Motivation doesn’t equal Achievement

You might think it is safe to assume that, once you motivate students, the learning will follow. Yet research shows that this is often not the case: motivation doesn’t always lead to achievement, but achievement often leads to motivation. If you try to ‘motivate’ students into public speaking, they might feel motivated but can lack the specific knowledge needed to translate that into action. However, through careful instruction and encouragement, students can learn how to craft an argument, shape their ideas and develop them into solid form. 

A lot of what drives students is their innate beliefs and how they perceive themselves. There is a strong correlation between self-perception and achievement, but there is some evidence to suggest that the actual effect of achievement on self-perception is stronger than the other way round. To stand up in a classroom and successfully deliver a good speech is a genuine achievement, and that is likely to be more powerfully motivating than woolly notions of ‘motivation’ itself.  

Carl Hendrick writing in Aeon

The Growth Mindset

When people believe that failure is not a barometer of innate characteristics but rather view it as a step to success (a growth mindset), they are far more likely to put in the kinds of effort that will eventually lead to that success. By contrast, those who believe that success or failure is due to innate ability (a fixed mindset) can find that this leads to a fear of failure and a lack of effort.

Carl Hendrick writing in Aeon

Do you understand a thing or only its definition?

We take other men’s knowledge and opinions upon trust; which is an idle and superficial learning. We must make them our own. We are just like a man who, needing fire, went to a neighbor’s house to fetch it, and finding a very good one there, sat down to warm himself without remembering to carry any back home. What good does it do us to have our belly full of meat if it is not digested, if it is not transformed into us, if it does not nourish and support us?


Straight A’s won’t matter in real life

When I was in college, I obsessed over getting straight A’s, said Adam Grant. Now that I’m a professor, “I watch in dismay” when I see students joining the same “cult of perfectionism.” They think straight A’s will provide entrée to elite graduate schools and prestigious careers. The evidence, however, says otherwise. Research across industries shows that while there’s a modest correlation between grades and job performance the first year out of college, after a few years, the difference is “trivial.” Why? “Getting straight A’s requires conformity. Having an influential career demands originality.” While straight-A students are locked in their dorm rooms or library pursuing “meaningless perfection,” their peers are developing skills that aren’t captured by grades: “creativity, leadership, and teamwork skills and social, emotional, and political intelligence.” Real career success doesn’t come from “finding the right solution to a problem—it’s more about finding the right problem to solve.” In high school Steve Jobs pulled a 2.65 GPA, J.K. Rowling had a C average at Exeter, and Martin Luther King Jr. managed only one A in four years at Morehouse College. This tells us that “underachieving in school can prepare you to overachieve in life.”

Adam Grant writing in The New York Times (as quoted in The Week Magazine

Grappling for Knowledge

According to a 1995 study, a sample of Japanese eighth graders spent 44 percent of their class time inventing, thinking, and actively struggling with underlying concepts. The study’s sample of American students, on the other hand, spend less than one percent of their time in that state.  

“The Japanese want their kids to struggle,” said Jim Stigler, the UCLA professor who oversaw the study and who co-wrote The Teaching Gapwith James Hiebert. “Sometimes the (Japanese) teacher will purposely give the wrong answer so the kids can grapple with the theory. American teachers, though, worked like waiters. Whenever there was a struggle, they wanted to move past it, make sure the class kept gliding along. But you don't learn by gliding.”

Daniel Coyle, The Talent Code

The view you adopt for yourself 

For twenty years, my research has shown that the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life. It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value. How does this happen? How can a simple belief have the power to transform your psychology and, as a result, your life? 

Believing that your qualities are carved in stone — the fixed mindset — creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character — well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics.

I’ve seen so many people with this one consuming goal of proving themselves — in the classroom, in their careers, and in their relationships. Every situation calls for a confirmation of their intelligence, personality, or character. Every situation is evaluated: Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser? . . .

There’s another mindset in which these traits are not simply a hand you’re dealt and have to live with, always trying to convince yourself and others that you have a royal flush when you’re secretly worried it’s a pair of tens. In this mindset, the hand you’re dealt is just the starting point for development. This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way — in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments — everyone can change and grow through application and experience.

Do people with this mindset believe that anyone can be anything, that anyone with proper motivation or education can become Einstein or Beethoven? No, but they believe that a person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable); that it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil, and training.

