Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Motivation and Learning (Adult Learner Attribute 6)

The sixth of Malcolm Knowles's attributes of adult learners is motivation.  Adults, he says, may respond to external enticements like higher salary, but the strongest and most lasting motivations are internal.   I looked at this web page on intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation, but I started arguing with it a little, thinking, hey, I'm reading this because I'm genuinely (intrinsically) interested in motivation - reading about it for me is its own reward.  But I'm also reading this for a class so I can fulfill the requirements and get a good grade (extrinsic reward).  If my motivation is mixed, what does that mean for my learning?
Not only is intrinsic motivation more powerful, but adding external rewards to a task for which someone is already intrinsically motivated may actually decrease motivation.  I hardly know what to make of this.  Could I be harming the learning of some students by offering rewards to everyone, hoping it will motivate the daydreamers, the behind-the-purse texters, the window-gazers, the nappers, the gamers, the feckless, the clueless?

The solution, say the authors, is to make the learning environment itself more intrinsically motivating:  offer "challenge, curiosity, control, cooperation and competition, and recognition."   As it happens, point out the authors, all these are things we associate with fun.

So wait:  making learning fun makes people more motivated and thus better learners?  I am all over that puppy!

But the surprises keep coming:  the very same reward may help or hurt motivation:
"The functional significance, or salience, of the event dictates whether intrinsic motivation is facilitated or diminished. For example, an athlete may perceive receiving an external reward (e.g., money, trophy) as a positive indicator of her sport competence (informational), whereas another athlete may perceive the same reward as coercion to keep her involved in the activity (controlling). Thus, the aspect of the event that is perceived as salient will determine level of autonomy and perceived competence experienced, and ultimately affect intrinsic motivation for that activity."
(Horn, 2008)
In other words, how the individual perceives the reward may make it intrinsically motivating or extrinsically de-motivating. 

If rewards weren't thorny enough, even praise can be a two-edged sword.  You may have heard the maxim, "Praise the work, not the worker."  At one time I had resisted this idea - it seemed harsh and ungenerous.  But I finally understood it apropos of motivation when I read this:
 "There is also evidence that verbal praise (one form of reward) should be used carefully. When children are successful, it may be best to praise their effort ("You worked so hard!") rather than their ability ("You're so smart!"), because when children believe that success depends on effort, they are more likely to persist in the future if they fail. The goal of praise should be to produce feelings of competence and confidence that success is possible with good efforts."  (Breckler, Olson, & Wiggins, 2006)
 This surely applies to adults as well as children.   If you want to encourage persistence and lasting learning, create a fun environment that make learning intrinsically rewarding.  As in so many things, heavy-handed manipulation can backfire, while a light touch and sensitivity to the needs and characteristics of learners can only help.

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