The Importance of Motivation in Learning: Who's Responsible?

Education has always been a nebulous concept for a lot of people. The basic concept most people have of education is sitting in a classroom with a teacher/instructor/professor lecturing and taking notes. Then, at times, you take tests to evaluate what you remember, and then you are considered educated. The concept of education, for most people, is memory.

What's really interesting is that education is so much more. Memory is only a part of it, both short and long term memory. Most of education, primarily adult education but to a certain extent child education, is built around the need to acquire skills and the willingness and desire to acquire those skills.

Barring a long discussion on short term memory capacity (hint: don't walk past chocolate cake when you are trying to remember 7 numbers!), and building neurons, what really fascinates me is motivation. Motivation for learning, the love of learning, is what really dominates the education experience and builds a successfully educated mind. Heavy spending and expensive tools? Helpful, but ultimately not necessary. Great teachers that inspire? Helpful, but ultimately not necessary. The success or failure of the learner to learn is entirely on the shoulders of the learner.

Think about that. Children learning to read, it has to be because they want to learn to read. Speaking another language? People have to want to learn, to struggle through the syntax, grammar, and vocabulary of the language. People wanting to acquire a new job skill have to see the benefit of the skill before they will put in the effort to try, and in some cases fail, before they finally succeed in adding the skill to their portfolio. It's an awesome amount of responsibility for individuals to shoulder, sometimes too much for some, and so they push the responsibility over to the teacher/instructor/professor.

As a kid, how many times did you say, "ugh! My teacher is terrible! He doesn't know how to teach! I'm not learning anything!". Or as a parent, have you heard those same words from your kids? Generally this means that they are so focused on requiring the instructor to give them the motivation to learn that they don't see the benefit of the information presented. The burden was placed on the teacher, who has this same burden placed on them for several kids in the classroom. The problem grows when parents see the job of the teacher is to motivate their children to learn, removing themselves from that responsibility.

Children, primarily due to their stage of brain development, need to be given motivation extrinsically, meaning they need to have parents, teachers, and peers help them see the benefit of learning. Teachers can (or sometimes will) only do so much, and so the lion's share of the responsibility should be shouldered by the parents (unless they are willing to trust other children to provide good motivation?). In my experience, well-financed learning tools doesn't trump a highly motivated and involved parent that seeks to positively motivate their child(ren) to succeed in learning. Funding, great school facilities, etc. are all icing on the cake (though a great library system is useful).

As adults we are (expected to be) responsible for ourselves, and that includes our motivation to learn. And we also have the baggage of our established learning methods, techniques, and past experiences to which we relate new material. The instructor has the burden of discovering the learning methods of everyone in the class/lecture/presentation, catering as much as they can to all. Add to that the burden of cramming as much information in as little time as possible, and you get a fire-hose learning environment. A great instructor can inspire everyone all of the time. A good instructor can reach most everyone most of the time. A great learner can take all materials with them, and with their intrinsic motivation work on their own.

In all my years of teaching, I've been able to see those students who have internal motivation succeed, and those that rely on external motivation struggle. As an instructor, it's painful, because we take the responsibility of creating a positive, powerful learning environment seriously.

But what can we do? How can we bolster our motivation to learn? Instructors use positive environments, encouragement, and building on small victories. Taking that model further, we break topics up into classes, classes up into sections, sections up into skills, and build them together to create the whole. Some educational or training organizations provide material signs of achievement through badges or certificates, using much the same motivation techniques as video games (minor badges lead to major badges, and so on).

But, again, it all comes down to how much work the learner is willing to put into their learning experience. The richness of learning, the application, the connections to existing skills, it's all dependent on the learner's motivation.

Some really good reading on the subject can be found in Strategies for stimulating the motivation to learn (John Keller, Performance + Instruction, Vol. 26, Iss. 8, pages 1-7, Oct. 1987), Motivation To Learn: From Theory to Practice (Deborah Stipek, Allyn and Bacon, 1993), and A Motivational Science Perspective on the Role of Student Motivation in Learning and Teaching Contexts (Paul Pintrich, Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol. 95(4), Dec. 2003, p. 667-686).