Education (Part 2: Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation)

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Part one

In working on this next part of my thoughts on education and learning I found myself trying to go in too many directions at once, developing ideas from the first part while also bringing up new things. As such I decided to limit myself to one topic at once. This part will be dedicated to the idea of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation.


The topic of why we learn new things, which I brought up in the first few paragraphs of part one, is very much a discussion of intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation. Should we learn because we’re curious and find new topics exciting, as I argued strongly for? Or should we do so in pursuit of good grades, goals, rewards? The various reasons that we learn – or, more broadly, that we do anything – can be categorized as either intrinsic or extrinsic motivations.

Extrinsic motivation is essentially operant conditioning: An action is motivated by the promise of reinforcement or punishment. In the context of learning and education this would be a parent promising to pay their child $20 for good grades, or threatening to ground them for bad ones. This is the style of learning that I associated with the stereotypical premed student, working hard in school so that you get good grades and the things associated with them: Acceptance to prestigious schools, scholarships, so on and so forth.

Intrinsic motivation is a little more elusive. It’s the desire to do something not because of external reinforcement or punishment, but because one wants to do that thing. The reward isn’t tangible because it’s internal: Curiosity, passion for a subject, that sort of thing. Intrinsic motivation is the time I was sitting outside in winter and wondered how much snow has fallen in the history of the Earth (My estimate was about 3×1026 kg of it, or roughly 50 Earth-masses of snow. I have that saved in a file somewhere, though I’ll need to look up the work I did to reach that number).

How do we apply these ideas? As it turns out, extrinsic and intrinsic motivation tend to be most effective in their own particular domains.

A 1987 study by Malone & Lepper suggests that intrinsic motivation is most common for activities involving challenge, curiosity, control, cooperation and competition, and recognition (Although I personally would characterize competition and recognition as extrinsic rewards – the desire to be superior to others and to be recognized as so seem more like external things to me). Challenge and curiosity, to me, can be characterized as tasks involving what I’ll refer to as higher order mental processes: Analysis, investigation, planning, invention, that sort of thing. Control and cooperation encompass tasks that offer a sense of meaning or purpose. So, simplistically, intrinsic motivation is best for tasks that make you think or feel.

Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is generally going to work best for simple, repetitive tasks that require little higher-order thinking. Memorizing the multiplication tables or learning the basic rules of English grammar are boring tasks that are unlikely to ever inspire any sort of internal passion. An interesting caveat here is the overjustification effect, which says that offering extrinsic rewards can actually reduce one’s intrinsic motivation for activities. Lepper, Greene and Nisbett (1973) found that children offered rewards for an activity that they could be expected to enjoy, drawing, showed less interest when the offer of reward was retracted than children who either received a reward without being notified before the activity or those who were neither offered nor given a reward. For this “expected reward” group, interest in the activity was only maintained through continued offer of reward. Although this seems strange at first blush, it actually makes a lot of sense. The offer of extrinsic reward for something you already enjoy doing essentially “cheapens” the experience, and when the reward is removed the activity simply seems less appealing. Put another way, we can imagine that there’s only a certain amount of motivation you can have to do something – we’ll call it 100% motivation. If you’re already at 100% motivation intrinsically, the addition of an extrinsic reward doesn’t push you to 150% motivation, but instead it makes you 50% intrinsically and 50% extrinsically motivated, for a total of 100%. Removal of that extrinsic reward now leaves you at only 50% motivation. On a more amusing, though less applicable note (and confirming the behavior of teenagers everywhere), the threat of extrinsic punishment can actually increase one’s intrinsic interest in something.

So what do we do with all this? It seems like intrinsic motivation should be the clear winner. After all, curiosity and critical thinking are the buzzwords of the day (or year, or whatever) in education. We need to teach kids to be active learners, foster curiosity, bla bla bla. But most elementary school children have no intrinsic interest whatsoever in math or science, challenge and curiosity be damned. Malone and Lepper suggest designing classroom instruction so it promotes their big themes: challenge, curiosity, control, cooperation and competition, and recognition. For the most part I agree here: we need to teach in a way that challenges students, that provides new experiences and promotes curiosity about the world, that makes students feel like they are in control and accomplishing something.

