In Learning, Every Moment Counts

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Group of school kids sitting and listening to teacher in classroom from back. | Credit: dolgachov

Psychologist at University of Jena uncovers strong variability in motivation in learning situations: In the current issue of the journal ‘Learning & Instruction’ Dr Julia Dietrich of Friedrich Schiller University (FSU) published her findings together with Jaana Viljaranta (University of Eastern Finland), Julia Moeller (Yale University) and Bärbel Kracke (FSU) on students’ expectations and efforts.

Motivation can be a fickle thing — if we are motivated, we can achieve a great deal, but if motivation is lacking, we are easily overwhelmed. And we all know people who give the impression of being highly motivated all the time, while others seem to be chronically lacking in drive.

Just how variable individual motivation can be is the subject of research by Dr Julia Dietrich of Friedrich Schiller University in Jena (FSU), and she has published her findings in the current issue of the journal ‘Learning & Instruction’. Together with Jaana Viljaranta (University of Eastern Finland), Julia Moeller (Yale University) and Bärbel Kracke (FSU), she investigated students’ expectations and efforts.

“It is known that motivation is an important factor for learning and performance, but research has so far been relatively general,” explains psychologist Dr Dietrich. To date, studies have primarily recorded how motivated people are in general and what drives them. “However, until now no one has studied the state of an individual’s motivation in a specific, time-limited situation, such as during a lecture or lesson at school,” she adds.

Three snapshots in a lecture

In order to determine this, during one semester 155 student teachers recorded their motivation three times within 90-minute lectures. “To do this they had to answer questions, which were always the same, during 10 lectures on Educational Psychology, either using their smartphone or on paper. Among other things, we wanted to know how competent they felt at that particular moment, whether they understood the material or found it a strain to follow the lecture. They were also asked whether they enjoyed the content of the lecture and whether they found it useful,” explains Dietrich.

Even the researchers were astounded by the results of the non-representative study, because motivation fluctuated much more strongly during the 90 minutes than had previously been assumed. During a lecture, every single participant experienced phases of high motivation and of strong demotivation — completely independently of the other students in relation to the timing of those phases. “Interests are of course specific to individuals. So far, at any rate, we have been unable to detect any systematic trends such as particular materials or topics that caused motivation to rise or fall in all participants,” reports Dietrich. “The causes for the fluctuations need to be considered more carefully in future, in order to make learning contexts as a whole more motivating.”

The study was also able to show how closely intertwined motivation and effort are. The more effort one makes, the more motivated one feels. The reverse is also true: “A person who is motivated also makes more effort,” the 33-year-old psychologist explains.

Deriving recommendations for teachers

According to Dietrich, the crucial thing is to recognise that every learning situation and every moment counts: lecturers can ‘lose’ students at any time as they address them in the lecture theatre, but they can also win them back again. In spite of differences between individuals, the task is now to develop initial practical recommendations for teacher training as regards, for example, content, teaching methods or the use of materials. In addition, the investigation demonstrates how teaching staff can obtain immediate evaluations of changes to course content or new methods, instead of having to wait until the end of a semester for an evaluation using a questionnaire.

Julia Dietrich studied Psychology in her home town of Erfurt, Germany, and obtained a PhD in Developmental Psychology from the University of Erfurt in 2010. She subsequently spent two years at the University of Helsinki. Since 2013 she has been a member of Prof. Bärbel Kracke’s team at the University of Jena’s Department of Educational Psychology. Here, Dietrich will be doing further research on the ‘dark side’ of motivation. Giving an insight into the team’s future work, she says: “There are people who are very motivated and perform very well, but find it a great effort. Investigating what it ‘costs’ them to study, so that they are not at risk of burn-out at some time, will be the aim of our future studies.”

 


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