Intrinsic Motivation, Latest Key to Student Success
Tips for Teachers and Classroom Resources Updated November 13, 2017

Mastering Skills and Intrinsic Motivation: Does Practice Really Make Perfect?

By Monica Fuglei
Intrinsic Motivation, Latest Key to Student Success

Arguments about whether talent is due to nature or nurture have been around practically as long as those two words have existed. In the past, research pointed to practice as one of the most important aspects of mastery of any wide variety of skills. The idea that practice was the route to perfection was practically made canon when Malcolm Gladwell wrote about the 10,000 hour rule in his book “Outliers.”

However, a recent meta-analysis of studies related to the importance of practice confirms the role of practice as a helpful tool for improvement, but reduces its overall influence in the goal of mastery. Practice, according to this study, has a somewhat limited effect on overall mastery.

Eye-opener for educators

The meta-analysis, produced by Brooke Macnamara, David Hambrick, and Frederick Oswald and published in Psychological Science, should be particularly surprising for educators. The study found the overall influence of deliberate practice on the differences in individual capabilities to be about 12 percent. Relatively stunning, though, is that they note only a four percent difference under the subject heading of college-level education.

In response, educational scholar Alfie Kohn comments that while there appears to be clear benefits to practice in terms of rote memorization of facts, the linear relationship between time investment in practice and ultimate payoff tends to break down when “depth of understanding” and “sophisticated problem-solving” are involved.

Intrinsic motivation: A powerful learning tool

Because education is increasingly focused not on rote memorization and the delivery of regurgitated content, but instead on critical thinking and the ability to problem solve throughout the disciplines, the problem of “practice makes perfect” becomes clear. Practice, it seems, has little to do with perfection in this arena.

As an alternative, Kohn offers several potential factors influencing student performance and success, one of which is intrinsic motivation. For students, this is motivation that comes from within, to understand and master the educational task at hand.

Most educators agree that engaged students have a unique advantage over those who are disengaged, and research affirms this belief. In response to Macnamara, Hambrick, and Oswald’s findings, Kohn complicates the issue by noting that intrinsic motivation itself is a factor in a person’s willingness to participate in practice, creating a feedback loop that might complicate the research on deliberate practice.

How can teachers spark students’ intrinsic motivation?

That said, if Kohn is correct and intrinsic motivation has a far greater role in long-term student success than practice, it is important to be aware of the key role that a student’s motivation has in their success. Rather than classwork and homework focused on skill practice, educators must figure out how to encourage student investment.

This investment can be gained by giving students educational choices, using transformational teaching rather than transmission-focused education, and engaging in significantly more service learning and active learning work.

Encouraging students to set goals and account for their learning is particularly helpful for sparking intrinsic motivation. Additionally, aligning curriculum to real-world problem solving and student interests has a direct result on how much attention students pay to what they are learning. Students who are invested in a problem are willing to devote time, energy, and interest to finding a solution.

Taking the ‘work’ out of learning

Ultimately, whether intrinsic motivation is the key to student success or whether that motivation drives an underlying desire to work toward Malcolm Gladwell’s magical 10,000 hour mark is inconsequential. What is clear is that students who are invested in their education and willing to persist can and will be among the best.

Chances are these clearly motivated students may not even identify the hours they invest in deliberate practice as work. Instead of “deliberate practice,” it is simply an engagement of deep interest, critical thinking, and problem solving — the high-level skills educators desire.

Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.

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