What Motivates Us to Learn?

August 23, 2016 by Aliya Mrochuk
Image By now, most educators are familiar with the advice, “Praise the process, not the outcome.” which was revolutionized by Stanford Psychology professor, Carol Dweck. This strategy focuses on instilling a “growth mindset” an understanding that intelligence is learned, not innate, in students throughout their education. However, in a new article, Dweck herself warns against blindly following her research. So we are going to take another look at what motivates students to learn beyond good grades.

First, let’s review.

Dweck’s RSAnimate talk, “How to Help Every Child Fulfill Their Potential,” identifies two learning mindsets: fixed and growth. Students with a fixed mindset believe that intelligence is static, something you are born with, and if they can’t complete a task now, they never will. They believe that they must “look smart at all times and all costs,” that effort is a sign you don’t have ability, and that mistakes “reveal your limitations.”

Students with a growth mindset, on the other hand, believe that intelligence is developed. They understand that the goal of education is to “learn at all times and all costs,” that “effort is what activates ability” and that “mistakes are a part of the process.”


Dweck goes on to argue that praising children’s intelligence promotes a fixed mindset. Instead of building confidence in their ability to problem solve and work hard, children become attached to some vague idea of intelligence that feels impossible to improve upon.

In a study done with 10 to 11 year olds, Dweck found that the majority of children who were praised for their intelligence chose to continue to do tasks they were already good at, while children praised for their process chose to tackle more difficult problems. Even when students returned to easier tasks, those in a fixed mindset got lower scores than those in a growth mindset.

What happened next?

Many parents and teachers took Dweck’s research to two extremes. Some thought the importance of praising the process should eclipse everything else, and doled out praise regardless of progress. Others were so hesitant to accidentally promote a fixed mindset that they only offered encouragement when their children or their students were struggling.

What else can we do?

If you find yourself falling into one of those two camps, try to remember that at the core of Dweck’s strategy is giving students enough information that they are able to recreate the behavior for which they are praised. “You’re so smart!” feels good in the moment, but it is difficult for students to simply “be smart” when they encounter their next challenge. Next time, point out something specific about the work - maybe the student took a unique approach, or it’s obvious that they tried a few solutions before they landed on the correct answer - and praise them for their creativity or tenacity instead.

Rewarding your child for their good efforts is another popular approach, but it may be less effective than we think. Like Dweck, Dan Pink, author of “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” also did a RSAnimate talk by the same name on motivation  in 2010. Pink found that as soon as a task required creative or conceptual thinking, larger rewards actually led to poorer performance.

To motivate your students or children, try to focus on one of Pink’s non-reward drivers: autonomy, mastery and purpose. According to Pink, feeling as though something is your own, knowing you are getting better at it, and making a contribution are powerful motivators of learning and performance.

Best of luck!
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