Motivation in learning

Suppose you’re designing a learning tool and you want to amp up the motivation. You decide to show a graph of the user’s learning progress. Of course on your awesome learning environment, people will be learning all the time, so it’s going to look like this, right? Users will see that they are getting more and more awesome, they’ll feel awesome, and they’ll come back every day to keep learning.

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The problem is, when learning looks like this, the learner is already well aware that they are kicking ass. Your graph is the banner at an election party. Maybe it ties together the scene, but everyone already knows what’s going on.

The reason that motivation is a persistent unsolved problem in education is that learning doesn’t look like that. Learning is filled with plateaus and pits because confusion is the very nature of learning. Learning–in the very best case–looks more like this:

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Keep in mind those plateaus can be on the order of months such that we forget what a jump feels like. Which, by the way, happened so quickly and changed our thinking so rapidly that we barely noticed it!

Motivation hackers have countered with the theory of small wins: if we decrease the delay before some kind of reward, we will feel more motivated. But what does that really mean in the big picture–at least when it comes to learning? It means we are zooming into this graph and increasing the number of little upward bumps on the plateau. That is what spaced repetition is good at: keep increasing the frequency of missed items such that the correctness ratio remains around 90%. But our unconscious, in the end, can’t be tricked like that. Once we’re used to spaced repetition, we know that the missed cards are piling up, rather than the new ones we want to get to. We might feel the joy of a small win, but it will be paired with the pain of even more small losses. Moreover, we know that we just aren’t learning that much.

What about games? Given that games are so fun and addictive, many believe they hold the secret to education’s motivation problems. According to Raph Koster’s Theory of Fun, what makes game fun is…wait for it…learning! While games can sometimes teach educators about pacing, game designers have the luxury of not having to include anything with too long of a plateau. They get to choose the domain, but when we discuss learning as a more practical matter, that isn’t possible.

So you want to create instruction a domain and that contains concepts with long plateaus. Your best option has nothing to do with motivation but rather is to improve instruction such that the plateaus are shorter. Beyond that, I’m not too sure. I think it’s part of why “detachment from the illusions of self” is part of shuhari, a Japanese martial arts conception of mastery: one must get over the idea of that they need to be better all the time. In addition, learners need a deeply held belief both that what they are striving for is important (“when are we ever going to use this?”) and that the periods of stagnation are essential to growth. Maybe the graph to show, if you can do it convincingly, is the plateau another learner was on before achieving their next jump. And the cool stuff they did after a certain number of those jumps.