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Revisiting the cognition-motivation connection: What the latest research says about engaging students in the work of learning

Posted in About Minds Online, Academic Life, Ideas and Resources, Student Success, and Trends and Change

I sometimes tell a story about my first solo book, Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology, involving a crisis that hit about 2/3 of the way through writing it. I forget what topic I’d originally planned to cover in chapter 8, but once I got to that section of the manuscript, I had a bad feeling. There was something missing, and although I wasn’t sure, I suspected it was this: student motivation.

After a few weeks of fretting and overly-dramatic email exchanges with my editor, I resolved to reshape that part of the book. What I ended up doing was synthesizing some classic research and theory in the area and looking at how those ideas might play out in fully online classes.

Granted, the idea of addressing the factors that move students to actually complete one’s carefully-designed course activities might not seem like a bold move. It was a big step for me at the time though, not least because – like a typical academic – I worried about staying comfortably inside of my micro-specialization in cognitive psychology.

But that wasn’t the only issue. In psychology, it’s only fairly recently that we’ve begun to really explore the relationship between the thinking-side and the feeling-side of the mind and brain, especially with respect to how the thinking-brain and feeling-brain influence and shape one another in an powerful set of feedback dynamics.

(As an aside, motivation does belong under the “feeling” side. Textbooks and courses almost always combine motivation and emotion in a single heading, not because there isn’t enough material to treat them separately, but because they are so closely intertwined. Evolutionarily speaking, the point of having emotions in the first place is to motivate, or move, us. Emotions move us away from some things and toward others, in the name of our own survival and the survival of our genes. They also push us to develop and maintain the social bonds that make all forms of human survival possible).

Ever since that experience with Minds Online, I’ve advocated in various ways for tapping into the mind’s inborn mechanisms for motivation, especially those that relate to students’ goals for what they want to get out of their own education. Years back, I even toyed with a larger-scale project about the reciprocal relationship between motivation and cognition. I went so far as to develop a book proposal, titled Leading to Water: Motivating College Students to Take Action, Invest Effort, and Own Their Learning. Looking back on it now, the emphasis I’d put on accountability, resilience, and effort come across as a bit harsh, given that today students are picking up the pieces of their education after COVID, and that in this environment, supporting student mental health takes priority over pushing students to achieve.

But even in context of the current focus on support and flexibility, there is still a lot we can glean about teaching from the study of motivation. I’m not alone in thinking this, seeing as how there’s currently a mini-renaissance of interest in exactly this. The harbingers are all there – keynote titles and webinar topics centered on student engagement, articles in high-profile media outlets. I’d count variations on the engagement theme too. Intrinsic motivation. Interest. Even growth mindset – which I’d argue is still a relevant and research-backed concept – is part of the same territory.

I’m all for this surge in interest, and it got me thinking back to the research basis for it. There are the still-around-for-a-reason classic concepts in academic motivation: Self-efficacy. Intrinsic motivation. Persistence. Self-determination theory. Feedback and its role in helping to induce flow states.

There is newer work that builds on these these classics, though. Much of it explicitly ties to cognitive processes like memory, attention, and thinking, as well as to effective study techniques such as retrieval practice.

This is all especially important because of one connection in particular, the one that hooked me into writing about it in the first place. It’s this: Without being motivated to put in focused effort, there’s no way for students to benefit from all the advances that have been made in the science of effective study.

I say this because practices like quizzing yourself, wrestling with difficult applied problems, and spacing out study are all especially effort-intensive, at least in the short run. With them, students won’t need to spend as many total hours hitting the books, but the hours they do spend will be more arduous – and in the case of retrieval practice, might give them initial feedback that isn’t pleasant to hear.

This is not to say that active study is necessarily unpleasant, upsetting, or a chore. However, it’s a big change from the pleasant-but-inefficient alternatives like re-reading that students default to. Even interleaving, in which you tackle different categories of problem in an unpredictable fashion in a single session, is commonly perceived as harder and more frustrating – potentially cutting students off from the demonstrated benefits of studying in this way.