The problem is that we’ve either completely forgotten about extrinsic motivation or are angling to get rid of it altogether. Sure, it’s true that throwing gold stars and participation ribbons all over the place is terrible if we want kids to be self-directed and self-motivated. But remember those things I said extrinsic motivation is good for? Repetitive and simple tasks, like memorizing the multiplication tables or learning basic spelling and grammar? Yeah, it turns out that these things are the foundations for all our activities that are best motivated intrinsically. It doesn’t matter how curious a kid is if he doesn’t know basic arithmetic or the alphabet. These are things that you have to know to be able to do all that other stuff, and it turns out that in the vast majority of cases there is simply no way to get a kid excited about addition and multiplication – it’s something that just needs to be drilled in, and extrinsic motivation is going to be the best way to do that. It’s also going to be the best way to motivate kids to do things until they begin to develop intrinsic interest. Note that this doesn’t contradict the overjustification effect: Here we aren’t trying to exceed the 100% motivation cap. Instead we’re starting at 0% motivation and bringing it up a bit with extrinsic motivation until the student recognizes the intrinsic value of the task.

So both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation have a place in education. Rewards and punishments are necessary to motivate students to learn foundational knowledge that simply cannot be motivated intrinsically, and to create some “buffer motivation” while intrinsic interest develops. Once a student has recognized the value of a subject, however, extrinsic motivation needs to be scaled back so that they can properly reap the rewards of curiosity, challenge, bla bla etcetera. Something I touched on in part one and that will be developed later is grades: They can be categorized as extrinsic motivators, so based on what we’ve said here, should they be removed? For now, though, I think that’s plenty for one post.


Some ideas I want to develop in future parts: Testing and accountability, group vs. individual work. As always let me know if you’ve got other things you want me to consider.

Education (Part 1: The current paradigm of education and how I think it should work)

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Pre-post stuff: Been quite some time since I updated, but I’m still around. Comics should resume at some point in the near future. Lot of things going on lately: work as usual, I had an interview at the University of Colorado School of Medicine a couple weeks ago, so on and so forth.


I’ve found myself thinking and talking a lot lately about education and the way that we’re doing it in the United States. I sometimes get berated for doing well on tests and such without appearing to have had to try or study very hard. And maybe the latter is partly true, but the former seems to stem from a misconception of how one is ‘supposed’ to learn, which in turn partly stems from a misconception about who I am as a student and learner. A lot of this discussion is going to be from the perspective of science education since science is what I’m experienced with, but I think it applies pretty well across most fields and disciplines.

When people think “Asian premed student” there’s a very particular image that pops into their head. Determined to become a doctor since (before???) birth, military discipline academically, pinpoint focus on getting good grades to get into a good college to get good grades to get into a good medical school to get good grades to bla bla bla. Et cetera. And, to be honest, it’s not an inaccurate stereotype most of the time (In fact, the stereotype seems to arise from the belief that that particular approach is the best or the right one, which is the belief that I’m going to try to dispel here). It just doesn’t fit me. Grades, to me, are a byproduct rather than the primary focus of education. I learn because stuff is really cool and worth learning, not so I can pass a test and get a good score. So by that token I would argue that I put in a similar amount of work to other students, but I do so at a different time: Right at the initial point of learning. When I’m exposed to a new concept or idea, some little voice in my head goes “Well hey, this is neat! I wonder how we can connect it to all this other stuff we’ve been thinking about lately!” I tend to become very engaged with new concepts very quickly, and that’s when I do my best learning. And that means that when it comes time to study for a test, it’s all very much review to me – and why would I want to review lists of facts that I already understand when there’s all sorts of other neat stuff to learn and think about?

Unfortunately (At least in my opinion) the other philosophy of education seems to be the predominant one. Students obsess over their tests and grades, coming up with (often somewhat insane) mnemonics and other memorization tools. I distinctly remember sitting in a lecture hall right before an exam listening to other students ‘quizzing’ each other: “I remember X is Y because X starts with A and ‘apple’ also starts with A and apples are round and [absolutely nonsensical series of steps and “connections” that eventually leads to Y].” I also remember being asked to contribute a question and asking my peers to predict the effects of making a change in some pathway or another, and receiving the following response: “Well, that wasn’t in the book, so it won’t be on the test,” whereupon they returned to their self-satisfied mnemonic circlejerk (I’m gonna be honest here, I didn’t think very much of many of my college peers. Or mnemonics.).

While memorization of certain key and central facts/numbers (pi, basic multiplication tables, things like that) is important, it should not be the cornerstone of our educational system. The prevalence of memorization is quite evident in science education, which often takes the form of “Here’s a bunch of facts that are going to be presented as unrelated, memorize them so that you can regurgitate them on the exam.” Something in that picture seems wrong to me. If science worked off of that same philosophy then we would all still believe that the Earth was flat and at the center of the universe. And carried on the back of a giant turtle. I just started reading the Discworld series. Science is about making observations and adjusting – or rewriting – our existing models to accommodate the new data. It’s about taking what everyone accepts as truth and trying to break it down by approaching it from a completely different perspective. Science is not an endless cycle of memorizing and reciting the same data over and over.

