Motivation, Learning and Memory (Part 1).

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Why do we remember the stories we read in comics but forget what we learned in school?

I recently attended a presentation (organised by the Psychology in Education Research Centre, University of York) by Kou Murayama, a researcher at the University of Reading. Dr Murayama uses a range of research methods, including behavioural experiments, longitudinal studies and neuro-imaging to investigate, among other things, the link between motivation and learning.

As Murayama pointed out, students often recall a great deal about topics that interest them but are often unable to do the same with topics related to school – Murayama used the example of learning Japanese history and spoke about how, at school, he would memorise the entire textbook in order to pass his exams. That information (or at least most of it) is now forgotten, unlike the stories from his favourite Japanese comics, which will remain with him forever.

It has long been proposed by researchers including Edward Deci, Mark Lepper and Carol Dweck that motivation can be viewed as either intrinsic or extrinsic (for an excellent introduction to this I would highly recommend ‘Drive’ by Dan Pink). It has also been understood for many years that interest and curiosity play a key role in the consolidation of learning, often leading to what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls ‘flow’.

Goal setting can also be described in terms of intrinsic/extrinsic motivators:

Mastery Goals (Intrinsic) – goals/striving based on personal development (e.g. “my goal is to develop my knowledge”)

Performance Goals (ego/extrinsic) – goals/striving  focusing on the demonstration of normative abilities (e.g. “my goal is to beat other people”)

Both approaches can facilitate elaborative learning processes but it appears that these processes are different for each type of goal. Because mastery-approach goals are linked to curiosity, exploration and an interest-based focus on learning they may facilitate a broad scope of attention beyond the target items. Essentially, mastery-orientated goals lead to greater long-term consolidation of learning while performance goals lead to only short-term learning.

In one particular study, Murayama asked a group of university students to learn a list of words and then carried out an immediate recall test. They were then asked to carry out another recall test a week later. However, one group of participants were given the following instructions:

If you work on this task with the intention to develop your ability, you can develop your competence

The second group were given the following instructions:

The aim of this task is to measure your cognitive ability in comparison with other university students

(The first instruction represents the mastery-goal condition; the second represents the performance goal condition)

There was very little difference between the scores for the first recall test, suggesting that the instructions had little impact on short-terms learning. However, when tested a week later it was discovered that the mastery goal condition produced a significantly higher recall rate than the performance goal condition.

Of course, learning material within an experiential situation such as this reduces the study’s ecological validity due to its artificial nature. Neither does this study suggest anything about learning over the longer term or within specific classroom settings. However, it does allow us to make strong causal inferences between different types of motivators.

The greatest strength of this research (and it is only a small sample of the huge volume of research Murayama has produced) is that it supports the findings of other researchers such as Putwain and Dweck (who I have written about before), and this adds to a growing literature on academic motivation that supports the view that intrinsic motivators are more powerful than extrinsic ones. Not only that, this kind of research also suggests that cognitive functions like memory are influenced by emotional factors such motivation, interest and boredom. It also supports the Dweckian view that implicit theories of intelligence (i.e. ‘Mindset’) can impact heavily on motivation.

References:

Murayama, K., & Elliot, A.J. (2011). Achievement motivation and memory: Achievement Goals differentially influence immediate and delayed remember-know recognition memory. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37, 1339-1348.

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