Reading: Motivation

How To Learn Online


When it comes to understanding the importance of motivation for learning online, I often think of Jason Wolfson. I visited him in his house some years back, and at the time, he wasn't sure how many Lego sculptures he’d created. Standing in the basement of his house, was surrounded by dozens of his creations—a Lego dragon, a Lego airplane, a giant Lego moth with six-inch Lego wings. In boxes, in small plastic bags, on the table in front of Wolfson, there are still more constructions—a half-built lunar module, a Leaning Tower of Pisa, a cowboy, all made from Legos.

Some of Wolfson’s constructions are finished—large artful works of bricks, part Warhol, part toy, part real-life fantasy. Other sculptures are half-built designs, creations in the making, like an artificial heart sculpted out of Legos. Along the walls, along the floor, pushing against the top of the room, are all of Wolfson’s raw materials—hundreds of thousands of plastic bricks.

“Ah, these meteors are awesome,” Wolfson tells me, plucking out a little gray meteor from the plastic box and showing it off to me in his palm, like some sort of rare diamond. 

I lean over to gaze at the small item, afraid of knocking over another Lego sculpture that stood in front of me, maybe the giant Eiffel Tower.  

"The stories turned out to be a crucial part of Wolfson's devotion."

Without question Wolfson is an unlikely Lego devotee. He loves movies and vacations in Florida and does CrossFit on weekends. He grew up outside of Philadelphia and ran track in high school and helped head up his college fraternity. Today, he works as an engineer and lives with his wife, and he hangs a large American flag out in front of the house each Independence Day. Like many forty-somethings, his hair is thinning a bit. He often quotes films from the 1980s. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him wear anything but blue jeans. 

But in many ways, Wolfson’s interest in Legos makes perfect sense, and when he took me on a tour through his basement, he would typically spin out a little story, a way of explaining why each sculpture mattered. When Wolfson pointed out his true-to-size replica of the Muppet Gonzo, he explained that his wife loved the Jim Henson-created puppet.

As Wolfson showed me the blue police box made from the small bricks, he began to talk about his devotion to the TV show Doctor Who. Or the dragon-like Jabberwocky that Wolfson had once fashioned out of hundreds of Legos? Wolfson always loved Alice in Wonderland.  

At first, Wolfson’s stories seemed cute and charming, something to tell the writer in his basement. But the stories turned out to be a crucial part of his devotion. They made Wolfson’s Lego sculptures something of value, something of substance, something that had meaning. After all, Wolfson wasn’t interested in any pile of little plastic bricks. He didn’t care about any old box of dog-chewed Legos. Rather, he was fascinated by the pile of bricks that he had transformed into a scene from his favorite novel or an iconic phone booth from his favorite TV show.

To a degree, we’re all part Wolfson. We may not have a burning passion for Alice in Wonderland, the Muppets, or Legos, but in our mind, we all see the world through the frame of meaning. We engage in activities that we believe have value. Drive often boils down to an issue of significance, and the more relevance that we see in an area of expertise, the more that we want to learn about that area of expertise. 

Motivation as the First Step

It’s hard to learn something if we don’t see any meaning in it. We’ll start this section by examining how value drives motivation. But meaning is important for another reason—it’s the very first step of understanding. If we see something as valuable, we’re making sense of it. We’ll cover this idea in the second half of the value section, where we discuss the role of understanding in generating our expertise. 

Value has its roots in the brain, where, for all its rich complexity, our mind works as a type of storyteller. Like a film director, we're always creating some sort of narrative, some type of understanding, some sort of meaning.

If you walk into a room for the first time, for instance, you will immediately formulate a value-laden story that explains the room’s purpose. If it’s a large space with a long, well-polished table, you might think: A meeting room. If there are a few barbells on the ground: Gym.

The same thing happens in two dimensions. Sometimes we will see a beautiful young woman in a drawing—sometimes, we will see an older lady—but we’re always seeing some sort of meaning in the image. It’s never just a bunch of random, meaningless squiggles. 

This is more than an odd cognitive quirk, because meaning is something we have to create, a type of power that gives power to the world around us. In this very philosophical sense, we find our own value, with meaning serving as a matter of perspective, a frame of mind, an attitude that makes something either wonderfully important—or devoid of meaning. In this sense, value is the ultimate fuel of motivation. We’re driven to take action because of the power of meaning. 

Uncover What *You* Value

The point is that when it comes to learning, online meaning isn’t something that finds us. It’s something that we need to uncover on our own. Take statistics as an example. Without question, data analysis is a powerful tool. In fact, it’s become nearly impossible these days to get far in many fields—banking, medicine, sports management—without some basic grasp of statistics. 

Yet people generally don’t have an intrinsic desire to master statistics. Condemn the elaborate nature of linear regressions—or the dust-dry manner in which the topic is usually taught—but most people aren’t powerfully inspired to spend the rest of their days reviewing statistics programming code or plotting histograms. 

Chris Hulleman, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, is well aware of this tension. As a researcher, he has a statistics program like R or STATA loaded up on every one of his computers—it’s basically impossible to publish a research paper without any sort of robust data analysis. But at the same time, most of Hulleman’s psychology students grouse at the mention of correlations. Many groan. A few whimper. For the students, statistics seems tedious, a painful, boring topic without any sort of relevance or value to their lives.  

In college, Hulleman was an All-American offensive lineman, and he still has the energetic attitude of someone who has spent a lot of time playing competitive sports. So some years ago, he decided to try and address this problem, to see if he could do more to spark his students’ interest in statistics. Together with some colleagues, Hulleman had some psychology students write about why statistics was relevant to their lives.

"Just telling people that something is important is not enough."

