What Motivates Learning?

I continue to consider and reflect on my experiences as a learner to shape my teaching and grow as a teacher. In Teacher as Student I reflected on a recent online learning experience. The focus was on how it feels to be a novice. This post approaches learning from the motivational standpoint- why do we choose to learn something and how can we integrate those motivations into our teaching?

Let’s start with a short reflection: When was the last time you learned something new, for FUN, and experienced what it’s like to be a novice?  The follow up question is more important- WHY did you learn it? What MOTIVATED you?  Three recent learning experiences reflect common motivations for learning outside the academic setting.


Fear of Missing Out (FOMO)

Do you Snapchat? I didn’t but I do now, though I’m not very good at it. I wasn’t interested in learning how to use the app until a number of family members started using it. We were at a large event and they were laughing and having fun; I was missing out.  Not being part of the sharing and laughter motivated me to learn.

Teaching Implication: Peer mentors and prior students are excellent resources. Ask them to share their experiences with the class.  This provides opportunities to highlight what current students are or will be “missing” and why the learning is important.


Watching Others / Direct Observation

Similar to FOMO, direct observation can be a powerful draw. My dear friend has been knitting for years. I’ve watched her knit, seen the finished objects, and visited a yarn store with her. None of it motivated me to learn. What got me started? Watching her interact with a novice knitter. They were wholly engrossed and enthusiastically discussed their hobby. What was to me, an abstract and unreachable skill, was now seen in a different light. The fun and creative aspects of knitting were revealed and I’ve been hooked ever since.

Teaching Implication: Recent graduates and advisory board members can share valuable insights about how content learning connects to what they do professionally.


Explicit Invitation

Lovely strip canoe, right? That’s my husband and the boat he built with the help of a good friend. Hubby is not a skilled craftsman. Building a boat was not on his radar. But the friend was going to build a guideboat and invited hubby to build one too. “I don’t have the skills for that” was the initial response. But the friend, sounding very much like a teacher, replied “I have skills enough for both of us. I’ve never done this before either, we’ll figure out how to do this together.”

Teaching Implication: A personal invitation by an expert, whether that is the teacher, administrator, alumni, grad student, or friend is powerful force for learning.  This is especially true if the invitation is to learn together. This simple strategy applies across disciplines and academic levels. It can start with an invitation in the syllabus, followed by additional calls throughout the course.

Other common motivations include:

  • Needing to solve a problem
  • Watching a video/movie or experiencing a demo in person
  • Reading about it
  • Discovering by chance

This is not an exhaustive list. What other motivations for learning have you experienced? How have you integrated motivational strategies in your teaching? Please share below.

ZEST: Curiosity, Interest & the Brain

What words come to mind when you think of young children and learning? Examples that come to my mind include engaged, curious, interested, active, inquisitive, thoughtful, energetic, wonder, exploring, investigating, testing, learning, and fun. They’re naturally inquisitive.


When I ask college faculty to identify words describing their students and learning, the list is very different. What happens between childhood and when we meet them in college? Teaching to the test, No Child Left Behind, life pressures, maybe it’s not cool to be curious? In Pennsylvania, my niece is stressing over the Keystones, a test for graduation. The fun has been sucked out of learning.

Screen Shot 2017-06-20 at 2.58.39 PM

The informal and fun context for learning is replaced with the formal, fixed, structured. Whatever the causes, college students generally exhibit less childlike enthusiasm for learning.

What can we do to restore some of our students’ natural desire to learn? I think ZEST is the answer. Zest is more than teacher or student enthusiasm. Zest encompasses two issues that are central to learning: curiosity and interest. 

Formally, curiosity is defined as a state of arousal resulting from a situation or circumstances that involves uncertainty and/or ambiguity (e.g. novelty, conflict, complexity, unfinished, incomplete, unsettled, abstraction) characterized as a lack of information resulting in exploratory behavior directed toward resolving the missing information (Berlyne, 1960).

