Considered one of the essential elements for success in learning, motivation is a remarkably complex phenomenon. Over the decades, however, the field of education has been able to draw on abundant literature on the subject to improve its pedagogical and andragogical approaches. More recently, neuroscience has provided new keys to understanding the phenomenon based on the observation of its mechanisms in the brain. Inspired in part by the synthesis proposed by professor and researcher in neuroeducation Steve Masson, here are some discoveries in the form of a quiz that will undoubtedly change your perception of motivation in learning.
1. True or false? Motivation is a prerequisite for success.
You will find the answer at the end of the quiz 😉
2. Which of the following statements about effort is incorrect?
A) Before making an effort, the brain makes a cost-benefit assessment.
B) In the brain, effort results in the activation of the prefrontal cortex.
C) The concept of effort is not central to the definition of motivation.
Motivation is a complex phenomenon that is difficult to define, among other things, because it involves several factors that we all have in common (physiological, psychological, environmental factors, etc.), but also individual factors. However, most researchers agree on defining it as “the will to act to achieve a goal, despite the effort required.” Therefore, the notion of effort is central to the definition of motivation since if a goal can be achieved without effort, then there is no need to be motivated.
In the brain, effort results in the activation of the prefrontal cortex, the “control center” responsible for higher cognitive functions, including the ability to analyze information and to identify and correct mistakes. The brain can be said to have two major systems housed in the prefrontal cortex: an effort system and a reward system. Before making an effort, the brain evaluates the costs (effort) and benefits (improvement, success, etc. – which manifests itself in a sense of satisfaction, a reward generated by a release of dopamine) before making an effort.)
3. Which of the following factors has a significant influence on the cost-benefit assessment made by the brain?
A) Our personal belief in our ability to improve.
B) The belief of others in our ability to improve.
C) Our age.
While it is true that we can be influenced by others’ beliefs about our ability to improve (see Cognitive Bias in Education: The Pygmalion Effect), one of the most important factors in our brain’s cost-benefit assessment is our own belief in our ability to improve. There are several equivalent notions to define this factor, including the feeling of self-efficacy (strong or weak), which is due to Albert Bandura and has been discussed in our articles, and the mindset (dynamic or fixed), which is due to Carol S. Dweck and which is the most commonly used in research on learning motivation. Believing in one’s ability to improve in a given activity is associated with a strong sense of self-efficacy or a mindset described as “dynamic.” On the contrary, doubting one’s ability to improve in a given activity is associated with a low sense of self-efficacy or a “fixed” mindset.
The good news is that the sense of self-efficacy/mindset is relatively flexible, i.e., it is possible to change it, to believe that one can change and thus improve – which is manifested in the brain by the activation of mechanisms in the prefrontal cortex. Experiencing mastery and success in a given activity is the most influential of the four sources identified by Bandura for enhancing feelings of self-efficacy. Research on mindset, meanwhile, indicates that it is possible to move from a fixed to a dynamic mindset relatively quickly and that a dynamic mindset is associated with greater mobilization of effort, error detection, and correction mechanisms, as well as better performance after error correction than a fixed mindset (Schroder et al., 2014; Moser et al., 2011).
4. True or false? Explaining to learners that the brain’s connections change when they learn is a way to stimulate them to develop a dynamic mindset.
One study concluded that knowing about brain plasticity (or neuroplasticity), the ability of the brain to change during learning and thus improve, promotes the emergence of a dynamic mindset and stimulates attention and error correction mechanisms (Schroder et al., 2014). The study was conducted with two groups of learners, one of whom was asked to read a text presenting brain plasticity – which was assumed to put forward a dynamic state of mind – while the other was read an informative text on memory that did not evoke in any way the brain’s ability to improve. Following this reading, the participants underwent an analysis and correction exercise during which their brain activation was measured. A significant increase in brain activation was noted in the learners who read the text on brain plasticity. The difference in brain activation between the two groups corresponded to the difference between a dynamic and a fixed mindset.
5. With what type(s) of feedback can a teacher foster a dynamic mindset in their learners?
A) By attributing success to talent.
B) By attributing success only to effort.
C) By attributing success to a process.
D) By focusing on negative feedback (correcting mistakes) and avoiding positive feedback (highlighting successes).
To foster a dynamic mindset in learners, a teacher needs to provide consistent feedback with the idea that everyone can improve, as the brain has plasticity. The most powerful type of feedback presents success as a process involving effort and effective study strategies, both of which the learner can control. It is worth noting that neuroscience has uncovered a four-step process that the brain needs to learn successfully.
To avoid fostering a more fixed mindset in learners, it is best to refrain from attributing success and failure strictly to talent or effort. While one may have some talent in a subject, mastery never comes without effort; and if one wants as a teacher to encourage learners to explore the range of their potential, one must avoid having them throw in the towel early on by attributing their setbacks to a factor beyond their control. In terms of effort, it is important to keep in mind that a learner may fail because of ineffective study strategies; and if they have put in a lot of effort, attributing their failure to a lack of effort will be demotivating and will not help them determine the real source of the problem.
Receiving positive and negative feedback activates the reward system and triggers a dopamine release in the brain (Wilkinson et al., 2014). While so-called “negative” feedback, which aims to correct, is essential, positive feedback, which involves highlighting successes, should definitely not be overlooked. Indeed, it has been found that positive feedback leads to the most significant activation of the striatum, the small nerve structure below the cortex that is an integral part of the reward system in the brain and releases dopamine, among other things (DePasque & Tricomi, 2014). The more successful a learner is, the more their reward system activates and releases dopamine, and the resulting feeling of pleasure and satisfaction reinforces the behaviour in question. Thus, feedback has not only an informative but also a motivational role. The same study also observed that the reward system is activated even more when the challenge is perceived as being more difficult (without being too hard) rather than too easy. It should be noted that the link between better performance and a more challenging task – one that remains within the competence limits of the individual performing it – has been demonstrated by numerous empirical studies (Locke and Latham, 2002; Latham, 2007; Latham and Locke, 2007).
6. Select the correct term to complete each of the following statements describing what comes from cultivating a dynamic mindset.
Terms: this association, motivation, effort, your chances
A) You increase __________ of success.
B) The effort (including error correction) and reward systems tend to interconnect. In other words, the more effort led to success, the stronger __________ becomes in the brain.
C) The cost-benefit analysis tends to trigger _________ again.
D) In the long run, this promotes the emergence of a virtuous circle of _________.
The complete correct statements are:
A) You increase your chances of success.
B) The effort (including error correction) and reward systems tend to interconnect. In other words, the more effort led to success, the stronger this association becomes in the brain.
C) The cost-benefit analysis tends to trigger effort again.
D) In the long run, this promotes the emergence of a virtuous circle of motivation.
CORRECT ANSWER TO QUESTION 1
Although it is recognized that motivation and success are closely linked in any learning process, the latter is generally presented as being dependent on the former. However, some studies, including that of Garon-Carrier et al. (2016), support the process described in this quiz, according to which success appears to be a prerequisite for motivation. This finding highlights, among other things, the importance of ensuring as a teacher that learners know and use effective learning strategies in order to maximize their chances of success and thus stimulate their motivation.
In all cases, it is beneficial to encourage the emergence of a dynamic mindset among learners by emphasizing that everyone can improve because their brains are endowed with plasticity, and learning is a process on which they can act. It is also important that the learning proposed, without being too difficult, challenges the learner and ensures that regular feedback is given not only to correct mistakes but also to highlight successes.