The Science of Learning: Motivating Students Academically

Work by Jones (2009) brought together the research on academic motivation and found that there are five principles that run throughout the academic motivation literature (remember, this is real research and not just someone’s good ideas). They are empowerment, usefulness, belief, interest, and caring. In my own research and experience, I would add one more principle – that of audience. I will explore each one in turn over the next few days.

Empowerment or Autonomy

The foundation of empowerment lies in autonomy. Being able to have control over and direct your own learning. Autonomy leads to self-determination in learning, an area that has been widely studied, with very positive results. The research in the area is peppered with various terms and concepts that all lead us to the same conclusion. Whether it is called autonomy, self-determination, internal locus of control, or high self-efficacy, empowered students to act and learn differently from students who do not have the same perception of control over their learning. Being given a high level of freedom in their learning activities leads students to adopt a different outlook on learning and life in general.

Students learning in an autonomy supportive learning environment enjoy “enhanced conceptual learning, greater perceived academic and social competence, a higher sense of self-worth and self-esteem, greater creativity, a preference for challenging tasks, a more positive emotional tone, increased school attendance, and higher grades” (Jones 2009). What a list! Is there anything there that we wouldn’t want our learners to enjoy? Is there anything there that we wouldn’t expect our teachers to deliver? How unfortunate that autonomy supportive environments are the exception rather than the rule.

As a part of training for teaching, instructors learn the importance of conformity in education. When you are faced with a classroom with 30+ (or 300+) students that must be taught, how in the world can you give control over the learning environment to the students? What is learned by the instructors (and enjoyed by too many) is control! control! control! A minutely specified syllabus is provided, and the measure of a good instructor lies with how well the syllabus is covered, and how well the syllabus goals are met as measured through student performance on tests. Empowerment in learning? I don’t think so.

The entire philosophy strikes many instructors, students, and parents as horrifying. If you are going to allow students to learn what and how they want to, why have teachers at all, and how can we expect the learners to learn anything at all.

Problematic Extremes

In the extreme, that is exactly what can – and does happen. Let me illustrate the two extremes practiced when you consider empowerment in learning – discovery learning and direct instruction – neither of which leads to good learning in the real world.

At the extreme end of complete empowerment in learning lies discovery learning. There are several gradations of discovery learning – problem-based learning being the widest adopted (and not as extreme as pure discovery learning).

Pure discovery learning is learning through play. The pure philosophy says that people learn what they need to learn through discovery. By exploring the world around them, learners will learn what they have to learn in order to understand how the world works. By providing an enriched environment with lots of things to explore, curiosity will drive the learning experience. By fully empowering students, they will naturally learn what they need to flourish in the world. Nice in theory, but a disaster in practice.

We live in a hyper-complex world where there are many things that people do not naturally learn. The brain is a conservative organ and will select directions that require the least amount of energy (burning sugar). An average person will look for other avenues to solve problems and understand the world than learning algebraic manipulations. Reading, complex mathematics, rigorous scientific investigation, complex social interactions – none of these are easily understood, and in a simplified world, they are not studied by many learners. People want to learn enough to get by, and none of the complex subjects we study in school are necessary to just get by. However, many of them are required to flourish.

Problem-based learning and other, less extreme forms of discovery learning can work and work well, but they are extremely difficult to do right. This type of learning can be thought of as pull learning. You pull the learner into working through difficult material and problems by setting challenges and problems that require the understanding of complex material. And then, they must be well supported so that the learners can be supported in looking for a solution. This type of learning does not work at all well when a student is first faced with an area of study about which they know nothing. This type of learning is appropriate for learners who know the basics and then need to figure out how to apply what they know to the real world. Extremely effective when it is done right, but really difficult to implement effectively. Empowering and enjoyable (at least when it is finished).

The other extreme, when it comes to empowerment in learning, is called Direct Instruction (DI). This is essentially teaching to a script. Not only is a syllabus fully specified, but the words the teacher (and the actions and expressions used in delivery) are fully scripted. A teacher reads from a script that includes the content, actions (take two steps to the right and raise your left hand in a gesture of wonderment), and expressions (look surprised at this point before continuing). Direct Instruction includes rote learning and chorus type class responses to questions and observations.

The theory underlying DI is that an expert in teaching devises something that works, and then the program that has been devised is replicated by every instructor who delivers the same (exact) material. Advocates of DI point to the many studies that demonstrate how effective their method of teaching is when it comes to the usual methods of measuring learning, such as test performance, memorization, and standardized testing. For simply memorizing material, DI works and you might want to adopt it if your goal is just to get your students to memorize all the stuff you present, but I believe that learning should be a fuller experience than simply memorization.

When it comes to empowerment, neither extreme is palatable to most people. In the real world of teaching, instructors worry about empowering their students because of the loss of control that they can’t deal with. A classroom must have rules, with conformity and obedience central to good learning.

Autonomy Example

However, autonomy-centered classrooms do exist without the complete loss of control over the students. In these classrooms, learners really do enjoy “enhanced conceptual learning, greater perceived academic and social competence, a higher sense of self-worth and self-esteem, greater creativity, a preference for challenging tasks, a more positive emotional tone, increased school attendance, and higher grades” (Jones 2009). In an autonomy-centered environment, students are given rules they must follow, and goals they must achieve, but, the methods used, or the problems pursued in order to achieve these goals belong to the students.

As an example of how this can be achieved in a University setting, I will call on my own experience. For many years, I taught statistics and research methods in a high-flying psychology department. One year I was given the opportunity to teach a class about applying the principles of psychology to formal learning environments (Psychology in Education). I bumbled my way through the first year and then decided to adopt the MUSIC model as the foundational philosophy in my teaching (it was before the Jones paper was published, but I had figured out what most of the principles of academic motivation were). Among other things that I did, I empowered my students.

The way I empowered them was to give them the boundary conditions for the class (this is about psychology and education) and then tell them to use their knowledge about the two subjects to bring me evidence-based suggestions to make a difference (they were final year undergraduate students, and students studying for a masters degree in psychology). They could approach the topic by using the knowledge they had learned about psychology and apply that knowledge to something in education, or they could look at an educational practice and look at what that had to do with learning (from a psychological perspective). There were a few other rules, but those were the main ones.

The results blew me away! At first, the students were worried that I wasn’t going to tell them everything they needed to pass a test, but there was no test. All I did was evaluate a required blog entry every week (super high tech), as well as the (again required) comments they made on each other’s entries (once again, these had to be evidence based). The students’ loved it!

The only entry that I specified what they had to write was their final entry. I told them that they had to write an entry (this one unmarked) telling me what they had learned in the class. What they wrote was not about any topics they had covered, but what they had learned about themselves and learning when they were in this kind of an environment (see the above link). I gave them freedom to tell me what they had learned, and they took flight and soared beyond my wildest imaginings.

As a group (year after year) we discovered what happens when students are empowered to learn. They flew above the clouds, and I had the privilege of flying with them. The administration didn’t agree, and I had a fight every year that I continued with my class. I was told, at one time (by the head of department), that I had to stop teaching that way because it was making the other professors and instructors look bad. As I was in a privileged position as a senior academic with tenure, I kept going, and I have to say that the contrast between my students’ experiences and the way other academics responded to what we were doing has been astounding.

Empowerment works!

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