Questions stimulate curiosity. Being told the answer stops curiosity in its tracks. “So rather than jumping straight into the answers, let’s try to start students off with the sort of questions that encourage them to do their own seeking” (Stenger, 2014).

Interest is different but closely related. Dictionary.com defines it as:

  • the feeling of a person whose attention, concern or curiosity is particularly engaged by something;
  • something that concerns, involves, draws the attention of, or arouses the curiosity of a person;
  • power of exciting such concern, involvement.

“The feelings that characterize interest are overwhelmingly positive: a sense of being energized and invigorated, captivated and enthralled. As for its effects on cognition, interest effectively turbocharges our thinking. When we’re interested in what we’re learning, we pay closer attention; we process the information more efficiently; and we employ more effective learning strategies, such as engaging in critical thinking, making connections between old and new knowledge, and attending to deep structure instead of surface features. When we’re interested in a task, we work harder and persist longer, bringing more of our self-regulatory skills into play.” (Murphy, 2013)

In case you’re starting to think I’m suggesting slick productions and fun and games instead of learning, that’s not my point at all. Attending to curiosity and interest isn’t about “higher-ed lite,” entertainment, or edutainment.

Teachers should integrate some zest in instruction because there is strong evidence showing the cognitive states of curiosity and interest enhance and sustain effortful brain function.

Said plainly, attending to curiosity and interest advances learning.

A meta-analysis, gathering data from about 200 studies and 50,000 students shows curiosity does, indeed, influence academic performance (von Stumm, Hell, Chamorro-Premuzic, 2011). In fact, it has quite a large effect, about the same as conscientiousness. When put together, conscientiousness and curiosity have as big an effect on performance as intelligence. The findings suggest that while grades may motivate students, stimulating curiosity is even more powerful. 

Charan Ranganath, a neuroscientist at UC- Davis, says curiosity is piqued when people have some knowledge of a subject but were then faced with a gap in their understanding. “We think curiosity is the drive to fill that gap. It’s like an itch you just have to scratch,” (Sample, 2014). “Curiosity and thinking are of the same phenomenon. One involves the spark (curiosity, the arousal state) behind thinking, and the other pertains to how the spark (the energy, the cognitive motivation) is to be used (the type of thinking) and ultimately how it is satisfied (the stopping of thinking)” (Hill & McGinnis, 2007, p.56).

“Above all, interest determines how hard anyone is willing to think and to work… We have failed because we have too often answered student questions with an absolute authority which admits of no ambiguity…. in our teaching we have traditionally emphasized neatness, order discipline, and efficiency, sometimes to the detriment of intuition, inspiration, and creativity” (Schwartz, 1981, pp.334-335).

“Interest not only deals with the energizing aspects of impelling individuals to activity but also focuses on the content of the activity” (Tobias, 1994, p.47). Thus, attending to interest is an effective way to energize students toward content learning as they make connections between the material and their lives.

In a study of over 80,000 students at 110 high schools, researchers asked student why they were bored in class, 75% said because the material was not interesting, 39% said the material isn’t relevant (Yazzie-Mintz, 2006). I refuse to believe college students show up to class thinking, “I’m going to be disinterested today.”  Immediacy behaviors are one way to address student apathy and increase engagement. Integrating curiosity and interest are another. I’ll write more about zesty strategies in a follow up post.

“You can teach a student a lesson for a day; but if you can teach him to learn by creating curiosity, he will continue the learning process as long as he lives.”  ~ Clay Bedford, 20th century industrialist.

In the meantime, please share your strategies to pique curiosity and interesT.  


Berlyne, D. E. (1960). Conflict, arousal, and curiosity. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Hill, M. & McGinnis, J. 2007. The Curiosity in Marketing Thinking. Journal of Marketing Education, 29(1): 52-62.

Murphy Paul, A. (Nov 2013). The Science of Interest. School Library Journal. 59(11). Accessed August 3, 2016: http://www.slj.com/2013/11/research/the-science-of-interest-the-latest-cognitive-research-can-help-us-engage-students-and-foster-real-learning/

Sample, I. October 2, 2014. The Guardian. Neuroscience. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/oct/02/curiosity-memory-brain-reward-system- dopamine Accessed March 29, 2017]

Schwartz, A.T. (1981). Admitting Ambiguity. Journal of Chemical Education. 58(4): 334-336.

