Public Release: 

The best way to get teens to learn

Society for Research in Child Development

Getting kids interested in what they're learning is an age-old problem that continues to plague teachers and parents. Now, researchers from the University of Leuven in Belgium report in the March/April issue of the journal Child Development, that when teenagers understand that learning helps them attain an intrinsic goal (e.g., self-development, personal health, etc.), they are more likely to become interested in the topic and grasp its conceptual aspects than if they are motivated to learn only to attain extrinsic goals (e.g., financial success, physical attractiveness, etc.).

"Many children often don't find spontaneous interest in their study material," notes lead researcher Maarten Vansteenkiste, a fourth-year doctoral student. So teachers and parents try to increase children's motivation for learning in numerous ways, such as enhancing the importance and relevance of the learning. For instance, they may highlight the importance of the learning topic for meeting an intrinsic goal, such as self-development, health, or helping the community, or an extrinsic goal, such as financial success, popularity, or being more attractive.

To determine which approach was more likely to be successful, Vansteenkiste and his colleagues had obese and non-obese early adolescents read a text on health-related issues, such as the food pyramid. Half were told that learning more about these issues and adopting a healthier lifestyle was important for their health (an intrinsic goal), while the other half was told that learning about these issues and adopting a healtier lifestyle would help them become more physically attractive and appealing (an extrinsic goal).

Additionally, these different goal-contents were presented in a different way: whereas half of the children were pressured to do their best for the learning by using guilt-inducing language (i.e., internal control), the other half was approached in a more autonomy-supportive fashion so they would experience their studying as more self-chosen and volitional.

The findings--that intrinsic goal setting resulted in greater conceptual learning--holds important implications for educators, says Vansteenkiste. "While extrinsic goals can be highly motivating and might induce some behavioral engagement in the learning topic, because the learning approach is more strategic and narrow-focused under these circumstances, extrinsic goals promote literal memorization of the learning material but fail to enhance conceptual learning," he says.

Additionally, he notes, guilt-induction and lack of autonomy support equally undermined early adolescents' conceptual learning. While making teens feel guilty as a way to induce them to learn appears to put early adolescents under internal pressure to engage in the learning, it fails to enhance a willing and self-chosen engagement in the learning, which is crucial for the conceptual integration of learning information.

"In short," says Vansteekiste, " if teachers want to promote conceptual and thoughtful processing of learning material, they might do well in pointing out the intrinsic goal relevance of the learning material and using an autonomy-supportive style to introduce the learning material. The latter can be realized by taking an empathic perspective towards children and adolescents, offering choice whenever possible, and avoiding a subtle, guilt-inducing language."


Summarized from Child Development, Vol. 6, Issue 2, Examining The Impact Of Extrinsic Vs. Intrinsic Goal Framing And Internally Controlling Vs. Autonomy-Supportive Communication Style Upon Children's Achievement by Vansteenkiste M, Simons J, Lens W, Soenens B, and Matos L. Copyright 2005 The Society for Research in Child Development, Inc. All rights reserved.

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