum - like the printed version - offers subscribers insight from colleagues eager to share new ways of helping students reach the highest levels of learning. ©2018 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Published by Wiley Subscription Services Inc., a Wiley Company. Reprinted with permission.
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Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning
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Why Is Teaching for Motivation so Confusing?
I’ve written many times in this column about the difficulty of researching motivation for the purposes of making strong predictions about student behavior. Here I am again, but this time with backup from the American Psychological Association’s Psychological Science Agenda.
What caught my eye this time is the topic of motivation as seen through the eyes of a prominent researcher and theorist. His name is Kou Murayama, and his research bridges the areas of motivation of interest to psychologists and non-psychologists. I’m going to highlight some of his main questions and conclusions (shown in italicized quotes) and offer my ideas about how they affect you as a teacher in designing instruction (in bold).
1. “If you are motivated, you learn better and remember more of what you learned.... The critical fact is that not all motivations are created equal.” I’m going to rephrase Murayama’s critical fact here to say that although a variety of teaching strategies have been shown to be motivating, they’re not motivating to everyone at the same time or even in the same circumstances. Why can’t we make more definitive statements about motivation? I (and others) would say it’s because we don’t have access to what is really key to a situation: the learner’s interpretation of it. In learning theory, the learner has taken center stage as one of the strongest determiners of whether a motivational strategy will work or not. For example, as psychologists, we all know that the opportunity to discuss ideas as in group work is a very helpful way for students to learn. But as teachers we all know that some students hate group work. The different beliefs students have about their own best way to learn (called meta-motivational beliefs) are instrumental in determining whether or not they’ll be motivated by what should be a very motivating activity. Even threatening students with dire consequences if they don’t cooperate isn’t guaranteed to motivate all of them. Perhaps the best fallback position in this area is personal choice. Self-determination theory and research assure us that, given choices, learners are generally positively motivated. Choice appears to be a fairly reliable source of positive motivation.
Therefore, as a teacher, providing opportunities for students to choose ways to learn at least occasionally will improve their motivation (even affecting other areas where they don’t have choice).
2. “Do rewards enhance learning outcomes?... According to recent findings in cognitive neuroscience, the answer seems to be yes ... due to the modulation of hippocampal function by the reward network in the brain.” But, not always. Remember that what is considered a reward depends on the learner. One of the observations about this confusion is that sometimes extrinsic rewards will outmotivate intrinsic rewards. This is called the over- compensation effect (“too much compensation for doing what is already valued”). Fortunately, Murayama and others in neuroscience research indicate that intrinsic motivation for a task seems to be overcome only if the task is boring or trivial (possibly implying not at all intrinsically motivating). If the task is intrinsically motivating, extrinsic rewards on top of that intrinsic motivation could negatively affect learning. Students often stop responding unless an extrinsic reward is forthcoming. Fortunately, with intrinsic motivation, students are more likely to persevere, and the results will also last longer. Student choice or connection of the task to outcomes that are valuable to the students, like being related to future success, could make a boring task more intrinsically motivating. If there are no good ways to enhance intrinsic motivation, extrinsic rewards can be used selectively. The problem is that extrinsic rewards often shift the learners’ attention away from learning and toward whatever the reward is, a problem inherent in gaming as an instructional method or, more often, grades.
Therefore, as teachers, we are advised to work toward making the tasks more intrinsically motivating by tapping students’ pre-existing interests through choices and only resorting to extrinsic rewards for things that are important but just not interesting (like daily reviews of content getting extra credit if done reliably).
3. “Does (the) assumption that competition is an effective way to increase people’s motivation and performance have an empirical basis?... (Through a meta-analysis), we found a very small average effect.” Murayama proposes that in competition, we experience at least two goals: (1) we want to outperform others and (2) we don’t want to do worse than others. Here’s my interpretation. Competition could result in positive motivation for exerting effort. Or it could result in negative motivation of avoiding errors or risks. The first results in learning; the second makes learning harder and less robust.
Therefore, as teachers, we can possibly use competition as a way of tapping intrinsic and extrinsic motivation simultaneously but in a positive way by using individual plus group work during learning and group vs. group competition during informal assessment for feedback in class. Spreading the enthusiasm of the group (intrinsic) to exert effort and the collective responsibility (extrinsic) for the outcomes lessens the “agony of defeat” and taps the support of team effort.
My own summation would be to recruit the students in identifying and agreeing on group motivations for learning in group work, and giving individuals some choice when working on individual projects. Not everything has to be motivated the same way for everyone, but some common motivations for group work help to build community as well as healthy competition.
There is much more work to be done on ironing out these conflicting interpretations of the motivation of choice, rewards, and competition. Some of it is behaviorally based, some is neuropsychologically based, and some is theory based for now. I can say that for most psychologists, there is a lot of intrinsic motivation for studying motivation. So someday, maybe we’ll have that “access to what is really key to a situation, the learner’s interpretation of it.”
Based on Murayama, K. 2018. The science of motivation. Psychological Science Agenda Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2018/06/motivation.aspx .
Marilla Svinicki, Ph.D. Professor Emeritus Educational Psychology, The University of Texas at Austin, One University Station D5800 Austin, TX 78712
Telephone: (512) 471-0557 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org