Student motivation journal club: If it’s bigger than you, the boring is worth it: the power of self-transcendent motivation on menial tasks

Guest post by Faith Rovenolt, CFT undergraduate intern, and Heather Fedesco, CFT Assistant Director

Unfortunately, it’s hard to avoid the boring in learning. Inevitably, even in the most exciting fields, students need to learn and do a boring, menial, or repetitive task. In STEM, this is especially true. You can’t learn to plot the path of a rocket without first knowing algebra, and oftentimes, students might not even have the bigger picture to frame why they might be learning something. This leaves students frustrated and bored, and in the modern era, surrounded by dozens of other more interesting things that are far more distracting than a math problem set. Why chant through Latin declensions when there are social media and the latest season of a show on Netflix?

Work done by Yeager and colleagues sheds light on how students can be motivated to endure such menial tasks that are still important for their learning. In their paper, “Boring but Important: A Self-Transcendent Purpose for Learning Fosters Academic Self-Regulation”, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, they discuss the power of self-transcendent motivation, taking the topic from its correlational discovery to interventions to elucidate the mechanisms.

First, the authors define two aspects of a student’s purpose for learning:

  1. Self-interest, or how a task (potentially) benefits the self, through an enjoyment of the material or a perceived benefit to a future career (Eccles & Wigfield, 1995)
  2. Self-transcendence, or motives that transcend self and include how a task may serve others or improve the world (Damon, Menon, & Bronk, 2003; Frankl, 1963; Koltko-Rivera, 2006; Maslow, 1969; Schwartz, 1992; also see Eccles, 2009)

So altogether, “a purpose for learning [is] a goal that is motivated both by an opportunity to benefit the self and by the potential to have some effect on or connection to the world beyond the self.” This purpose for learning, as well as self-regulation, is key to students accomplishing a task. Self-regulation includes “grit” and self-control, or the commitment of a student to remain focused and pursue a task to completion.

In this paper, the authors conducted four studies to investigate whether “a higher order, self-transcendent purpose for learning in school would promote academic self-regulation on tedious schoolwork.”

  1. Study 1: An Initial Correlational Investigation
  2. Study 2: A Longitudinal Intervention Experiment
  3. Study 3: Deeper Learning During Tedious Multiple-Choice Questions
  4. Study 4: Working Hard in the Face of Temptations

Their first study established a connection between self-transcendent motives and long-term college retention in students.

  • Who: More than a 1000 seniors in urban high schools; most were in low income households and minoritized groups
  • What they did:
    • Gave a web-based study to assess students’ motivations for going to college, divided between self-transcendent, self-oriented, and extrinsic motives on a 1-5 rating scale. These motives included statements, respectively, like “I want to help the world,” “I want to expand my knowledge,” and “I want to earn more money.”
    • Gave a Behavioral Identification Form (BIF) to measure the meaningfulness of schoolwork. Students associated a task, like the SAT, with either lower-level views, e.g. “ Filing out question bubbles,” or more goal-oriented views, e.g. “Taking steps toward a college degree.” A student who associates a task with more goal-orientated views sees it as more meaningful.
    • Used  “an abbreviated version of the validated grit scale” (Duckworth & Quinn, 2009) to measure student self-regulation abilities like finishing tasks and diligence.
    • Used “a validated measure of self-control when completing academic work” (Patrick & Duckworth, 2013; Tsukayama, Duckworth, & Kim, 2013) to assess things like student preparedness and attentiveness in class which, while correlated to grit, are worth independently measuring (Duckworth et al., 2007).
    • Assigned a diligence task, where students were asked to either complete math problems or they could watch viral videos or play Tetris. Thus, students chose between a boring, menial task (in this case, math) and more entertaining options. Things like the number of questions answered and student accuracy gave quantitative measures of how devoted students were to the task. No consequences were given for engaging in the distracting activities. 
    • Measured college persistence by a student’s enrollment and attendance during the fall semester.
  • Why they did it: They sought to establish connections between motivations, views on the value of menial tasks, and college persistence.
  • What they predicted: Their hypothesis “was that a greater endorsement of self-transcendent motives for going to college would predict (a) the tendency to view tedious academic tasks in a more personally meaningful fashion and (b) the tendency to display greater academic self-regulation.” They also predicted “that a purpose for learning might predict goal persistence across the socially, academically, and bureaucratically difficult transition to college.”
  • What they found: Students who scored higher on self-transcendent motivations viewed schoolwork as more meaningful and scored higher in grit, self-control, and diligence. However, they didn’t find the menial task any less boring. These results remained when controlling for confounding variables. They did NOT find that self-interest motivations were unimportant, but self-transcendent motives for attending college predicted greater persistence than self-interest motivations alone.

For their second study, the authors sought to go beyond a correlational finding and developed an intervention to test if increasing student self-transcendent motives correlated to an increased STEM GPA.

  • Who: More than 300 ninth graders in a suburban high school; most not from a low income household; many were high-scorers on math and science standardized tests.
  • What they did: Designed a “purpose for learning” intervention.
    • Rather than telling students what their motivations could or should be, therefore undermining their autonomy, students were asked to reflect on and answer prompts that targeted self-transcendent motivations like “What are some ways you think the world could be a better place?”
    • Students were also given quotes from purported upperclassmen echoing self-transcendent motives. Students were then asked to write their own such quotes to give to other students.
    • The control group was given a similarly structured activity that had students discuss the difference between middle and high school.
    • STEM GPA after the intervention was measured for the next grading period and compared to the preceding grading periods.
  • Why they did it: An intervention-based strategy took what they learned from study one and applied in a real scenario to a different group of students to reflect the applicability and actual impact of self-transcending motives.
  • What they predicted: The purpose of learning intervention would increase STEM GPA.
  • What they found: Students were equally engaged between the intervention and control activities. STEM GPA did improve in the intervention group, and the interaction of the intervention and pre-intervention GPA was significant; in other words, students with lower STEM GPAs improved the most.

