Learning Evolved, Part II: Social Motivation

It must be emphasized that even making students believe they are motivated, or giving them an identity of motivated students, would not help. Self-beliefs (Zimmerman, 2000, 85) and and self-reports (Bower, 2006; Ley and Young, 1998, 47; Lieberman et al, 2003, 682) are all relatively useless at predicting anything. Even self-esteem, which is correlated with some benefits (Price, 2005; Steinberg and Morris, 2001), appears to be as much of a consequence as a cause of high achievement. Therefore, wise teachers have no alternative but to manipulate the modules of students to make them behave as if they were motivated.

The simplest change is alter the way grades are presented. “Goal-oriented” learning is effected by incentives (Lupia & Menng, 2006, 3-4), and also by how those incentives are given. Losing something hurts more than gaining something pleases (Jervis, 2004, 165). Likewise, people choose different based on if options are presented positively or negatively, even when there is no substantive difference between options (Casmerer, Lowenstein, and Prelec, 2003, 18; De Martino et al, 2006, 684), though other things matter as well (Wolak & Marcus, 2006, 6). The implication of this is clear: instead of starting students are zero points and letting them add to their total as the semester continues, students should start with a 100% and have points deducted as the class rolls on.

The other main change is that nearly every grade should be through a group project. The general benefits of group work are well known, and include increased motivation when working collectively (Bruning, 1995), and increased validity of learning (Dawson, 1996, 47). Additionally group work is closely connected to multiple perspectives, which is vital for improved rationality (van Glasersfeld, 1995, Moshman, 2005). Likewise, collective action can lead to better results than individual decision making (Shulman 1984; Schwartz 1995). Just as we ask questions in class to engage students in the information (Entwistle, McCune, and Walker, 2001, 127) , the whole structure of the class should be centered on student engagement. Yet groups are a better medium for social interaction than a traditional classroom where students are called on. People who speak up in assemblies are looked down upon generally (Larimer, Hannagan, & Smith, 2006), so socially wise students will remain quiet (and so not participate) during normal lecture students. Additionally, compared to mentally exhausting lectures, students simply enjoy well-designed group work more (Biggs, 1999).

That is not a minor point – enjoyment and happiness are important! Happy people are more socially cooperative, while detached people act cooly, attempting to minimizing their efforts while maximizing their benefits (McDermott, 2004, 696) . Happiness is correlated with long-term recall of lecture material (Pollio ,2002, 76). Further, emotional state is inseparable from information processing (Spezio and Adolphs, 3), and so is important directly as well as indirectly. Educators ignore happiness as a factor of motivation only at their peril.
The groups should be in competition for points, such that it benefits a group to do better than another. This type of situation can quickly increase cooperation even when the cooperation is not immediately reciprocated (Hammond and Axelrod, 2006). Group work helps to motivate students by exploiting both their natural altruism and their natural desire for altruistic punishment.

People are nice to their fellows. They want to be connected to each other (Royse, 2006, 6). Humans “frequently engage in acts of altruism by choosing to bear costs in order to provide benefits to others” (Fowler, 2006, 675) because we are “social creatures who depend on groups “ and we “possess the genetic, neurological, and behavioral machinery to nurture groups and to monitor and protect their own status within the group” (Alford & Hibbing, 2006, 3). Indeed, our ancestors have been social animals for millions of years (Wrangham, 1999). In short students, as humans are sociable and consider their standing in the eyes of others to be imporants (Zak, 2006).

Learning Evolved, a companion series to Classroom Democracy
1. Darwinism-Cognitivism
2. Social Motivation
3. Coalitionary Education
4. Bibliography

5 thoughts on “Learning Evolved, Part II: Social Motivation”

  1. Dan tdaxp says, “…The implication of this is clear: instead of starting students are zero points and letting them add to their total as the semester continues, students should start with a 100% and have points deducted as the class rolls on.”

    I would like to speak up and affirm this idea based on my experience as a teacher. Since 2001, I have been teaching at the University of Hawaii – Maui, on both the non-credit adult side and the for-credit undergraduate side. From the beginning the first thing I have always told my adult students is that they all start as ‘A’ students and our job together is to make sure they finish as ‘A’ students. I give them credit for being there after a full day, spending the price of tuition and showing an interest in what I offer. This is my deeply felt belief and I share this with each adult class so that they know how I feel. There have been times I have received standing ovations from a class (although rarely) but my consistently high student evaluations speak for the quality of their experience. No grades are actually given; at most they receive a printed certificate. Together we make sure that everyone finishes the classes knowing something useful they did not know before. This year I used this approach on my for-credit class and the results have been remarkable. There are chronic problems with higher education here on Maui and student motivation is low with expectations lower still. I’ve been getting more work of a higher quality from my students than any of the other three teachers of the same subject even though I am the least experienced of the group. My attendance is also higher. Each class I challenge them to keep their ‘A’ by entering into a conspiracy of learning. Once they know what they must do, and I tell them in clear and simple terms, I have seen a higher level of work to keep an ‘A’ relative to what other teachers require to earn an ‘A’.

