Category Archives: teaching

Motivation and teaching

From the New York Times article, “The Secret of Effective Motivation“:

THERE are two kinds of motive for engaging in any activity: internal and instrumental. If a scientist conducts research because she wants to discover important facts about the world, that’s an internal motive, since discovering facts is inherently related to the activity of research. If she conducts research because she wants to achieve scholarly renown, that’s an instrumental motive, since the relation between fame and research is not so inherent. Often, people have both internal and instrumental motives for doing what they do.

That’s the first paragraph; it sets up much of what comes after. It’s a fairly short article, and not all about teaching, but the last portion struck me as relevant to teachers of all stripes and subjects:

There is a temptation among educators and instructors to use whatever motivational tools are available to recruit participants or improve performance. […]for students uninterested in learning, financial incentives for good attendance or pizza parties for high performance may prompt them to participate, but it may result in less well-educated students.

The same goes for motivating teachers themselves. We wring our hands when they “teach to the test” because we fear that it detracts from actual educating. It is possible that teachers do this because of an overreliance on accountability that transforms the instrumental consequences of good teaching (things like salary bonuses) into instrumental motives. Accountability is important, but structured crudely, it can create the very behavior (such as poor teaching) that it is designed to prevent.

Unfortunately, as teachers, we may not always have control over how students are brought into the classroom – whether it’s a college classroom or a yoga studio – neither should we stick our heads in the sand about some of the incentives that may have brought them there. The authors of the article – Amy Wrzesniewski, Yale School of Management and Barry Schwartz, Swarthmore College – conclude by cautioning:

Rendering an activity more attractive by emphasizing both internal and instrumental motives to engage in it is completely understandable, but it may have the unintended effect of weakening the internal motives so essential to success.

This advice is relevant not only in academic situations but also any learning environment. If a student is physically present for instrumental reasons only – say, a partner has pressured said student into attending a yoga class; or a student needs a class for a gen ed credit – then he or she is at best, only semi-available to learn. If we have no say in how or why the student shows up, how do we reach the ones who do?