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Motivation and the Brain

How to harness student motivation? New research points the way.

If students have "go to" excuses, then so do teachers, and vying for the number-one rationalization for student failure is that the child is just not motivated. Yet the fastest way to elicit a disapproving reaction from one of the speakers at this year's Learning & the Brain conference at Columbia University was to utter this hackneyed complaint. "Myth number one: Students are just not motivated," Richard Lavoie barkedat his conference audience. "Every human being is motivated."

Essentially, the noted educator means that students may not be motivated to learn the nitrogen cycle or search Macbeth for text evidence, but they are motivated to furtively game through precalculus, hack into the school's mainframe, and search a teacher's profile on Facebook.

This distinction may seem like formal parsing of a complaint issued from the beleaguered front lines of education, but it is important because it reveals an expectation that the student supplies motivation.

Lavoie passionately counters this assumption: "It is our job to motivate kids. It is more important than it has ever been. Kids do not come with batteries included." So if teachers need to supply the batteries, then they also need to know more about this power supply and how to use it. Harnessing student motivation in an academic direction is no simple task, but savvy districts would do well to explore the latest research coming out of universities.

"Taking advantage of research as it comes out is very critical," says Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

Education can certainly be faulted for not using the latest from science, Domenech explains, but often when it comes time to apply research to the classroom, issues arise. Problems stem from the lack of time teachers can spend with individual students, which points to the need to restructure how schools are organized. Teachers want to motivate their students, he says-they sometimes just need to be given fresh ideas for how to do that. And that's where cutting-edge theories like those explored at the Learning & the Brain conference come in.

First Goals, Then Obstacles
New York University's Gabriele Oettingen is ready to see her research used with schoolchildren. She argues that a method called mental contrasting helps students realistically set goals, calling it "a powerful instrument" for schools that is backed by years of empirical evidence.

Oettingen started her work on motivation by conducting research on positive thinking about the future. The results showed that the more positive the students' fantasies about future successes, the lower their actual academic scores were. "We always hear positive thinking gets us there, and is a recipe for behavioral change. Facts are quite different," says Oettingen.

The psychology professor is not a doomsayer—she just wants to inject some realism into the process: "This is positive thinking taken with care."

Mental contrasting involves three steps a teacher of almost any grade could use either with one student or an entire class. Once a student is trained in mental contrasting, the method can be used quickly on a daily basis for various goals. In fact, the method is proven to work across ages and subjects, from smoking to dieting to helping students at risk for ADHD.

First, the student must self-select a goal or a wish that is feasible and challenging. This wish can be circumscribed to the academic arena, but the participant must choose freely and without influence. Then, the student must identify the best outcome associated with the fulfillment of the wish. The student should write down three to six words about this outcome, and he or she is next asked to imagine the outcome. Oettingen says it is important to "let the mind go" during this stage. The next step is for the student to identify his or her inner obstacle that may impede fulfillment. The impediment phase might involve questioning from the teacher, not to influence the selection of obstacles but to ensure the obstacles center on student action.

"What is it inside of you that stands in the way?" Oettingen suggests that teachers ask. Once again, the obstacles should be written down. Then, the student must free the mind to imagine how the obstacles would affect him or her. (Mental contrasting, Oettingen says, may become even more powerful when it is used with a method called implementation intentions, a process developed by Peter M. Gollwitzer for making if-then statements to help control actions when obstacles are met.)


Mental contrasting is deceptively simple, and Oettingen worries that seeming simplicity could lead to ­irresponsible use. She says the process is specifically and carefully designed to affect "nonconscious cognition and emotion" that will work to complement conscious goal achievement. The process is so precise that if one imagines the obstacles before the goal, the method will fail to work, according to Oettingen.

"I have fears of quality control," she says. "It should be used in a correct way because it is a very powerful instrument." Oettingen and her team are currently working on a training program for educators and pilot programs within schools.