Carol Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

Learn by Doing

Learn by doing. Not sure if you can break into the pharmaceutical industry? Spend six months interning at Pfizer making connections and see what happens. Curious whether marketing or product development is a better fit than what you currently do? If you work in a company where those functions exist, offer to help out for free. Whatever the situation, actions, not plan, generate lessons that help you test your hypotheses against reality. Actions help you discover where you want to go and how to get there.

Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha, The Startup of You

the red marks

A news story I wrote in a graduate class is covered with the professor’s red marks. I show it to first-year students in writing classes and tell them that I could have had one of two reactions: I could have said to myself, "Well, I can't do this." I could have thrown up my hands, given up, and moved on to something else. The assumption being that either I could write well or I couldn't write well.  But those aren't the only options.

There is another way to react: I could have decided to adjust, change my strategy, and learn from the professor's feedback. This second attitude assumes learning is a matter of persistence. This pathway requires students to humble themselves.. revealing weaknesses Asking questions. Struggling is an essential component of learning.

This process is especially difficult to accept if your ego is riding on whether you can perform new tasks effortlessly. Ultimately, we have to see ourselves as someone of value and worth, regardless of our performance. Of course, if God declares you of value, simply because of who you are, who are you to argue?

Stephen Goforth

the path to wisdom

The story is told of a wise man who was asked by a student the best way to gain knowledge. He lead the student to a river, where he plunged the young man’s head beneath the surface. He struggled to free himself, but the wise man kept his head submerged. Finally, after much effort, the youth was able to break free and emerge from the water. The wise man asked, “When you thought you were drowning, what one thing did you want most of all?” Still gasping for breath, the man explained, “I wanted air!” The philosopher commented, “When you want knowledge as much as you wanted air, then you will get it!”

Stephen Goforth

Minding the nurture gap

Upbringing affects opportunity. Upper-middle-class homes are not only richer (with two professional incomes) and more stable; they are also more nurturing. In the 1970s there were practically no class differences in the amount of time that parents spent talking, reading and playing with toddlers. Now the children of college-educated parents receive 50% more of what Robert Putnam calls “Goodnight Moon” time (after a popular book for infants).

(Putnam reports in his book “Our Kids” that) educated parents engage in a non-stop Socratic dialogue with their children, helping them to make up their own minds about right and wrong, true and false, wise and foolish. This is exhausting, so it helps to have a reliable spouse with whom to share the burden, not to mention cleaners, nannies and cash for trips to the theatre.

Working-class parents, who have less spare capacity, are more likely to demand that their kids simply obey them. In the short run this saves time; in the long run it prevents the kids from learning to organise their own lives or think for themselves. Poor parenting is thus a barrier to social mobility, and is becoming more so as the world grows more complex and the rewards for superior cognitive skills increase.

The Economist

Three Types of Learners

College students will take - usually without even realizing it – one of three basic approaches to their studies that will determine much of what they get out of school.

“Surface learners” as the psychologists called them, looked for facts and words they could memorize, attempting to anticipate any questions someone might ask them. In subsequent studies, we have learned that surface learners usually focus only on passing the exam nor on every using anything they read.

Meanwhile, other students expressed much different purposes. They wanted to understand the meaning behind the text and to think about its implications and applications, to search for arguments, and to distinguish between supporting evidence and conclusions. These are “deep learners.”

There is a third style of learning that students will take. “Strategic” learners primarily intend simply to make good grades, often for the sake of graduate or professional school.  These people will usually shine in the classroom and make their parents proud of their high marks. In many ways, they look like deep learners but their fundamental concerns is different. They focus almost exclusively on how to find out what the professor wants and how to ace the exam. If they learn something along the way that changes the way they think, act, or feel, that’s largely an accident.

They rarely go off on an intellectual journey through those unexplored woods of life, riding their curiosity into a wonderland of intellectual adventure and imagination. They approach college with a checklist rather than with any sense of awe and fascination.

Ken Bain, What the Best College Students Do

Fellow Students

The best professors.. were no longer high priests, selfishly guarding the doors to the kingdom of knowledge to make themselves look more important. They were fellow students – no, fellow human beings – struggling with the mysteries of the universe, human society, historical development, or whatever. They found affinity with their students in their own ignorance and curiosity, in their love of life and beauty, in their mixture of respect and fear, and in that mix they discovered more similarities than differences between themselves and the people who populated their classes. A sense of awe at the world and the human condition stood at the center of their relationships with those students.