    “The other main change is that nearly every grade should be through a group project…
    “…the whole structure of the class should be centered on student engagement.”

    In the adult classes I have always encouraged those sitting next to each other to help each other. The results I have seen there have encouraged me to try this in my for-credit classes. Once again I have seen the gains with the younger students. When I assign hands-on assignments I now tell them to collaborate and they do to their mutual benefit. While at first I was concerned that dependent relationships would develop with one student overly relying on the other but that concern has not been confirmed. Actually, I have observed a competition as to who would be most helpful; they acquire status through being the most helpful to other students. It is my job to keep everyone challenged and that is all that is required to keep things moving forward. It is a bit breathtaking at the speed we are moving through material, this is certainly keeping me moving as well. I find this preferred to the usual constant pushing just to keep a small minority caught up to the lesson plan. At a little more that half way through this semester my class was actually a week ahead of my original lesson plan. On Maui, this is mind blowing. And this is only with groups of 2 or 3. In my past at other schools I have taught a specific set of theatre exercises and I have experienced the group dynamic there, but this is with computer science and in the way the results were unexpected and therefore even more exciting.

    “That is not a minor point – enjoyment and happiness are important!”

    This third point I also must verify with my actual experience. I make it a point to keep everything light and without stress. Easy I tell them, keep everything easy. Of course, this plays in to the island attitude. In fact, this is one point that is mandatory here as opposed to what I saw on the mainland. Any attempt to get too serious will be met with students just walking away, they will not put up with it. On the mainland seriousness seemed to be the normal course of events, especially in the computer sciences. That just will not fly here at all. No one sees the academic pressure; no one understands the competition of the bigger world. Of course, since I do work with this instead of against it as many of my co-teachers do, I feel it helps in the classroom. Thank you for finding the research work that verifies my experience.

  2. In general agreement, overall. This is building a culture of academic acheivment via group connectivity.

    “The implication of this is clear: instead of starting students are zero points and letting them add to their total as the semester continues, students should start with a 100% and have points deducted as the class rolls on.”

    That will certainly grab their attention.

    Better in the aggregate but you are going to give a certain demographic – the anally retentive, anxious, teacher-pleasers – heart attacks with every lost point ;o)
    Younger students, children, will have meltdowns.

    Some measures need to be taken, a la Slavin, to deal with free riders and secure their enagement but you are going to address that later

  3. RevG,


    I'll keep your classes and students in mind 🙂 Be sure to keep commenting & criticizing — skeptical or enthusiastic, everything helps 🙂


    Connectivity is vital, but so is the nature of the connectivity. Connectivity with free-riders may be worse than no connectivity whatsoever, which is why I address rulesets in Part III.

    I do wonder if the degree of anxiety will increase the amount of punishment…. One could argue yes because of the desire to avoid the emotional reaction again, but as anxiety is associated with the prefrontal cortex and conscious thought, perhaps rationality will decrease punishment level. Hmmm…

    Could you talk about Slavin some more?

  4. Some years ago, Robert(?) Slavin advocated integrating cooperative learning formats with rigorous individual assessment to ascertain the level of participation, deter free ridership and give frequent learner feedback.

  5. Mark,

    Robert Slavin it is [1] [2] [3]. Thanks! This is another amazing part of blogging: have some thoughts, put them off, get extremely high quality feedback.

    I expect I will use him heavily, just from the titles alone!

    [1] http://www.jstor.org/view/00346543/ap040242/04a00060/0
    [2] http://www.aegean.gr/culturaltec/c_karagiannidis/2003-2004/collaborative/slavin1996.pdf
    [3] http://www.jstor.org/view/00405841/ap050169/05a00040/0?currentResult=00405841%2bap050169%2b05a00040%2b0%2c57&searchUrl=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.jstor.org%2Fsearch%2FBasicResults%3Fhp%3D25%26si%3D1%26Query%3Drobert%2Bslavin

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