With that, what does the latest research tell us about the relationship between motivation and learning?

Effortful study techniques are often the better ones, but unfortunately, students seem to perceive this relationship in reverse. One study found that research volunteers rated retrieval practice as harder and also, less effective as a study strategy, compared to passive review. (The good news is that with feedback, they re-evaluated and readily tacked over to study through retrieval.) Another study presented student volunteers with hypothetical study schedules they might use in the run-up to a math exam, tracking Here too, students tended to reject schedules that were high in spacing and interleaving, rating them as less pleasant as well.

I want to be clear here: nothing about this work should imply that struggling students are slacking off, looking for easy grades or worst of all, that they are inherently lazy. If all of that classic research on motivation has taught us one thing, it is that motivation is best seen as a response to a situation, not a disposition you either have or you don’t. Anyone is capable of putting forth effort, when the conditions are right to do so. But it does look like the message about desirable difficulty has a long way to go in reaching students, with many of them continuing to mistake ease for effectiveness.

There’s good news that comes out of the latest research as well. One of the most encouraging things I’ve seen, as a big fan of retrieval practice, is research showing that when students answer quiz questions about a subject, they’re more likely to want to learn more about it. The key dynamic here seems to be that building up a firmly established knowledge base triggers a type of snowball effect, stimulating curiosity and setting off that type of virtuous cycle that all good teachers treasure.

Curiosity, as it turns out, is also sparked by choice – that key component of the influential “self determination theory” of motivation in which autonomy plays a key role. Using a fairly ingenious procedure involving a sham lottery, a research team found that when people get to choose a specific prize drawing from several alternatives, they become more invested in finding out the results. 

And lastly, there’s exciting new work being done on the best ways to persuade students that active, effortful study really is the way to go. I say “persuade,” not just inform, because as in so many things, study habits aren’t a behavior that people change simply because they’re told they should. The KBCP framework – short for Knowledge, Belief, Commitment, Planning – is a refreshing alternative to traditional study skills instruction, the one where students are handed a soon-to-be-forgotten list of random-seeming tips about what to do and not to do.

KBCP does start with sharing information about better study practices – the “knowledge” component – but then pivots to persuading students that they do work, ideally through interactive demonstrations or in-class experiments. Students then internalize and carry forth the new practices, committing to using them, planning for how they will do this, and reflecting on the results.

I’m keenly interested in seeing these developments continue, and not just because they recombine concepts from psychology in ways that delight and intrigue me as a disciplinary expert. If we really are going to emerge from the crisis of the last three years stronger and better, and more committed to serving our students, we will need to balance both what we ask students to do and why they should do those things. If we are going to take full advantage of the massive and growing research base on learning, we’ll need to make our approaches appealing. If we are going to be truly transparent with students about the paths to success, we’ll need to persuasively share the best ways to study. We can’t do it without igniting motivation, engagement, and drive.  

Further Reading

Abel, M., & Bäuml, K. H. T. (2020). Would you like to learn more? Retrieval practice plus feedback can increase motivation to keep on studying. Cognition, 201(March), 104316.

Cavanagh, S.R. (2016). The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion. West Virginia University Press.

D’Mello, S., & Graesser, A. (2012). Dynamics of affective states during complex learning. Learning and Instruction, 22(2), 145–157.

Hui, L., de Bruin, A. B. H., Donkers, J., & van Merriënboer, J. J. G. (2022). Why students do (or do not) choose retrieval practice: Their perceptions of mental effort during task performance matter. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 36(2), 433–444.

Romero Verdugo, P., van Lieshout, L. L. F., de Lange, F. P., & Cools, R. (2022). Choice boosts curiosity. Psychological Science.

Shen, L., & Hsee, C. K. (2017). Numerical nudging: Using an accelerating score to enhance performance.