How to destroy motivation

Some days I just get tired of collecting everything. Every handout, every practice problem, every reflection, every quick quiz. I know students benefit from practice, but the paperwork volume is enough to give me a migraine.

Like most teachers I know, I wish my students would sometimes — just sometimes — do work for the sake of practice and check their own answers without needing my attention to make it worthwhile.

But this week I read about an experiment on motivation in Dan Ariely’s The Upside of Irrationality, and it made me realize that students’ longing for our feedback and attention isn’t a sign of immaturity or neediness. It’s human nature.

If we want to understand motivation, we need to know this.

Ariely, a psychology professor at Duke, describes a series of experiments he and several colleagues performed. In one of them, conducted with volunteer participants at the Harvard student center, the experimenters created a simple task and offered to pay people for doing it. Basically, they asked each volunteer to read a page of text and locate 10 instances of the letters “ss” appearing together. Once they found them all, they would be paid — $0.55 for the first sheet and a decreasing amount for each additional sheet.

The volunteers were randomly assigned to three conditions:

  1. Acknowledged. The participants wrote their names on each sheet, and when they handed them in, the experimenter looked over their work and nodded in a positive way.
  2. Ignored. The participants didn’t write their names, and the experimenter took their work and put it in a pile without looking at it.
  3. Shredded. The participants didn’t write their names, and the experimenter immediately fed their work into a paper shredder — right before their eyes.

Although all three groups were getting paid the same amount, and the participants in groups 2 and 3 surely realized they could have cheated and easily gotten the payment, participants in those groups on average completed 30 percent fewer sheets than those who had received a simple nod.

Oddly, there was very little difference in performance between those who watched the experimenter shred their work and those who were merely ignored.

“This experiment taught us that sucking the meaning out of work is surprisingly easy,” Ariely concluded in his typically ironic tone. “If you’re a manager who really wants to demotivate your employees, destroy their work in front of their eyes. Or if you want to be a little subtler about it, just ignore them and their efforts.

“On the other hand, if you want to motivate people working with you and for you, it would be useful to pay attention to them, their effort, and the fruit of their labor.”

My thoughts immediately turned to the many bureaucratic forms and hoops I have had to jump through in years of professional evaluation, professional development and licensure renewals. I have wondered so many times — does anyone really read this stuff? And I’ve felt my own motivation sap away.

Then I realized — of course, this is the same thing that happens to my students! The task in Ariely’s experiment was meaningless — unlike my class assignments, of course — but he has done other similar experiments with tasks the participants actually enjoyed, like building complicated Lego sets. The results consistently show that ignoring a person’s work saps their motivation to continue.

So yes, we must pay attention to the work we ask our students to do. All of it.

It would be nice to imagine a world in which I could ask students to practice drawing supply and demand graphs and monitoring their own progress, without needing my attention, but that’s not the way human beings operate. Like all of us, students will work a lot harder if they feel like their work is valued.

Pay attention to them, their effort, and their fruit of their labor. Good advice for all of us.