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Bothered? What motivation to learn?

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The initial challenge for any learning is to determine, encourage and exploit an individual’s motivation so I’ve been thinking a little about what motivates us to learn and what motivation can acheive.  Particularly after enforced schooling has finished.

K.Patricia Cross identifies a number of reasons why adults choose to learn voluntarily:

  • For its own sake
  • When it offers a specific reward
  • As activity in its own right

But there’s more to it than that.  Motivation has two determinants – drive and incentive.  ‘Drive’ is the ‘internal aversion state’ that seeks to reduce a perceived level of deprivation – for example, the discomfort felt by feeling ignorant among peers and  ‘incentive’ is the perceived attractiveness of the reward – passing an exam to achieve a pay rise, for example.

A particularly important aspect of motivation is how the user responds to any perceived failure.  Those who believe that their failure is the consequence of ‘stable factors’ such as natural ability or intelligence are more likely to give up on a task than those who believe lack of success was due to ‘unstable factors’ that can be corrected through a change of strategy or more effort.  Ensuring that learners assume a mindset that attributes progress to factors under their control is essential for long-term engagement and development.

Active engagement in an activity, inspired by motivated learners, can lead to a sense of what  Csikszentmihalyi defines as ‘flow.’ Flow describes profound activity that appears effortless.  During instances of flow, learners make significant progress towards overcoming some challenge without necessarily being conscious of the process.  Daniel Goleman suggests that people enter flow through intentional focus or the taxing of existing skill. Motivation provides focus and minimises the effect of extraneous influences.

Marc Prensky argues that there are a number of signals that indicate that a learner is motivated.  These signs are highly desirable in and of themselves with regard to learning.  They include:

  • Independent work;
  • Self-directed problem posing;
  • Persistence;
  • Pleasure in learning.

If learners pursue learning of their own volition, it clearly indicates that there is some driving force encouraging continued attention.  Where this learning is beyond the required, it demonstrates highly effective engagement in the materials.  Obviously, when this learning becomes extramural, it can be a distraction, but otherwise this unconscious diligence proves useful for progress.

This willing momentum often manifests itself in the learner’s own expansion of the challenge.  Self-directed problem posing shows the energy of intellectual curiosity that can transport the learner beyond the expected bounds of educational programmes.

Associated with self-directed problem posing is the persistence required to see problems through to their solution.  Without a high level of motivation, learners tend to abandon activity when it becomes too challenging.  This frustration not only halts the learning at that time, it can also create barriers to future engagement.  Persistent learners demonstrate an attitude that sees challenge as a reason to continue, not a reason to stop.  At the same time, the satisfaction derived from completing a task, achieving a solution and beating the problem provides encouragement to explore further still.  Learners find themselves with a self-perpetuating momentum that often only stops because of external factors such as running out of time.

Achieving the learning objectives gives learners a sense of progress – a measurable shift in cognitive ability, for example.  Extending learning beyond that which was expected gives the learner a genuine sense of triumph.  This manifests itself not only in the deliberate creation of new challenges but also in the profound satisfaction of ‘winning.’  This ‘triumph over adversity,’ however small, makes learning enjoyable.  Educators should not underestimate this pleasure in learning.  And pleasure provides the most sustainable energy to continue activity in all but the most extreme emergencies.


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