Why Learn? (Part II)


What’s the most significant thing you accomplished in your life? What is that thing that you worked hard for and that required you to make a big commitment and learn a great deal. Perhaps it was running a marathon, or restoring an antique car, or earning an academic degree, or achieving a professional certification. Whatever it is, you needed motivation to get it done. Your motivation had to be supported by goals that you valued, an expectancy that you could accomplish the goal, and support for your learning and growth. Without those elements, your motivation would weaken, and you might not have completed the journey.

Last week I explored the first two of four elements of motivation for learning:

  • Goals for learning, and
  • The value of those goals.

In brief, I explained the kinds of goals that people have for learning. These include performance-approach and avoidance goals, depth and mastery goals, and social/relational goals. We cannot discuss types of goals without considering the value, or importance, we place on those goals, which also occur in different types. Attainment, intrinsic, and instrumental values are explained in Part I of this artilcle. (The book How Learning Works explores all of this and six other principles in great detail.)

When considering how people learn, in addition to goals and values, we must also consider expectancies for outcomes in learning and the environment in which the learning takes place. Together, goals, value of the goals, expectancies for outcomes, and the learning environment all combine to create more or less motivation for learning. Let’s explore the latter two factors.

Expectancies of outcomes are built on two important elements:

  • Belief that my action will yield outcomes, and
  • Belief that I am capable of a course of action.

If you have high belief that your actions will achieve an expected outcome, you are more motivated to take that action. In the context of learning, if you believe that your participation in lesson plans, study activities, lectures, readings, quizzes and tests…whatever has been prescribed…will result in accomplishment of your learning goals, which you also value, you are more likely to take those actions.

Related to your beliefs about the actions are your beliefs about your own ability to take those actions. This is referred to as self-efficacy. The theoretical construct of self-efficacy was first proposed by Albert Bandura. The Oxford Dictionary of Psychology defined self-efficacy as “beliefs about one’s ability or competence to bring about intended results.” Self-efficacy is a powerful aspect of our cognitive processes and impacts every aspect of daily living, including learning.

Not only must I have a goal for learning, and value that goal, and believe that certain actions will achieve that goal, but I must also believe I am capable of completing those actions.

I’ve seen what low or missing self-efficacy looks like on many occasions with people in learning and coaching situations. They have the goal. They value that goal. They believe that the prescribed course of action can achieve the goal. But when they examine their thoughts and beliefs about the ability to successfully complete the actions, their countenance falls and the conversation reveals their expectancy of failure and leads to talk of quitting.

On the other hand, in the face of adversity (a challenging goal, and a challenging course of action, and perhaps even negative feedback about previous actions), people with high self-efficacy focus on strategies to improve, correct missing or wrong knowledge and skills, and to seek out help.

That latter piece, seeking out help, alludes to the fourth and final element of motivation for learning: a supportive environment.

Supportive environments play an equally important role in the motivation for learning. What is a supportive environment? It depends greatly on the context of learning (for the context is the environment). Some of the considerations include the classroom or training center, the fellow students, whether resources are provided to support learning (and their fit and quality), the attitude and approach of the teacher, and so on.

It is important to recognize that the degree to which the environment is supportive is not an isolated factor. It does not influence the motivation for learning on its own. The type of environment interacts deeply with the value of the goals and the student’s self-efficacy. See the graphic below for an illustration of this interaction.

2015-03-09 Supplemental

As you can see, and is intuitively evident, when a student’s environment is supportive, when they see value in the learning goals, and when they have high self-efficacy regarding the learning activities, they will be highly motivated to learn.

Who has responsibility for creation of a supportive learning environment? Some of the responsibility certainly belongs to the student. They often have the ability to choose study partners. (Are they also motivated?) They often choose where to engage in self-directed learning activities. (Is the TV on?)

However, much of the responsibility belongs to those providing the instruction, though. What is the attitude and teaching approach of instructors? Do they truly desire success for the student? Do they help remove barriers to learning? Do they provide and point them to helpful resources? Do they provide meaningful feedback that helps them build on what is working and correct what is not?

Building a supportive environment requires effort and what works is often most clear to the students. Ask them what they need!

In summary, students with strong learning goals, which they value and have positive expectancies for outcomes, and that have a supportive learning environment, will be highly motivated to learn. As an instructor or organizational leader, this sets a high bar for creating a true learning and growth environment. Can you encourage and facilitate these dimensions among your students and followers? You need to have students who are committed to learning, but yes, you can, step by step, make great strides in helping others develop high motivation for learning.

Chapter 3 of How Learning Works has several pages of ideas to accomplish this. I strongly encourage you to acquire the book so that you can start implementing new strategies.

Other Articles In This Series

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

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.

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