Sparking Student Drive
While Gabriele Oettingen's work is focused on student self-direction and regulation, the work of Heidi Grant Halvorson is geared toward the ­teacher. Halvorson has developed a framework for understanding motivational mind-sets that can help the teacher spark drive in students.

Halvorson, associate director of the Motivation Science Center at Columbia Business School, says that motivating students is often more complicated than it seems. One wants to "choose the right carrot" for the student, she says, but "not everyone sees the carrot the same way."

Identifying a student's mind-set "offers guidance as to what is motivating, which strategies work best, and where ­problems may be," Halvorson notes.

She explains that there are two basic motivational mind-set groups: promotion and prevention. Promotion mind-sets focus on gain, while prevention mind-sets try to stem loss.

The promotion mind-set focuses on rewards and advancement and is motivated by optimism. Promotion students are eager, they rely on instinct and embrace risk, and they tend not to dwell on past mistakes. Creativity, innovation, speed, confidence, and seizing opportunities are linked with this mind-set. However, promotion students tend to embrace too much and can easily overload themselves. Prevention students have a more negative-­based focus. These students are watchful, trying to maintain what they have already achieved. Planning, maintenance, accuracy, cautiousness, and reliability stem from this mind-set. Prevention students avoid risks, rely on reason and evidence, and are generally quite "aware of how much they can chew," Halvorson says.

Halvorson emphasizes that being one way is not better than the other, and says many factors contribute to a person having one mind-set over the other, including basic temperament, parenting style, and culture.

Both types of students, Halvorson explains, can be achievement-oriented in school, but their minds work differently. She notes that while younger people tend to be more promotion-minded than older people, teachers will have prevention-minded students. Research has not pinpointed what percentage of the student population is prevention-minded, but, Halvorson says, it does indicate that certain cultures tend to be more prevention-minded, such as East Asian cultures, and that students do shift in motivational mind-sets depending on what part of their life is involved. For example, some students might be more promotion-focused in athletics than in academics. "Everyone does both, but we have a dominant focus," she says.

Halvorson encourages teachers to take the time to learn about these mind-sets and consciously try to identify students because what motivates each mind-set is different. Then, the educator can more effectively address motivation. "Tailor your language to fit their needs," she suggests.

Halvorson explains that praising a prevention-focused student can often be ineffective because the student is leery of accepting compliments. The prevention mind-set wants to maintain a vigilant state. These students are uncomfortable receiving a great deal of praise. A compliment "actually undercuts [the student's] effectiveness," she says. Defensive pessimism is a apt way to describe this point of view. "You cannot interfere with their vigilance," Halvorson adds.

A better way to work with ­prevention-minded students, says Halvorson, is to provide constructive criticism and tips for avoiding pitfalls. With the promotion-minded student, focus on the benefits of doing good work. If the teacher wants to encourage a promotion student to take AP Chemistry, state that the college admissions officers will be quite impressed with such a class. "It makes a big difference if the message feels right to them," she says.

The promotion/prevention mind-set work is based on some 20 years of various research efforts, Halvorson says. "It is a summary of hundreds and hundreds of studies."

In Focus: Use Different Ways of Seeing the World for Success and Influence, which Halvorson coauthored with Tory Higgins, she fully explains the two mind-sets, how to work with each one, and what factors go into determining individual mind-sets.

"It is very digestible," Halvorson says about the body of knowledge involved; she explains that teachers just need to attain an understanding of how the two mind-sets work and then their approach to students will change accordingly.

Teachers, she adds, should not just tailor language for the two mind-sets but also help students shift between and develop both types for various tasks. Halvorson suggests trying to shift students to a prevention mind-set for an impending test and to a promotion focus when they are undertaking more creative tasks.

While Focus concentrates on the business environment, Halvorson is interested in seeing her work applied within education. She sees the information as vital to how both adults and children function. "Here is something fundamental about the way [we] are wired," she says.     


Late Fall 2013

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