A slight tangent on that note – I’m always bewildered when people frame the easy availability of information through technology and the Internet as a bad thing. The argument is common: “Information is too easy to access! Students aren’t learning because they can just pull out their phones and search Google!” It’s also a bit nonsensical. Again, learning isn’t about memorizing a bunch of facts. It’s about developing the ability to do things with those facts. A scientist who can recite a bunch of facts and numbers is worthless compared to one who has to look those facts and numbers up but knows how to integrate them into a brand new theory. The massive amount of information we have access to is not a replacement for education – it’s just a bigger data set for us to play with.

So what’s the alternative? I think science should be taught in a way that makes students think like scientists and not like tape recorders. As I already said, of course certain frameworks and central concepts are worth memorizing. But beyond that, students should be expected to take those frameworks and apply or approach them in novel ways. Instead of forcing students to memorize and subsequently regurgitate a bunch of words and numbers (I once had a biochemistry exam that consisted solely of reciting the number of electrons involved in various steps of photosynthesis), science exams should force them to approach and apply the ideas and theories that they’ve learned in ways that they have never seen. They should say “Here’s a mechanism which is part of system 1, what are the consequences for systems 1, 2, and 3 if we screw with this step?”, or “We’re trying to learn X about system 4 but standard approach A doesn’t work because such-and-such – what other approaches might work?” A ‘science exam for scientists’ could (and should) be open-book, open-friend, open-whatever – simply because the facts in the books would not be sufficient to pass it. Students should leave science exams feeling like they’ve accomplished something: Applied a concept in a new way, suggested a solution to a theoretical experimental obstacle, predicted the consequences of breaking a step in a pathway.

I want to clarify something before I wrap this post up: I’m not saying that grades are unimportant or irrelevant. I’m not saying “We should get rid of grades entirely,” or “Getting bad grades is fine as long as you’re learning and enjoying yourself!” In fact, the second statement is self-contradictory from my point of view. Assuming that the tests are a reasonably good metric for the subject – which I’ve touched on already and will expand upon in the next part of this discussion – good grades should be a natural consequence of successful learning. If you’ve really learned something then a well-designed test should feel like a natural next step in learning. It should say “Now that you understand the fundamental concepts and systems of this subject, let’s see what you can do with them.” As to the necessity of grades? That’s something I’ll discuss more next post, but suffice it to say for now that I do think they are a legitimate and necessary tool.


Part two: Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation


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Today’s my birthday! Most years I forget that it’s happening and it’s not until my mom calls or I notice posts on Facebook that I remember, but 21 is an important one. For whatever reason.

I started pondering this morning about how we think about birthdays.

okay, but what happens if I go on a trip in a rocketship and relativity happens

Most of us, I suspect, think about birthdays in a discrete way. We’re X age throughout the whole year, and as soon as our birthday hits we’re X+1 (The only exception that I can think of is when people say “I’m X and a half,” but I’m pretty sure that’s something that mostly happens when you’re young and you’ve got to seize onto every bit of age you can get). It’s certainly what we do legally – someone who’s 17 years and 6 months old isn’t considered 97.22% of an adult, they’re not an adult, but as soon as they hit 18 they are an adult.

Apart from making things easier it doesn’t make a lot of sense, though. The reason I don’t feel any older today than I did yesterday is because the way things actually work – on a continuous scale. I’m a day older than I was yesterday, not a year. But as much as I intuitively understand that age works continuously, not discretely, my mind continues to want to think about it in the latter way. It makes me wonder if that’s primarily societal or biological – do we put so much emphasis on birthdays that people simply become accustomed to thinking about them as the switchover point, or are we wired to want to simplify time into discrete chunks that are easier to think about? As with anything it’s probably a bit of both.

Anyways, that’s not going to stop me from celebrating. Happy Wednesday!


1 Comment on Redesign!

Hello! You may notice that the site’s looking a bit different – I’ve switched over to WordPress and am having awful great times figuring things out. Since things seem to be reasonably functional at the moment (With one exception – comic permalinks seem to lead to a rather unformatted and ugly-looking page, I have no idea how to solve that and if someone can help me figure it out I’d be really appreciative) I’m going to focus on getting all the old comics uploaded for now.

I also realized that the site’s been running for over a year now! Yay!