Learning Academy Blog

Does Motivation Play a Role in Our Learning and Development

Posted by Andrew Jackson on Wed, Jul 6,2011

AndrewIs a successful learning experience purely about external factors or do our own internal beliefs and motivations play a part?

We've all had good and bad learning experiences, so this is a fascinating question. How much is that success or failure purely down to external influences?

If we go back to the 1930s, Thorndike's Law of Effect holds that a correct answer needs a response to reward the learner. A "Well done, that's the right answer", from the trainer helps strengthen the association between the question and the correct answer and increases the probability of a similar correct response the next time around.

I think most people in the world of learning and development would broadly agree with this view. But this emphasises the external environment. What about if we also put an individual's beliefs into the centre of the picture. It's likely that we then have several other factors to take into account.

1. Beliefs about yourself
Do you believe you can succeed and acquire the knowledge and skills you are setting out to learn? This level of belief varies tremendously and is influenced by existing knowledge and experience. Go outside of familiar territories and domains and it is likely our self-belief and confidence will plummet.

2. Beliefs about the learning content
Is the content interesting? Genuine personal interest makes learners far more willing to engage with content - even when dull and boring. If personal interest is low or non-existent than we need to create situational interest. In other words, grab learners' attention and interest by making sure the learning content is well-crafted and engaging.

3. Beliefs about the success or failure of learning
Do learners believe the outcome they achieved was under or outside their control? Do they believe it was a poor trainer that caused them to fail or sheer good luck that they did well? Whether the outcome is positive or negative, research into something called attribution theory suggests a learner who believes an outcome was caused by factors outside their control, is far less likely to be motivated to succeed in the future.

By contrast, a learner who attributes success or failure to their own effort (or lack of it) is far more likely to be productive and put in more effort next time around.

This suggests it is hugely important to foster an environment that encourages learners to understand (and believe) that the success of learning outcomes is clearly within their control

Of course, all of this is just scraping the surface of an immensely complex (and very interesting) area. But it's a good reminder that we shouldn't just focus on external factors (important as they are) when thinking about how to achieve successful learning.

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Topics: Instructional Design, Course Design, Learning Psychology