Stenger, M. December 17, 2014. Why Curiosity Enhances Learning. Edutopia. Accessed August 3, 2016: http://www.edutopia.org/blog/why-curiosity-enhances-learning-marianne-stenger

Tobias, S. (1994). Interest, Prior Knowledge, and Learning. Review of Educational Research, 64(1): 37-54.

von Stumm, S., Hell, B., & Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2011). The Hungry Mind: Intellectual Curiosity Is the Third Pillar of Academic Performance. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6 (6), 574. DOI: 10.1177/1745691611421204

Yazzie-Mintz, E. (2006). Voices of students on engagement: A report on the 2006 high school survey of student engagement. Bloomington, IN: Center for Evaluation and Education Policy. http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED495758.pdf
Accessed: August 26, 2016


Better Late than Never

I recently came across an oldie but goodie, Larry Spence’s 2001 piece in Change, “The Case Against Teaching.” It’s filled with golden nuggets, definitely worth tracking down and reading the entire piece first hand. It’s going to be one you tuck away and reread. Here are two segments that resonated deeply with me.

“Why is education more resistant to innovation than business, agriculture, or communication? Because parents, reporters, citizens, children, politicians and professional educators share an unsinkable image of what teachers and students are supposed to do… It’s assumptions are that teaching is telling, learning is absorbing, and knowledge is subject-matter content. Teachers tell you what to learn and how to learn it” (p. 12).

“Beginning professors thus work in isolation without the criticism, advice, or example of their senior colleagues. Each struggles to learn the same lessons of classroom management. This arrangement guarantees not only the reinvention of the wheel, but the reinvention of the flat tire…. We get good at being professors-mostly by repeating the behaviors we witnessed while we were students” (p.14).

These quotes describe my teaching, in practice and philosophy, when I first entered the classroom as a community college adjunct, over twenty years ago. A family member asked, “What makes you think you can teach?” My response, “What makes any professor think they can?” I was a CPA, of course I could teach accounting.

You won’t be surprised when I admit it wasn’t so simple or straightforward. Truth-be-told, I was a terrible teacher. My first course did not start well. I knew it and so did the students. I thought it was their fault: lazy, unmotivated, unprepared, lacking ability. It didn’t cross my mind that I might be the reason the class never asked questions and performed poorly on exams. Borrowing from Spence, I reinvented the flat tire.

We were several weeks into the term when a student made an appointment to see me. We met in the library. I was ready to discuss accounting. She had other ideas. She started by telling me that it was clear I knew the material and was obviously successful in practice. So far… so good.

Then she dropped the bombshell: “I’m sure you realize the class is not going well. Would you like some pointers to improve your teaching?”

At this point, I remembered from the first class period introductions, this woman was a retired teacher. She was starting a consulting business and wanted to be able to understand her accountant. That’s why she was taking the class.

My initial reaction was shock and dismay. I felt like someone dumped cold water on me. Then I quickly considered my choices: Remind her I am the teacher. No thank you, I know what I’m doing! Or, admit it’s not going well and ask for help.

I swallowed my pride and asked for her advice. I implemented her suggestion, an active learning strategy, during the next period. It worked. Students watched me demonstrate, they took notes, and immediately did a similar problem in class. They had questions and I answered them. The transformation was remarkable.

The student who met with me, I am dismayed that I don’t remember her name, stayed until everyone else left the classroom at the end of the night.   As she walked toward the door, she paused and said “Now you’re a teacher.” I didn’t realize it then, but that night changed my life. I started teaching because I thought there was a lot I could teach others. I continue teaching because I have much to learn.

To all the students who’ve learned with me and helped me grow as a teacher, thank you.

Reference: Spence, L.D. (2001). The Case Against Teaching. Change, Nov/Dec: 10-19.