How Rewards Impact Learning And Motivation

In an interesting study to understand the relationship between motivation and learning, researchers gave elementary students a reading comprehension task. One group was explicitly told that they were going to be tested and graded on what they learned at the end of the activity, while the others were not.

The results of the experiment revealed a lot about the interplay between learning, motivation and rewards. Students who were told that they would be tested and graded, found the reading task less interesting and felt more stress compared to the others. Their assessment afterwards also showed an interesting pattern. They performed as well as the other groups, but only when limited to rote information. Conceptual integration of the material was poorer than the other groups. In addition, one week after the experiment, they had forgotten more information compared to other groups! As the researchers concluded, “It is not unreasonably speculative to argue that grades as traditionally used in schools often result in the perception of an external locus of causality, produce pressure, and result in force-fed, poorly integrated and maintained learning.

So how does learning get affected by motivation and rewards, like grades?

Learning can happen in multiple ways. Autonomous learning, where there is no directive to learn something specific, happens all the time and might even be the biggest source of learning. This type of learning, also called undirected learning, is triggered by curiosity and interest and is associated with lower negative emotional states. However, since this type of learning can’t be managed, we’ll focus on directed learning, where there is a specific set of material that needs to be learned and assimilated.

Students can be directed to learn in two ways:

  • Controlling, where the control comes from external mechanisms like grades or evaluations.
  • Noncontrolling, which uses approaches that tap into students’ need for autonomy and self-determination.

The issue with the controlling approach is that it leads to inferior learning outcomes compared to the noncontrolling approach. The reason behind this is better explained through achievement goal theory of motivation.

According to the achievement goal theory, people expend different levels and quality of cognitive self-regulation depending on the purpose of the goal. Cognitive self-regulation refers to how deliberate one is in the learning process and includes using different strategies, or planning and using resources effectively. What determines the level of cognitive self-regulation is the purpose behind the goal, which could be performance or learning based.

Performance Goals

Performance goals, also known as ego-goals, are driven primarily by a need to outperform others in order to increase one’s status. Performance goals are positively associated with more superficial, rote learning and not with deep learning. Performance orientation further comes in two flavors – performance/approach and performance/avoidance. Performance/approach is when students are aiming to outperform their peers. Students with this orientation do end up spending considerable effort and using superior study strategies. Performance/avoidance students want to avoid failure so as not to look less competent compared to their peers, and therefore put in less effort and avoid challenging work.

This is where class incentives or rewards, like grades, also come into play. When rewards are scarce, like when only the top few students get the highest grade, it creates a competitive environment where the focus changes from learning a concept to finding ways to outperform other students.

Students in the performance/avoidance orientation fare the worst since the incentive structure does not give them any reason to learn. Instead, they use strategies like procrastination which provides an explanation of their poor performance without being perceived incompetent (if the student only studies on the last day, they are not expected to do well and it isn’t a reflection of their ability).

Learning Goals

Learning goals, also known as mastery goals, are driven by a need to improve one’s competency irrespective of how others are doing. Related to this is the growth mindset, or the belief that one can learn and become smarter by putting in effort. Learning orientation is positively associated with deep-level processing, higher cognitive self-regulation, and pride and satisfaction in success.

Research has shown some promising directions to change grades and reward structure to create a better learning environment. This includes permitting students to work for any grade they want by accomplishing more, and using mastery based grading which focuses on whether one finally mastered a concept regardless of failures along the way.

 

Our current educational system has often been compared to a factory model where students are expected to learn the same content at the same pace as others in their age group. However, there is an additional dimension – extrinsic-focused scarce rewards – that makes the educational system mirror a corporate environment. Unfortunately, such rewards encourage performance goals in both systems leading to poorer learning, higher stress and less satisfaction.

Extrinsic rewards and performance goals work can be effective in limited ways where the task is simple or algorithmic. For more complex and creative work, a learning orientation becomes critical. However, nurturing a learning and growth mindset cannot happen in a vacuum – it needs a supportive environment to go with it. A poorly designed environment can push people from a learning orientation to that of a ego-focused performance mindset, while a well designed one could enable deep learning, growth and positive emotional well-being.

Growth and Creativity Mindsets

As a graduate student, Carol Dweck was deeply influenced by Martin Seligman’s work on understanding depression. In experiments conducted in the 1960s, Seligman found that when animals are given a painful stimuli without the ability to control the situation, they become passive – a condition he called learned helplessness. This sparked Carol Dweck’s interest in human, and more specifically, student motivation.

She noticed that not all people show learned helplessness when faced with adversity and asked, “Why do some students give up when they encounter difficulty, whereas others who are no more skilled continue to strive and learn? One answer, I soon discovered, lay in people’s beliefs about why they had failed.

Her work with students over the next several decades led to the theory of Growth Mindset, which is now transforming educational outcomes. She found that students who believed that their abilities can improve with effort (growth mindset), outperformed those who believed that their intelligence is fixed (fixed mindset). This effect held for different subjects areas including math and science.

