Attention, Reward, and Motivation #1 – Chat transcript – Tuesday 23 January 2018

ModSu: Welcome everyone to Attention, Reward, and Motivation!

Liptrotc17: I would love your opinions now how to motivate students and build resilience in the classroom?


Matt: It can be hard to find something that works for everyone as far as motivation is concerned, as there are so many different types of students and types of learning. The main aspect of teaching that I see a positive response to is the passion of a teacher, which has a tendency to rub off on the students over the long term. Apart from that, it’d be about reward, such as something simple like writing their name down on the board if they answer a question correctly, and adding a tally to each name as they continue. This is almost a ‘gamification’ of education which many students have responded positively to. 

Mike: There is some interesting work out there on uncertain rewards – i.e. making it less predictable when a reward is coming. This seems to lead to a stronger response to the reward than more predictable rewards.

Gaia: Peer teaching is a great tool. With younger children it works very well too, very much based on working at scaffolding others.


JamesAllen1705: It would be great if you had any advice on how to establish a growth mindset in children?

Mike: The term ‘growth mindset’ is quite a specific term that has often been misused (and simplified into a set of motivational posters) in some educational settings. I think that the evidence suggests that motivation (and a more helpful mindset) are PRODUCTS of achievement, rather than precedents. This means that they will be more likely to occur if we can find ways to give students a sense of achievement and accomplishment in their work. 

JamesAllen1705: So positive reinforcement, praise, good feedback etc. to motivate our students and then they will “grow” as a result?

Mike: In theory! But of course the praise needs to be given out sparingly enough so that it isn’t devalued, and the achievement needs to be seen as difficult enough to be proud of, whilst not too hard to not bother trying! It’s a very difficult balance… that’s why teaching is the most difficult job in the world! If it helps there are some specific summaries of motivation theories relevant to education here…


Drjessicahamer: One thing I’ve seen work well is giving ownership of a project to students…ie. make them the experts on a particular topic – is there any research that you know of that supports this as a *thing* for motivation?

Gaia: I really like the suggestion of giving project ownership – that way students can at least in part select areas of strength, which in turns helps focus attention!


Tyrrellt: How do we gain the attention of children who don’t even seem to able to maintain eye contact? Not because of attention disorders but because of lack of interest/engagement? Maths is particularly difficult for one of my boys

Matt: Lack of engagement can be due to a lack of confidence, especially with subjects such as maths which are easily perceived as hard, the best option is to help them develop self-belief, and once they are invested and committed with their own learnings and failures and have a bit more control over their own learning, you may get a more confident and committed learner. Working with their peers can also help, or helping them teach each other, as more information is retained when you teach it to someone.

Gaia: Building self-belief by working first with topics / props that are of interest might be a way to go. Bringing in areas of strength to show success and progress in what’s harder is a great start, and then as soon as a little progress is made, emphasise it (to then draw attention to how persevering – even just a little bit – got him farther? In “cognitive speak”, drawing attention to success and then to how determination / grit results in growth?


Aglover: I was wondering if there is anything that can improve a child’s speed of processing, linked to cognitive issues – dyslexia and ASD in particular?

Matt: Increasing time awareness can help, which can also come with a compromise of increasing their own time to complete tasks, timed tasks can be a particular stressor. Helping the students to develop a plan also helps.


Drjessicahamer: In pre-schoolers, should you acknowledge bad behaviour or just praise good behaviour? Or both?

Gaia: Praise good behaviour, and highlight (positive) changes in bad behaviour – to encourage meta-cognition or one’s awareness of how bad behaviour is not inevitable. This is a very hard one to tackle. But there is pretty good evidence that while praise is a good thing, but teaching self-regulation is hard. However, drawing attention to self-regulation when it happens may be a way to develop it. Peer interactions here help too.


Mark Redwood: How can positive reinforcement be applied more successfully in a group setting where there are other things reinforcing unwanted behaviour for example?

Mike: Great question. I think group work is often quite problematic for this and other reasons! I have found this blog helpful…


Mark Redwood: Clearly each student in a class values different rewards, how do those of you describing the use of positive reinforcement apply it so that all students value the rewards available?

Matt: It’ll be about knowing what each student values, perhaps a dealers choice of reward?

Mike: This is true to an extent, but it’s actually pretty rare that, for example, a student achieving something that they haven’t done before wouldn’t be reinforced/motivated by that. ‘Reinforcements’ don’t all have to be rewards.

Matt: These things can be about the type of reward or more simply the presence vs absence of reward, usually the promise of positive reinforcement can be a good motivator, even if it isn’t the correct flavour of reward for some students there is still something to strive towards. 

Pikec17: One issue with rewards is those at either end of the scale tend to get them but those that just potter along in the middle doing what they should do often miss out.

Gaia: I agree entirely – that’s why I would love motivation researchers to direct us to research on “competition with self”, rather than necessarily against others. Not easy to implement though.


Simon Riley: Is there a way to motivate the kids to learn the knowledge separately to the projects, or should we try to combine them?

Mike: The last 2 weeks on this forum were on memory, and I think there will be some very relevant answers for you on there about the value of quizzing as a way of learning and understanding things. The basic principle is that knowledge and ‘makes’ are sort of inseparable. You can’t make something new without a pretty good knowledge of what has gone before it… so I would definitely teach them together!


