What motivates people

When I first read the 3rd chapter in How Learning Works, I immediately thought of the medical students that I have taught in recent years. In my experience, medical students are motivated largely by performance goals. They tend to be competitive but not terribly inquisitive. They tend heavily toward performance-approach goals to respond to the demands of the med school curriculum and program, yet don’t seem moved by a deep desire to understand medical genetics or the human condition. Their motivation seems to come from learning only what it takes to pass an exam; anything else is viewed as extraneous and is avoided. I’m not the first to notice this characteristic behavior in med students. I’ve heard professors complain that med students try to drill a hole in their heads to get the answers out, but show little interest in diving deeper into inquiry. I can only hope that once they become practicing physicians they find enough meaning and purpose in their work to ask deeper questions. I’m skeptical of this, however, and avoid doctors as much as possible.

After re-reading the chapter weeks after first digesting it, I’ve come up with some new insights into the findings it presents. It’s good that I put the book down for awhile before writing this post. Some changes have come about at work, and the chapter gave me some insight into how I might approach developing a couple of new training programs. I’ve been asked to put together a proposal for at most two in-house training programs for staff, faculty, and students. We’ll start each program with Carpentry training, then follow each with statistics and modeling, and cap each off with advanced content in high-throughput sequence analysis, linear mixed models, or genetic mapping. I’m glad now that I put the book aside for awhile. The timing was right for directly applying information from this chapter to my work.

We’ve offered a handful of Carpentry workshops to staff, faculty and students. The value that these workshops hold is clear. We always have a waiting list, people who sign up show up, and nearly everyone stays until the last hour of the second day. Those who must leave to go to a meeting or to pick up children apologize, and sometimes even ask not to be thrown out of the workshop. I’m not sure why people might think that we would do this, although I suspect that my pre-workshop emails asking people to let me know if there plans have changed might suggest that we only want those committed to every hour of training. Biomedical researchers understand that there’s huge value in learning how to code and how to manage data. They also know that as novices they can’t easily learn these things on their own.

At the end of every workshop, there is a noticeable feeling of pride in the room. I like to think of it as pride, rather than high attainment value, because everyone stands a little taller and smiles a little wider. The intrinsic value of the workshop varies with the participants. Some seem to genuinely enjoy coding, though many others seem to view it as a means to an end and not necessarily a pleasurable endeavor. All see its tremendous instrumental value. Some see the training as a way of achieving job security or of moving into a better position. All see Carpentry training as a way to move their research and their work forward.

In valuing Carpentry training so highly, it wouldn’t be surprising to know that people also have high outcome expectancy of this training. They believe that the skills they learn in a 2-day hands-on workshop will directly benefit their work. Some also believe that they will be successful in learning programming or data science skills, however, others are convinced that the training is not for them even though it’s advertised clearly for beginners without prior programming experience. Those who ask beforehand are encouraged to come. We meet them at their own level and guide them toward success. In fact, the most frequent comment we receive is that the instructors are very helpful and attentive. I’m not sure how to bring in those who don’t ask whether the workshop will be taught at a level accessible to them, but I believe that word-of-mouth will reach timid folks who lack self-efficacy and who fear losing face in front of their colleagues. There is no safe place to fail, but we don’t let anyone fail. Our workshops are the most supportive places on campus.

Carpentry training meets participants’ and instructors’ learning goals. Cognitive goals are met in practicing a new skill or recalling a command. A social goal might be met in finding new collaborators and friends from other research labs while in training. And by interacting with a computer in a new way, an affective or experiential goal is realized. In developing new training programs at the lab, I’ll need to attend to clearly identifying learning goals, objectives, and outcomes.

My audience is highly motivated already. The one strategy that I will employ from this chapter is to provide flexibility and control to this audience. They can choose one program or the other, or both. They can opt-out of requirements that are too easy by completing a brief assignment, for example, or take only part of the program’s sequence instead of the full sequence. While it’s a bit gimicky, I’d like to award e-badges for those who complete each step of a program, and will organize each program on a learning management system, Canvas. Those who complete an entire program will receive a paper certificate signed by the head of research as a way of recognizing their accomplishments. While my audience doesn’t need motivation nor an external reward, I feel that these small recognitions are important. They say that the time, effort and commitment invested have not gone unnoticed.

Written on November 20, 2016