Failure of Extrinsic Motivation

One alternative to forcing children to memorize facts is to bribe them to do it with prizes, candy, grades, and so on. Educational psychologists call this "extrinsic motivation." Extrinsic motivation has been used in some schools for years, although there is evidence to show that far from encouraging learning, it actually undermines it. Extrinsic motivation addresses the first stage of the natural learning waterfall: it gives students goals. Students want to get the prize, so they are willing to play by the rules of the game the teacher sets up. But unfortunately, it fails on the second stage. Students learn to see the knowledge the teacher wishes to convey as a way to win the prize rather than something interesting to know on its own. They do not see it as something useful in its own right. So they do not generate questions about it. And once the prize has been achieved, students no longer have any motivation to retain what they have learned.

Students who are naturally curious when faced with an extrinsic reward do generate questions, but those questions have little to do with the content the teacher wishes to convey. Instead the questions are of the nature of: "How can I bend the rules to win the game?" or "What's the least amount of effort I can put in and still satisfy the teacher?"

A better way to motivate students to learn dull material is to give them the opportunity to achieve some goal that satisfies two conditions: One, that students have had a real interest in the goal, and two, that the uninteresting information is "intrinsically" related to the goal; in order to achieve the goal, one sometimes must use the uninteresting information. Having the goal and the facts occupy the same turf helps a great deal. Not only does it make the facts seem less trivial, it allows students to properly index those facts. They learn them in a context in which they can later use.

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