Hulleman and his colleagues prompted the students with questions like: Can you see yourself ever using statistics in you life? Can you imagine using statistics in your career as a nurse, salesperson or manager? The students then spent some time writing short essays, each filling a page or two of a notebook. 

The outcomes were clear. By drawing a connection between their lives and statistics, the students became much more motivated in their studies; in some cases, they came close to jumping a full grade level, from a C average to a B average. In other words, the act of explaining why statistics mattered to them—in their future careers, their hobbies, the families they’d one day create—helped improve their grades.  

Since then, Hulleman has rolled out similar initiatives in various settings. He has had high school students write about the value of science to their lives, penning short descriptions of why science matters to them. Together with researcher Judith Harackiewicz, Hulleman has also provided pamphlets to parents to talk with their children about how science can shape careers, suggesting ways parents can make science homework seem more meaningful. 

Inevitably, a person or two will pen some snide remarks. “Man, quit wasting my time,” wrote one high school student in a flash of defiance. But most people engage. Students will write about how they might need math once they have jobs at a company. Others talk about how the skills could help them in their personal lives. Many note that there’s an intrinsic pleasure to a skill.  

Why Is This Important to Me?

Hulleman and I spoke early one afternoon, and he argued that there are lots of ways to create a sense of value. Rewards, novelty, context—they all make a difference when it comes to creating a personal sense of meaning. In this regard, intrinsic motivation—or inherent interest—is itself a type of value. We do something because we want do it. 

Psychologist Kenn Barron—who works with Hulleman—gives a different way of understanding this idea. Not along ago, Barron wrote up a formula. “I tried to boil down 40 years of research to fit onto a cocktail napkin,” he told me. The formula is motivation equals a mix of costs (or the amount of effort it will take to complete the task), a sense of expectancy (or the notion of self-efficacy—which we will discuss in the next reading) —and a feeling of value, or meaning. The last variable is crucial, according to Barron, and it’s a matter of: 

“Do I want to do the task?” 

There’s something familiar about this argument, admittedly. After all, we’ve all had teachers who have proclaimed: “This is important.” My parents said it all the time about my schoolwork, too: “You’ll need this later.” Now I hear versions of the idea from my company’s HR department: “Your retirement account is central to your future.”  

But the take-away from this line of research is different. In short, just telling people that something is important is not enough. In fact, Hulleman has found that simply telling people that information has value can backfire. When we’re told how to feel or think, we can feel threatened or overly managed. 

"What’s often most important is our social connections."

Instead, people need to find meaning in the activities themselves. In other words, value has to go from the person to the material, from the individual to the knowledge or skill. “It’s about making that connection between what people are learning and what’s going on in their lives,” Hulleman told me. “Value is the mechanism. For people, the question is, ‘Can I see why this is valuable to me?’”

This idea explains why we’re more motivated to learn something if we have—or will have—some experience with it. When it comes to learning, we want to understand our world, to fill in our knowledge gaps, and in this regard, meaning is often self-perpetuating. The more that we know about statistics, for instance, the more that we typically want to know about statistics.

Motivation Is Social

Learning is often just as much social as it is cognitive. In this regard, our knowledge gaps merge with our meaning gaps, and the more that we bring feelings and facts together, the more that we develop expertise.

What's key to keep in mind is that we’re born with an innate faith and connection to others. Cooperation is something that can become part of our unconscious brain—something that can be triggered with something as negligible as a handshake­—and we're often much nicer and more social than we think. We’re not endlessly social, of course, and what’s often most important is our social connections. Our sense of culture, our emotional bonds, to others, turn out to be crucial to who we trust and learn from.

"Motivation requires that we make meaning."

In other words, we are social creatures. This is important because education is deeply social. We learn a lot from others. From modeling to social pressures, other people make a tremendous difference in how and when we gain skills and knowledge. Indeed, our friends and colleagues are actually more important than teachers when it comes to sparking a desire for learning. 

“The more connected students are emotionally connected to a topic, to a teacher, to a content area the more invested they are going to be to that topic, and the more they’re going to learn,” says researcher Winsome Waite.​

Social Motivation at a Distance

In a best-case scenario, this means classes should be in-person and social. It's no accident that when adults reflect on some of their best teachers, they tend to emphasize their personalities, whether it be a given teacher's generosity, humor, or even strictness.

These personal qualities drive an emotional connection which, in turn, drives learning and reasoning. Without good emotional management skills that derive from interpersonal connections, children are in danger of succumbing to emotional reasoning. With skills in managing their emotions, they're more motivated and they learn and think with more clarity.

But all is not lost just because teachers can't connect with their students in person. It just means that more mindfulness and attention needs to be paid to fostering motivation through mediated social interaction, as well as through other motivational factors.

For example, though distance learners are deprived of in-person contact with their teachers, online video environments, like Zoom, offer ample opportunity to connect. Indeed, depending on how courses are designed, teachers may be more available for one-on-one office hours in online settings that they were during in-person classes. Research suggests one-on-one tutoring is one of the best ways to foster learning gains.

Parents, teachers, and students should also may more attention to questions of value during distance learning. The absence of in-person instruction can present an opportunity for students to reflect on what matters to them and connect their education to it. They may even develop new interests that can spark new learning projects. The key is taking the time to focus on finding meaning.

Key Take-Aways:

  • Motivation requires that we make meaning. In order to be invested to learn and do great things we have to integrate those learning activities into an overall sense of what is important to us.
  • Doing this is not as difficult as we might think. Research has shown that even when students are simply asked to explain why a particular subject is important to them, it can lead to learning gains.
  • Motivation is highly social. Students require guidance and advice to help them make meaning out of learning tasks. Distance learning can create obstacles to social motivation, but it doesn't have to. There's plenty of ways to build meaning-making social activities into the online learning environment.

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