Internal motivation is a key factor in accomplishing just about anything, from daily tasks to lifetime goals and dreams. But why do we seem to have a surplus of motivation one day, while on other days we can barely muster the energy to get off the couch?
A new study, published in the journal Learning & Instruction, suggests a strong two-way link between motivation and effort — the more effort one makes, the more motivated one feels, and vice versa. The findings also show that study participants experienced extreme fluctuations in motivation, from feeling highly motivated to extremely unmotivated, within the short time frame of an hour and a half.
“It is known that motivation is an important factor for learning and performance, but research has so far been relatively general,” said researcher Dr. Julia Dietrich, a psychologist at Friedrich Schiller University Jena in Germany. To date, studies have primarily recorded how motivated people are in general and what drives them.
“However, until now no one has studied the state of an individual’s motivation in a specific, time-limited situation, such as during a lecture or lesson at school,” she said.
For the study, 155 student teachers were asked to record their motivation three times within 90-minute lectures throughout one semester.
“To do this they had to answer questions, which were always the same, during 10 lectures on Educational Psychology, either using their smartphone or on paper. Among other things, we wanted to know how competent they felt at that particular moment, whether they understood the material or found it a strain to follow the lecture. They were also asked whether they enjoyed the content of the lecture and whether they found it useful,” said Dietrich.
The results were surprising. The researchers found that motivation fluctuated much more strongly during the 90 minutes than they had previously assumed. During a lecture, every single participant experienced phases of high motivation and of strong demotivation, completely independently of the other students in relation to the timing of those phases.
“Interests are of course specific to individuals. So far, at any rate, we have been unable to detect any systematic trends such as particular materials or topics that caused motivation to rise or fall in all participants,” said Dietrich. “The causes for the fluctuations need to be considered more carefully in future, in order to make learning contexts as a whole more motivating.”
The study was also able to show the close two-way link between motivation and effort. The more effort one makes, the more motivated one feels. The reverse is also true: “A person who is motivated also makes more effort,” said Dietrich.
According to Dietrich, the important thing to remember is that every learning situation and every moment counts; lecturers can “lose” students at any point during class, but they can also win them back again.
Dietrich will be doing further research on the “dark side” of motivation. “There are people who are very motivated and perform very well, but find it a great effort. Investigating what it ‘costs’ them to study, so that they are not at risk of burnout at some time, will be the aim of our future studies,” she said.