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