Surfacing Intrinsic Motivation in Project-based & Self-Directed Learning Envioronments

Not every student in a project-based or self-directed learning environment will be excited about this new model. It takes more effort. It is counter to many of the school success strategies learned through years of a traditional model. There are often new skills, disciplines and dispositions that one needs to nurture to get the most of out of these experiences. And yet, almost everyone has been engaged by a project-based or self-directed learning experience at some point in life. As a result, teachers in PBL and self-directed environments quickly learn that calling it PBL or self-directed is not adequate motivation for all students. Not every student instantly gets excited about the idea of getting immersed or even lost in a project or inquiry. For this reason, I find it helpful to go back to instructional design basics. In fact, I still go back to Lepper and Malone’s 1987 chapter on Making Learning Fun: A Taxonomy of Intrinsic Motivations for Learning. In this chapter, they outline six types of intrinsic motivators for learning: challenge, curiosity, power, fantasy, cooperation and competition, and recognition. They offer teachers (and students) ways to think about addressing low motivation while still advocating for the growth and development of self-directed learners.

1. Challenge

A student tends to be more intrinsically motivated when there is a right challenge fit. Csikszentmihalyi writes about this in his work on Flow. Challenge is not simply about deciding what is the right level of challenge for a student. There is more subjectivity it. A student may have immense competence in an area but lose motivation when having to work on a challenge that is well within her abilities. That is because challenge is more about the learner’s perception of both the challenge and her own skills related to that challenge.

Understanding a student’s self-esteem becomes important in finding the right challenge fit. We begin to address challenge by helping learners establish goals that are appropriately challenging, but have a stretch element to them. A measure of uncertainty about whether one can accomplish the goal can help with motivation, granted that it is not too much uncertainty. We want a goal that is the right level of challenge, difficult enough to be worthy of pursuit, but not so difficult as to instill a sense of certain failure.

Also, when working with students who are new to PBL or self-directed learning, it is useful to start with shorter term goals. Just like it can be helpful for an aspiring marathoner to start with the goal of a 5K, it is helpful for a student to begin with a shorter term project. Without hope of success, motivation plummets, so figuring out challenge becomes critical.  Feedback also becomes important. If students are uncertain about their ability to face a challenge, more frequent feedback may be necessary at first to help build confidence. Keep in mind, however, that low self-esteem in academic areas may have built up for over a decade, so a few days or weeks will probably not be enough to help build the confidence to embrace and overcome significant academic challenges. Given this fact, small but significant PBL wins will help students build the confidence to face larger challenges.

There is another element to this in some environments, and that is the confidence deflation that comes from seeing other students work on projects that seem more significant. In a traditional class, some students get higher grades than others, but everyone is generally working on the same things. In a PBL or self-directed learning environment, the wide spectrum of student projects becomes clear. This can motivate and inspire some students while demotivating others. There is still benefit in these comparisons (as I will mention later), but beware of the impact on self-esteem as well.

2. Curiosity

Lepper and Malone distinguish between two types of curiosity, sensory and cognitive (p. 235). The first has to do with the physical senses. As such, it is useful to ask if the learning spaces and the available learning resources are stimulating. How are the senses engaged? This is why Maria Montessori’s philosophy of education pays so much attention to the environment and the learning resources in that environment. Take a few minutes and browse the web for images of Motesorri classrooms. It doesn’t take long to get the idea. Cognitive curiosity, however, relates to the drive for us to make sense of things. When we are convinced that we do not have a clear understanding of something that is important to us or that our understanding is incomplete, that can conjure cognitive curiosity. Or, if something in our thinking is inconsistent with reality, that too evokes curiosity (p. 236).

Learning to ask questions that spark curiosity is, therefore, a valuable skill for teacher and student. This is not just an exercise in creating lists of interesting questions about a subject. If it is going to awaken intrinsic motivation through curiosity, it must be about surfacing inconsistencies, incompleteness, and a lack of clarity about something of personal importance.

3. Control

As with challenge, we are not just talking about the objective measure of control given to students in the learning environment. We are referring to the perceived amount of control. The perception of control impacts motivation more than the reality of it (p. 238). So, if you see unmotivated learners in a context, what is their perception of control?

One way to get at this is to make sure student choice is available, choice about what questions to pursue and how to pursue them. This does not mean making everything completely open-ended, as that can overwhelm (think back to challenge) and de-motivate. Lepper a Malone suggest that 5-7 choices is ideal for many environments. Or, if there are unlimited choices, it will help to offer clear guidance on how to narrow things down (p. 239). Regardless, giving choice or increasing the perception of choice elevates intrinsic motivation.

Related to choice is also the concept of power, where a learner’s choices have obvious and significant implications. When a learner can see that her choices made a large difference, this impacts motivation. This is another reason feedback and shorter projects can help build intrinsic motivation, because both are ways to show the impact of a person’s individual choices (p. 239).

4. Fantasy

In the original chapter by Lepper and Malone, their reference to fantasy is in the context of games and learning, so my reflection here may deviate well beyond their intended use of the term. Malone’s work in the early 1980s on the concept of fantasy is also a worthwhile read. Malone worked from the following definition of fantasy, “mental images of things not present to the senses or within the actual experience of the person involved” (p. 56). This can be effective with teacher-directed project-based learning by building a project into an immersive fantasy experience. It can also be used for student-directed PBL…for more self-directed learning contexts.

Helping students learn how to use their imagination with regard to projects can be a powerful motivator. Invite students to imagine the potential impact of their project upon one or more people. Encourage students to use fantasy and imagination as they work on their projects. They might, for example, create fictional characters for whom they are designing the project.

5. Cooperation and Competition

While I am admittedly do not think about leveraging competition, there are ways that people do so in PBL and/or self-directed learning contexts, like having students pitch ideas, and a panel rates their performance, perhaps giving a first, second and third place. Or, there might be a more objective element of competition, with people or groups competing to create an object that has the largest impact in some way. Think of projects where groups are given $10 with the goal of having the greatest social impact with the money. Or, there are the popular projects around protecting an egg with some sort of design, or creating a paper airplane that can fly the greatest distance.

Similarly, charging entire classes or groups to work together in the accomplishment of a significant challenge or socially relevant project can be a powerful motivator. As noted in Bartle’s gamer psychology test, there are killers, achievers, socializers, and explorers. The killers and socializers in the groups may well discover a compelling motivator through such learning experiences.

6. Recognition

This may seem like extrinsic motivation, but Lepper and Malone describe recognition as intrinsic because it comes from a need for approval or recognition. This is an area that is often highlighted by project-based learning advocates, noting the benefit of an authentic audience for the product. However, recognition can also be used throughout the process by making learner progress, discoveries and developments more visible to the community throughout the learning experience. A class blog, practice presentations, frequent show and tell exercises and the like build opportunities for recognition throughout the PBL process. Give it a try and see how it impacts the motivation of different learners.

Motivation Conclusion

Project-based learning and self-directed learning environments have many exciting possibilities and affordances, but they do not usually happen by chance. Teachers still play a valuable role in designing spaces and contexts that lead to motivation. Teachers can construct motivating learning challenges and experiences, and helping students learn to motivate themselves. As such, these six approaches are a good starting place.