Motivation… It’s All in the Mind


We all know that the key to academic success for students is motivation, but what exactly does it take to motivate kids these days?  Two recent studies have shed light on this complicated issue.  The following is a recap from my interview on Washington DC’s talk radio station, WTOP on September 10, 2014.

 Q: At the beginning of the school year, almost every parent thinks about how they can help to motivate their child.  What does this new research reveal?

Part of academic motivation, the inner desire to do well in school, has to do with how kids deal with setbacks.  At some point, every student is going to get a poor grade or have to deal with a teacher they don’t like.  And sometimes, when students get bad grade, for example, they decide that they will study differently and do better the next time, but other students easily give up.  This new study out of Rutgers University published in the journal, Neutron, finds that there are actually two distinct parts of the brain in the frontal lobe that handle the crisis.  Whether a student processes from one or the other part depends on how much control he feels in the situation.  So, let’s go back to that bad exam grade.  If the student feels that he has control over the situation, and past experience has shown him that by studying more often or using different methods he can do better, he will process that information from a part of the brain called the ventral striatum.  On the other hand, if the student feels there’s nothing he can do and the situation is out of his control, he’s processing the emotion differently.  So for example, if he blames it on an unfair test or a bad teacher, he’s far less likely to experience any sort of academic motivation.

Q: How can a parent help their child process setbacks differently?

This study shows that when students were presented with ways to overcome the setback, they were more likely to have a positive outlook.  Let’s say your child is working on his homework and says to you, “I can believe I have so much homework tonight.  I’ll never get through all of this!”  You could say, “If you pay attention you can get it done” which may not allow the child to feel like the work is manageable; however, by saying, “Let’s break this down into chunks over the next two hours”, your child is more likely to feel that by doing parts at a time, getting all the work done is probable.  In other words, helping the child to feel in control is likely to improve a positive outlook, which in turn, improves motivation.

 Q: It sounds like it’s all about the messaging.  What if you have a child who is clearly very smart, but isn’t doing as well in school as you would expect?

For a long time, we’ve known that the key to perseverance in the face of obstacles is hard work.  We’ve known that kids will produce more effort when they are praised with comments such as “You worked really hard!” after a task, but will actually perform worse when they hear “You’re so smart; that’s why you did well.” When students tie performance with intelligence, they believe that they are either smart or they’re not, and there’s not much they can do about it.  But when they feel the outcome is controllable, such as by exerting more effort, they are far more willing to try harder.

But we’ve never had physiological evidence to support those findings.  This new study published in Biological Psychology found a positive brain activity.  Participants in the study were divided into two groups.  One group read an article about da Vinci and Einstein that reported that their intelligence was largely genetic; while the other article purported that their brilliance was “probably due to a challenging environment and that their genius had little to do with genetics.”  Then, the people in both groups completed simple computer tasks while their brain activity was recorded.

  • The group that read intelligence was mostly genetic paid more attention to their responses, as if they were more concerned with right and wrong answers. But this extra attention did not help them to perform better.
  • On the other hand, those who had read that intelligence was due to a challenging environment and hard work showed a more efficient brain response after they made a mistake. The more attention these participants paid to mistakes, the faster their responses were on the next trial.

Q: What’s the take away as students in the DC area settle in to a new school year?

This new research suggests that the ways in which parents and teachers approach students can make a difference in how their brain processes the information and ultimately, in their level of motivation.  Be sure your child knows how she can overcome obstacles.  For example, if she receives a bad grade, could a tutor help or could she stay after school for extra assistance?  Also be sure that you praise your child’s effort and not her intelligence.  This alone will contribute to a more positive mindset.