Understanding motivation — and apathy — is key to education

Understanding motivation — and apathy — is key to education

In learning, motivation is the key to success. Students who are not motivated to learn generally do not fare well. But there are various kinds of motivation.



In learning, motivation is the key to success. Students who are not motivated to learn generally do not fare well. But there are various kinds of motivation. A student can be highly motivated because he is curious or interested in a subject, or he wants to gain the approval of his parents or teachers. If it is the former, he is said to be intrinsically motivated: He acts for the fun of achieving something he really cares for, and not because he is afraid of losing face or being punished. From birth, humans are generally active, curious and ready to learn and discover. This innate motivation is the key to growth and development, and our self-directed ability to survive. It is this interest in novelty and being creative that leads to success in life.Motivation can be enhanced or diminished by outside value. One student does his homework because he worries about his parents’ reaction; another wants to do well in school so he can pursue a particular path. Both are eternally motivated, but they are different in critical ways: One does his work out of fear, the other for a goal.

Since most school subjects are not intrinsically interesting, how do we motivate students to value these endeavours?

Positive feedback about competence increases self-directed motivation, whereas negative performance feedback diminishes it. But importantly, good feedback must also be accompanied by a sense of independence in order to result in increased self-directed motivation.

Large-scale studies have shown that tangible rewards and threats diminish self-directed motivation, partly because they are perceived as reducing independence and increasing outside control. Conversely, choice and opportunity enhance motivation by promoting independence.

Classroom studies in schools show that teachers who promote independent thinking catalyse greater curiosity and motivation. Students who are excessively controlled lose creativity and learn less well, especially when learning is complex or requires abstract, creative dispensation. Children of parents who support independent thinking do better in terms of creativity and curiosity.

In the long term, when the reasons for an action are internalised and assimilated by an individual, even extrinsically motivated actions can become intrinsic. A person might get involved with an activity because of, say, a reward. But that exposure might lead the person to develop an interest that by itself provides satisfaction.

Conversely, an individual who liked the value of an activity could lose interest because of a controlling teacher. He could then move back to where the only reason for taking part would be for external reward.

The major concern here is apathy — the opposite of motivation. People can develop apathy about a subject over time because they feel undervalued or incompetent, or because they do not see much point in pursuing such an activity. It can result if they are subject to persistent negative feedback or constant reinforcement with rewards or threats.

In sum, intrinsic motivation leads to positive enjoyment and competence. Greater extrinsic motivation with independence and engagement promotes better performance, fewer dropouts and higher quality learning with greater psychological health.

Understanding motivation and its development is necessary for successful education — especially one that promotes independence, creativity and critical self-directed behaviour and thinking.

K Ranga Krishnan is Dean of the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School Singapore. A clinician-scientist and psychiatrist, he chaired the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences at Duke University Medical Centre from 1998 to 2009.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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