Growth mindset is especially important in creative work since such work often requires higher levels of perseverance. As she points out, “In a poll of 143 creativity researchers, there was wide agreement about the number one ingredient in creative achievement. And it was exactly the kind of perseverance and resilience produced by growth mindset.

But there is also growth mindset about creativity, or in other words, the belief that creativity is not innate and can be developed just like any other skill. Research studies have found that when it comes to Creativity – people can hold both a fixed and growth mindset at the same time. They view great creative accomplishments, or Big-C creativity, as a fixed trait and believe that smaller levels of creativity, or little-c creativity, is malleable. In other words, people believe that Einstein was successful because he was exceptionally gifted but their own (limited) creative potential can be improved by putting in effort.

In an approach similar to the growth mindset, we teach children in our programs how their brain works as an associative engine and how that can help in coming up with creative ideas. In other words, everyone is capable of becoming more creative with some effort.

Apart from growth mindset, Creativity is also influenced by other beliefs and attitudes that help in different aspects of creative problem solving (collectively referred here as the Creativity Mindset). Some of these attitudes, and how we try to encourage them, are highlighted below.

Openness

Openness to Experience, which includes six dimensions, has been found to be the strongest and most consistent trait to predict creative achievement. One dimension, intellectual curiosity, has been found to be the best predictor of scientific creativity. Openness leads to the ability to seek diverse information and reconcile multiple perspectives which then often results in unique solutions. We encourage openness by building a collaborative environment where students take each others feedback and perspectives in improving their own solution.

Non-conformity

Having a non-conforming attitude means having the confidence to pursue ideas outside the mainstream norms. It helps people find uniqueness in their ideas, an essential component of creativity. One activity we use in building a non-conformist attitude is challenging commonly-held assumptions. We play games where students pick an assumption, reverse it, and find ways and situations in which the reversed assumption would be useful.

Playfulness

Being playful means taking things lightly and having an exploratory approach. A playful attitude enables flexible thinking and has been found to correlate with creativity. To build playfulness, we often use improv games as warm-up exercises.  The cognitive processes that underlie improv are the same as those used in creative thinking.  A research study found that improv comedians produce 25% more creative ideas than professional product designers.

 

In the end, both the growth mindset and the creativity mindset result in behaviors that are essential for high creative accomplishments. By fostering these mindsets in children and teaching them creative thinking skills, we can give them the tools to unlock their full potential.

Effective Feedback for a Growth Mindset

Suppose your child comes to you disappointed after receiving a B- on a math test that he worked really hard preparing for. What would you say to him?

If you already know about growth mindset, you know saying something along the lines of, “It’s OK, maybe you are just not a math person” isn’t the smartest thing. You should be focusing on the effort he put in instead of his inherent ability.

How about – “Great effort! I am sure you’ll do better next time”? Would that work better?

Not really.

In general, focusing on effort as opposed to ability increases intrinsic motivation over the long term. However, in certain situations, focusing on effort can actually make things worse. When the work results in a failure, focusing on effort solely can still leave the child feeling inept. Or if effort is overemphasized for relatively easy tasks, children may infer that as a sign of their low ability.

Growth mindset and intrinsic motivation go hand in hand. Children with a growth mindset are more likely to regulate their behavior for intrinsic reasons (e.g. I enjoy doing this activity) whereas children with a fixed mindset are more likely to regulate their behavior for extrinsic reasons (e.g. I want my parents to think I am a good student).

Having a growth mindset is clearly superior to a fixed mindset, since growth mindset enhances intrinsic motivation which in the long term improves perseverance and resilience against failure. But how do you inculcate a growth mindset in your child? If you as a parent model a growth mindset would that rub off on your child?

Carol Dweck, Professor at Stanford, and the originator of the mindset theory of intelligence, found that there is no link between parents’ mind-sets and their children’s. Parents’ own mindsets aren’t generally not visible to their children because they don’t necessarily manifest in parental practices. For instance, parents can have a growth mind-set but still praise their child’s talent, leading their child to develop a fixed mindset. 

However, one factor that does influence children’s mindset is not their parents’  intelligence mindset but their parent’s failure mindset. As Carol Dweck explains, “parents can view failure as either enhancing or debilitating, that this belief manifests itself in their reactions to their children’s setbacks, and that it influences their children’s intelligence mind-sets.

So how can you handle a  failure situation more effectively?

When faced with a setback, a better approach is to frame the feedback in a more broader process-oriented feedback that includes thoughtful analysis of strategies and new approaches to explore. Think of the effort-oriented feedback as a subset of the larger process-oriented feedback. 

So, instead of simply saying “Good effort!”, use Prof Dweck’s recommendation and try this – “The point isn’t to get it all right away. The point is to grow your understanding step by step. What can you try next?” And follow this up with a discussion of what strategy did not work and what strategies might be worth trying the next time.