Most important, that humility, that fear, that veneration of the unknown spawned a kind of quiet conviction on the part of the best teachers that they and their students could do great things together.

Ken Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do

What sets apart highly successful students

One of the major differences we found between highly successful students and mediocre ones: average students think they can tell right away if they are going to be good at something. If they don't get it immediately, they throw up their hands and say, "I can't do it." Their more accomplished classmates have a completely different attitude-and it is largely a matter of attitude rather than ability. They stick with assignments much longer and are always reluctant to give it up. "I haven't learned it yet," they might say, while others would cry, "I'm not good at history, music, math, writing, or whatever." Traditional schooling rewards quick answers-the person with the hand up first. But an innovative work of the mind, something that lasts and changes the world, demands slow and steady progress. It requires time and devotion. You can't tell what you can do until you struggle with something over and over again.

Ken Bain, What the Best College Students Do

A learning strategy that has shown clear results

Retrieval practice sometimes (shows) effects some 50 percent more than other forms of learning. In one study, one group of subjects read a passage four times. A second group read the passage just one time, but then the same group practiced recalling the passage three times.

But when the researchers followed up with both groups a few days later, the group that had practiced recalling the passage learned significantly more. In other words, subjects who tried to recall the information instead of rereading it showed far more expertise.

What’s important about retrieval practice is that people take steps to recall what they know. They ask themselves questions about their knowledge, making sure that it can be produced.

More concretely, retrieval practice isn’t like a multiple-choice test, which has people choose from a few answers, or even a Scrabble game, where you hunt in your memory for a high-point word. Retrieval practice is more like writing a five-sentence essay in your head: You’re recalling the idea and summarizing it in a way that makes sense.

As psychologist Bob Bjork told me, “The act of retrieving information from our memories is a powerful learning event.”

Ulrich Boser, Learn Better

What Growth Requires

Growth requires hard work. The world is a complex place. We all become creatures of habit in the ways we think and act. To learn is to strip away those deeply ingrained habits of the mind. To do so requires that we push ourselves, that we keep building and rebuilding, questioning, struggling, and seeking.

Ken Bain, What the Best College Students Do

a strong faith in the ability of students

The best teachers we encountered expect “more” from their students. Yet the nature of that “more” must be distinguished from expectations that may be “high” but meaningless, from the goals that are simply tied to the course rather than to the kind of thinking and acting expected of critical thinkers. That “more” is, in the hands of teachers who captivate and motivate students and help them reach unusually high levels of accomplishment, grounded in the highest intellectual artistic, or moral standards, and in the personal goals of the students.

We found that the best teachers usually have a strong faith in the ability of students to learn and in the power of a healthy challenge, but they also have an appreciation that excessive anxiety and tension can hinder thinking. Thus, while they help students to feel relaxed and to believe in their capacity to learn, they also foster a kind of disquietude, the feeling that stems from intellectual enthusiasm, curiosity, challenge, and suspense, and from the wonderful promises that they make about what students can achieve.

Ken Baine, What the Best College Teachers Do


Some professors argue that they don’t want to hear their students talk about a subject because they don’t know enough… But I always think of piano teachers; they would never keep their students away from the keyboard simply because those pupils couldn’t yet play Mozart. Sure they have to endure a lot of bad notes, but they would never push someone off the bench and refuse to let them play until they somehow became better.

Ken Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do

in Pursuit of Failure

When you consider failure, it is important to distinguish between two kinds. There is the failure of giving up, turning around, and walking away. Although this failure holds a certain seductive appeal, you must not let it divert you from the true heart of failure: the triumphant defeat of all your hopes, stratagems, and efforts. This is the ultimate failure that tells you who you are. You want to failure you have to work hard for, failure you put everything into--failure so rich with loss and pain that, even years later, it gives you the basis from which to make yourself anew, the scar tissue that deeply confirms your aliveness. Real failure requires real effort and is its own reward.

Andrew Boyd, Daily Afflictions

The Prediction Learning Curve

If you have strong analytical skills that might be applicable in a number of disciplines, it is very much worth considering the strength of the competition. It is often possible to make a profit by being pretty good at prediction in fields where the competition succumbs to poor incentives, bad habits, or blind adherence to tradition—or because you have better data or technology than they do. It is much harder to be very good in fields where everyone else is getting the basics right—-and you may be fooling yourself if you think you have much of an edge.

Nate Silver, The Signal and the Noise