What drives learning?

The motivation can come from many external stimuli. But without that inner drive learning becomes a rigid process.

December 10, 2017 06:00 pm | Updated December 11, 2017 04:00 pm IST

Female Pupil Studying At Desk In Classroom Sitting At Desk Writing In Textbook

Female Pupil Studying At Desk In Classroom Sitting At Desk Writing In Textbook

What makes us learn? I mean, what really makes us learn? Is it the way a course is organised, the teaching approach, the materials we are exposed to, the peer group we find ourselves with, the physical infrastructure, the number and nature of assignments given, the commitment of the teacher…? The list can go on.

If we think back to the moments in our journey through formal education, we might find that at different points in time, we can give credit to one or other of these elements. Research has shown that in primary school, one of the biggest differentiators is the teacher and the way in which she/he relates to students. To a large extent, our choices about what we would like to study and our preferences for subjects can be traced back to who taught us in early school and how. But as we move higher up the education ladder, the external factors — teacher quality, materials, infrastructure, and so on — matter less, even if their importance does not completely disappear. Internal factors such as motivation, application, effort, interest, and perseverance become key to learning. It is hard for even the most gifted teacher to “make” someone learn at the high school or college level, without the presence of these internal drivers. Of course, an interested and enthusiastic teacher can increase levels of motivation and interest, but this can go only so far. The momentum however has to be maintained by the student.

Recognising the importance of these internal drivers and keeping them oiled and functioning can help us learn in a more efficient and possibly even joyful manner. One of my students recently asked me why our system does not allow for open-ended learning, where a student could follow his or her own interests freely without being bound by syllabus or course requirements (such as tests, exams and assignments). This works if the individual’s internal drivers are not only functioning well, but guided by enough awareness of how to move forward, both in terms of finding material and experiences to learn from, and also a sense of how to assess one’s learning. Assessments (tests and such) are not just a means to make students suffer but are meant to give them a sense of how well they have understood the concepts or the extent to which they have acquired the skills. And unfortunately, this kind of assessment is needed for someone to be deemed ready for the next level (a job or further education). So, while you can participate in learning in an open-ended manner, if you want that certificate or degree, you have to fulfil those assessments!

When you have those internal drivers, though, you will find that the rigidity of the system and its shortcomings will be nothing more than irritants to deal with while you continue to pursue your goals. It makes it possible to find value in reading, understanding, gaining or improving a skill, for its own sake, or more correctly, for your own sake. Being interested in something for reasons other than — or in addition to — certification can bring rewards in the form of real learning. It may be worthwhile to think about your own patterns of learning — or not learning — and see whether you can identify, and nurture, those internal drivers.

The author teaches at the University of Hyderabad and edits Teacher Plus. usha.bpgll@gmail.com

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