Motivation and Meaning

impact of feedbackThe Maguire Center has for many years sponsored the Conference on the Professions: an event bringing together legal, theological, and medical professionals to discuss important issues of the day.  Their keynote speaker this year was behavioral economist/psychologist Dan Ariely, known for his research into the ways in which meaning provides motivation.  After the conference, I looked at one of Ariely’s TED Talks, this one called “What makes us feel good about our work?

One of his experimental findings has some implications for faculty members wishing to motivate their students.  Imagine a student assignment, and different degrees of feedback to the student.  In the experiment, subjects were given a piece of paper with letters on it and asked to circle all of the places where the same letter occurred twice in a row.  In one version, the tester receives the student answers, looks at them, makes a noncommittal sound, and places the student paper on a pile (acknowledged).  In the second version, the tester receives the paper, neither looks at it nor makes a sound, and puts it in the pile (ignored).  In the third version, the tester takes the student paper and places it directly in the shredder (shredded).

The results had both good and bad news for those who want to motivate others.  The bad news:  ignoring the performance of students is almost as de-motivating as destroying it in front of their eyes.  Turns out failure to acknowledge work makes the work far less meaningful, and decreases future motivation.  The good news: modest, informal acknowledgment dramatically increases students’ motivation.  The left-hand yellow bar in the graphic at the beginning of this blog post shows how many more times the subjects would repeat a task (each time for less money) when their work was acknowledged as opposed to when it was ignored (middle column) or shredded (right column).

At this time of year, we are focusing on final exams:  labor-intensive, formal assessment of our students’ work.  But this is a good reminder for the future that we can encourage greater student motivation to do the assigned work by building in occasions for more informal, low stakes feedback throughout our courses.

About Beth Thornburg

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