Why Learn?


Perhaps one of the most important factors influencing how people learn is their motivation for doing so. An individual’s drive for acquiring new knowledge and skills has a dramatic impact on the process of learning and the effectiveness of that learning. We’ve all taken classes in high school or college that we didn’t want to take, but were told to. For me, that was statistics. I really disliked that class and, in fact, I failed it the first time. My second attempt wasn’t so great either, but I was able to “check the box” and get it done.

My motivation for taking that class was not internal, it was external. I didn’t take statistics because I had a goal to learn how to statistically analyze data. My only goal was to fulfill the requirement. There were other factors, too, that made it difficult for me to do well with that class:

  • I didn’t see tremendous value in the goal.
  • I had always struggled with the concept of statistics and I expected to have a difficult time.
  • I did not take advantage of the supportive environment that was there, tutors, to help me succeed.

Wrong goal. Not valuing a good goal. Wrong expectations. Not leveraging the environment.

It was all a recipe for failure.

A team of researchers has identified four factors that are important elements in the motivation for learning and development of new skills.1 Their research supported the fairly intuitive idea that a student’s motivation generates, directs, and sustains what they do to learn. That motivation is built on these four elements:

  • Goals for learning,
  • Value of the goals,
  • Expectancies for outcomes, and
  • Environment for success

These elements work together to build strong motivation for acquiring new knowledge and developing new skills. I’m going to explain each in a little more detail, focusing on the first two in this article and the others next week. Also, please consider acquiring the book that I’m pulling these lessons from. See the link in the endnotes for details.

First, there are many types of goals.2 Performance-approach goals focus on achieving a standard, while performance-avoidance goals focus on avoiding incompetence. There are also learning goals that drive students to actually learn information, concepts, and skills, not just how to perform tasks. Some people are driven by work-avoidant goals that focus on getting a task accomplished as fast as possible. Finally, another form of goal is social or affective, which focuses on connecting with others or the feelings that learning or its results produce.

As you can see, there are many forms of goals, and for any given person it is probable that different kinds of goals are operative at the same time. Further, there may even be conflicting goals. For example, someone who holds work-avoidant goals and social goals simultaneously might be looking for a way to get the task done quickly so that they have time to connect with friends and coworkers. However, if a peer has deeper level performance-approach and learning goals, the associated social goals and overall motivation strategies between these individuals are likely to conflict.

As a leader, it is not safe to assume that your employees have only positive, effective, or healthy learning goals. It is very likely each person holds a mix of good and bad goals, with the very real possibility that the bad goals are seriously undermining the impact of the good goals. Of course, this sabotages your educational strategies, which wastes money and undermines organizational performance.

Closely related to the issue of the types of goals people have for learning is the value that people see in those goals.3 In this context, “value” simply means importance. When presented with multiple options, people will almost always choose to pursue the activity that has the most perceived value, or importance, to them. (A related concept is the principle that it is impossible to act contrary to your actual values. For articles that address this, click here.) As a result, the relative importance that people see in their own learning goals has a large impact on their motivation for learning.

Similar to there being types of goals, there are also types of values. Attainment value is the satisfaction that someone gains from succeeding with a goal. Intrinsic value is the inherent value that someone sees in a goal—the gain realized by success alone. Instrumental value is seen when the goal is perceived to support other goals.

It should be no surprise that the various types of values usually exist in combination with one another. Unlike types of goals, the types of values do not usually conflict. They tend to be reinforcing of one another.

So, practically speaking, you can see that the two issues of (1) the types of goals and (2) the value that people see in their goals start to form a critical foundation for motivation. Goals and values, explicit or implicit, are critical in all areas of life, not just learning. However, when helping employees learn new knowledge and develop new skills it is important to discern these factors from the employees’ perspective.

This is rarely done, though, because it is not a straightforward task. It is not easy to discern what peoples’ goals are and why they are important to them. In fact, most people have difficulty articulating their own goals and motivations.

I propose that the first step in solving this problem is dialogue.

When employees, trainers, and leaders engage in an open dialogue about one another’s goals and values in learning, discovery takes place. Most importantly, a process of self-discovery occurs that can transform each person’s approach to and results in learning. Second, as a group, when exploring these ideas together, people begin to see how their goals and values might be mutually supporting and reinforcing. This has the potential to to transform the organizational culture.

Next week, I will explore how people’s expectancies for learning and how supportive learning environments impact learning.


Other Articles In This Series

Learn. Grow. Change.
How Does Learning Work?
Assess What You Know
Knowledge Webs


Related Articles On Values

Values, Needs, and Goals in Negotiation
Values of Leaders and Managers—Part II
Finding the 80%-ers Part II

Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at]LeadStrategic.com with your questions.

Photo “What’s Important” by Valerie Everett. Available at Flickr.com.

1: Susan A. Ambrose, Michael W. Bridges, Marsha C. Lovett, Michele DiPietro, and Marie K. Norman. How Learning Works: 7 Research-based Principles for Smart Thinking (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2010), chapter 3.
2: Ambrose et al., How Learning Works, 70-74.
3: Ambrose et al., How Learning Works, 74-76.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.