The next two studies sought to elucidate the actual mechanisms by which self-transcendent motivations might actually improve learning through menial tasks in the short-term. In the third study, the authors tested if a purpose intervention like the one from study 2 increased time spent on a repetitive review task.

  • Who: 89 undergraduates in a psychology course
  • What they did: gave the “purpose for learning” intervention and then measured time on a review task
    • The purpose for learning intervention to prime self-transcendent motivations was very similar to study 2 except it was electronically delivered and was adapted to reflect the psychology course; the control was also similar, except it asked students to examine the differences between high school and college.
    • The review itself improved student grades, especially for lower performers.
    • The review was over 100 multiple choice questions and the next question could not be answered until the current one was answered correctly. Students were given explicit instructions that randomly guessing does not encourage deep learning.
  • Why they did this: This study differs from study 2 by trying to elucidate an actual short-term mechanism by which self-transcendent motivations improve performance on a menial task
  • What they predicted: They predicted that students given the intervention would spend greater time on each review question, reflecting a deeper assigned value of the task and more time devoted to using it to learn.
  • What they found: Students given the intervention spent almost twice as long on each review question.

The last study was similar to the third in that it sought to elucidate another mechanism by which self-transcendent motivations increased performance on a menial task to improve learning. Using the diligence task from the first study and a modified intervention from the second and third studies, the authors sought to examine if self-transcendent motivations improved self-control more than self-interest motives.

  • Who: 429 undergraduates in an intro psychology course
  • What they did: gave a self-transcendent motivation intervention, a self-interest motivation intervention, and a control. Measured performance on the math-problem based diligence task from Study 1.
  • Why they did this: testing if self-transcendent motivations increase self-control would elucidate a short-term mechanism to explain longer-term results, like college persistence or increased STEM GPA.
  • What they predicted: They predicted that the self-interest motivation intervention would result in differences from the control group on the diligence task.
  • What they found: Everyone thought the task was boring, no matter the group. The self-transcendent motivation group completed more of the math problems in the diligence task than the control. The self-interest intervention did not improve self-regulation. However, it appears that at first the self-interest intervention group was more motivated but that this tapered off similarly to the control, suggesting a short term boost. In other words, as boredom increased, the self-transcendent motivation intervention helped ward off a decline in solving math problems and sustain self-regulation.

The results from this group’s work suggest that self-transcendent motivations may be crucial in allowing students to get through boring tasks. By making the problem bigger than themselves, students may exhibit greater self-regulation. The increased effort put into menial tasks like basic math problems isn’t because these students view it as any less boring—trying to make the world a better place doesn’t make repetitive problems more fun—but it does increase motivation through providing greater meaning for the tasks. This group emphasizes that these interventions don’t represent a “magic bullet” and that self-interest motivations should not be ignored either. It is still best to increase student interest in a task when possible, but when doing so isn’t feasible, self-transcendent motivations may help fill the gap—i.e. when it’s boring, making it bigger than the self. The two kinds of motivation are also tightly related, suggesting to me that strengthening the ties between the two and boosting one where it is lacking would best benefit student learning.

The authors brought up that in this context the intervention was beneficial, but it might be less so in non-recursive environments—school by nature builds upon past knowledge and can amplify and create a “virtuous cycle” to increase the benefits from small interventions. Additionally, self-transcendent motivation interventions before high-pressure performance tasks, like presentations and public speaking, may actually increase the anxiety and therefore could be detrimental to student learning. These suggest interesting paths to take in future research and caveats when thinking how these results could be applied to classrooms.

During a journal club with instructors from a variety of disciplines, we discussed the implications of this paper for our own classrooms. We started by first identifying what menial tasks are for our own courses, stating that the authors focused on boring math and review problems, which may not align with the types of activities we see in other classes. We agreed that menial tasks would be those that require self-regulation – the things we have to do but maybe don’t always want to do. This sometimes includes doing course readings, or researching journal articles for a literature review, or working on a task that requires a lot of sustained energy or one that takes longer than we think it should.

We also talked about the challenges of having students in our courses who don’t have a purpose for learning. In other words, they may not know what they want to do with their degree, they may be taking courses that don’t clearly connect to a specific career, and/or they are in a master’s program as a way to put off making a decision about what they want to do with their lives. One suggestion was that it’s ok if students have a broad purpose for learning. They might think about how learning about certain topics might make them a more well-rounded individual, or they can become a more informed citizen, or they can focus on the benefits of being exposed to diverse ideas and experiences. After all, the interventions in the study were quite broad as students simply focused on the benefits of learning and going to college (e.g., doing well in school will prepare me to do something I care about), rather than applying their learning to a particular career.

Finally, we considered the types of interventions we might employ in our own courses. We considered having the first question on a take-home exam, which would be administered before students took the in-class exam in a subsequent class period, could ask students to identify how what they are learning could help them in their future careers and help them make the world a better place. This would then hopefully give them the boost they need to study harder for the in-class portion. We also mentioned asking a similar question on a student information sheet given at the beginning of a course. A similar question could be asked mid-way through the course and using polling software or some other means, could be displayed for the whole class to see how their classmates think this material could help them serve a transcendent purpose for learning. For a master’s program, instructors can turn to students’ statement of purposes for why they wanted to enroll in the program when they were applying, but should draw out a self-oriented and self-transcendent purpose manipulation to enhance the effectiveness. Lastly, students could respond to a prompt having them talk to themselves back at the beginning of the semester about how they are different now knowing what they know, which could be used the next time you teach the course.

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