Monday, July 07, 2014

Research on Motivation and the University's Modus Operandi

Over the weekend the NY Times featured an Op-Ed with yet more research to trumpet the benefits of intrinsic motivation.  (An excerpt is below as is a backlink to the full piece.)  It is no longer surprising, at least to me, to find otherwise similar people with intrinsic motivation outperform those who are purely externally motivated.  This piece provides no exception to that rule.  Its novelty is on how a middle group performs - those who are both intrinsically and extrinsically motivated.  One might conjecture that their performance would also be middling.  It turns out, however, that such people do even worse than those with pure extrinsic motive.  Perhaps it would be a fun activity to puzzle about why that is.

This research notwithstanding, extrinsic motivation is not going anywhere.  This morning, after my first cup of coffee but before I started to craft this piece, I went to Carle to have some lab work done.  It's routine.  My doctor ordered it as part of normal checkup process.  Then, once this post is completed, I have to renew my car registration, do the dishes in the sink, and deposit a check that is a refund of the deposit on my son's dorm.  All of this is humdrum and that's the point.  Anyone who has a To Do List confronts extrinsic motivation.  Real life places demands on us.  For the routine stuff, ours is not to question why.  Ours is to do lest some adverse consequence result. 

Yet we who operate in a university culture, who should want to lead in this area, might reasonably ask: do we rely on extrinsic motivation methods too much?  Might performance be better if we let go of some of the fiats and instead tried to engage people more without use of compulsion?  These questions apply equally well to teaching and learning, on the one hand, and to employee relations, on the other.

Let me illustrate the concern as it pertains to the classroom.  When I was Assistant CIO for Educational Technologies we had data from the Campus Learning Management system that said the area of the system students accessed most was MyGrades.  I doubt that things have changed much if at all in this regard during the eight years since I left that job.  If that is right, it is evidence that students are compelled by their grades more so or to the exclusion of interest in the subjects they are studying.  (I'm definitely not the first person to make this point.  I'm only reiterating it here in light of considering the research on motivation.)

Our methods of assessment of student performance are highly skewed toward favoring exams, as distinct from writing papers, delivering presentations in class, or producing other sorts of objects that might engage the student with the subject matter and thereby reveal some of its depth.  There is an official final exam week that is part of the scheduling process.  The institution has placed its imprimatur on testing.  The other methods appear to be consigned to students when they engage in undergraduate research.  Alas, many students get no such experience and many others do undergraduate research for only a semester or two.

In turn, I now test my students in this tradition because I was told to do so by the Economics Department Head.  One semester I had only eight students in my class, so adjusted to those low numbers by teaching the course as a seminar, where we did have the in class presentations and the paper writing.  I was told not to repeat that approach in the future, irrespective of the enrollments.  In effect, my discretion was replaced by university rules, with the implication being that if I didn't give exams then I was shirking as a teacher.  Think of what that messages does to my motivation. 

The psychology research is less good, in my opinion, on the following question.  Can people who have heretofore been purely extrinsically motivated in the important parts of their lives - school, work, and obligations to family are the ones that come to mind - be transformed so that internal motives predominate and drive them?  In my mind the question is as much ethical as it is behavioral.  Intrinsically motivated people do not cheat.

If the answer to that question is yes, at least in some cases, then a further additional question emerges.  Can people be encouraged to undergo such transformation, via empathetic feedback and coaching and suitable changes in the environment?

Trying to answer these questions is what I mean by taking leadership.  And if some promising evidence is found then taking leadership also requires implementing programs that aim to reproduce such evidence.   That would seem to be the main agenda. 

The only thing that appears to be stopping us is our own indifference to posing these questions.  I wish there were many others who were asking them.

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