Why Having Multiple Motives Can Harm Learning

January 21, 2015

When students love learning, it shows. They question, comment, and ponder, seeking to understand why or how things came to be.

But what would happen if these students received pizza parties every time they got A’s on exams, or received stuffed animal plushies for getting full credit on homework assignments?

It would seem that having multiple motives – in this case, an internal desire to learn as well as an external incentive – would amplify motivation and produce even better results in student achievement. Yet a recent study conducted by Professor Amy Wrzesniewski of Yale University and Barry Schwartz of Swarthmore college reached a different conclusion: having multiple motives does more harm than good.

More specifically, they discovered that when individuals were both internally and externally motivated, external incentives weakened the power of internal motivation, leading to negative consequences.

To study the effect of having both external and internal motives, Wrzesniewski and Schwartz observed over 10,000 West Point cadets over the course of fourteen years. Assessing their goals, the experimenters wanted to know who would be most likely to become commissioned officers, continue to serve even after finishing their minimum requirement, and get promoted early on in their careers.

They discovered that cadets who were internally motivated were more likely to achieve their goals. Having external motives as well, however, greatly reduced internal motivation, leading to negative outcomes. The presence of both internal and external motives damaged overall performance and persistence.

These findings have consequences in the classroom. Blended learning programs often come with whiz-bang motivation systems to engage students, but really it’s the curriculum – with stellar content and challenging questions – that can spark curiosity and willingness to learn. This is not to say that teachers should never reward students for excellent work; rather, find moments to celebrate their growth, learning, and progress.

What strategies do you use to motivate students? Share your stories with us on Facebook, TwitterPinterest, or Google+.

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