Vmarshall: For students with attention deficit disorders (both ADD and ADHD) is there any way of distinguishing between inattention that is a result of their disorder and the inattention that is a result of not finding the lesson interesting?  These are lessons which are accessible to the students, and teachers are struggling with which strategies to use as they are not always able to determine the root of the inattention.

Mike: Great question! I don’t think there would be any possible way of knowing this in real time. Perhaps over the course of a term or so a pattern might emerge, though of course the two might be related – the condition might affect behaviour more in certain situations! It’s obviously a tricky one as you don’t know the level of allowances to make. I think it would also depend on other non-science things like their SEN statement, the school’s SEN and behaviour policies etc.

Gaia: In a way neuroscience would suggest that both inattention and not finding lessons interesting go together. Children with ADD / ADHD find motivating themselves hard, so that what can be engaging children without ADD just fine, kids with ADD may require that bit of extra boost of “extrinsic” motivation. For example, finding what their “hook” is in terms of interests, or incentives / gamification. We and others have found that when counting on self-motivation engaging in tasks was harder for kids with ADD, but with game-like incentives they could get to be as engaged as children without ADD.

Mike: Reward schemes etc could be designed for them perhaps (without trying to create too much work for you).

Gaia: I agree! The challenge for teachers is integrating these additional incentives with their other plans for the class – though they may be beneficial for all?

Vmarshall: I think they are beneficial for all – I think a lot of strategies that we use with students with various types of SEN can actually be beneficial for all.

Gaia: How tailored can your lessons be? Can children compete against themselves (i.e., in terms of improvement to self, rather than against others)? That solves a little the problem that if you are v good or v bad in absolute terms you are a bit stuck.

Vmarshall: It depends on the subject and the content being covered I guess. Most teachers at my school are good at tailoring their lessons to meet the needs of individuals. I think they just struggle when it comes to more ‘boring’ exam content that they just ‘need to get through’. Much easier to tailor lessons for younger year groups and not exam classes.

Mike: This perhaps sidesteps your question slightly, but I think one important neuroscience finding in motivation that can be readily applied to education is that ‘liking’ something (i.e. finding it fun), is not the same thing as ‘wanting’ something (i.e. being motivated to repeat it). They use different brain areas and can be activated independently. I think this has big implications for teaching styles potentially. 

Gaia: I hear your and your colleagues pain with exam content… Any chance of turning that into a game itself (i.e., see if you can beat yourself at your previous score on this short section of that exam)?

Vmarshall: I think there are definitely opportunities for this throughout the year – especilly in certain subjects where it is very quick for students to mark their own work and see quickly an improvement on their score (thinking Maths and Science). Less easy in English where it would require a lot more input from the teacher in re-marking test answers.


Pikec17: Sometimes students think you can only do well if you are born clever they do not necessarily link the hard work with good grades? Even if you tell them they can do something they will still say I can’t. What ways have you found that increase confidence?

Matt: The genius vs hard work discussion is a valid one, but I know many people doing PhDs who have had to move to wildly different areas (e.g. Product design engineering to cell biology) and they are true experts in their fields after a time. But of course, this is paid research so the motivation is ever present! With students it’s about finding that motivation and self-belief, praise, and allowing them to achieve small goals and compartmentalise. Rather than failing one large goal, succeeding in a number of smaller and more achievable goals to pop up their egos somewhat tunic they are more confident. This is something that can change from subject to subject and module to module so these upswings and downswings in confidence can be treated in different students at different times.

Pikec17: They do find it hard to link the hard work they did on one topic and doing well to the missing lessons and poor result!

Matt: While the success from one topic may not carry over, the habits can remain, and the urge to achieve goals for rewards is still there.


Drjessicahamer: What environmental factors (that we can control) have been shown to negatively impact attention? I’m thinking things like noise, screen time, diet/hydration, etc.

Pikec17: With environmental factors such as room colour or how ‘busy’ the room is etc how can you ensure it is the best environment for all students?

Matt: Distracting ambient noises and overstimulation in a classroom can take attention away in a lesson, even the colour of the light has been shown to affect work. It’s a fine line between bare and busy, certain colours have been shown to have certain effects, but a good rule of thumb is no more than three colours to a room. For example, while during the day we’re exposed to all colours of natural light, when the sun sets (and especially during these winter months when that happens within school time) the amount of blue light drops drastically, and our body responds to the amount of blue light as part of the natural circadian rhythm. But with phones, laptops, TVs etc we get exposed to a great deal of blue light and this can affect our natural rhythms. You can get programs (flux for PC and Twilight for mobile) that cut out the blue light as the day wears on, with the screen dark and reddish towards midnight, and this helps a great deal with sleep and any disruption to a rhythm. The other aspect of light colour is that blue light has been shown to increase alertness and performance during the day  Not to mention affecting melatonin levels and eye health. There is great evidence on blue light improving cognitive performance  This may be a better paper actually  

Mike: Great question. There are lots. Some interesting recent research has found that densely decorated classrooms might be distracting Barrett, P., Davies, F., Zhang, Y., and Barrett, L. (2015). The impact of classroom design on pupils’ learning: Final results of a holistic, multi-level analysis. Building and Environment, 89, 118-133.

Gaia: Great question! The interesting thing is also how variable this is – some of the environmental “distractions” are sometimes relevant (think of illustrations with content). So part of the challenge is not just controlling the environment but also teaching kids what is relevant.

Mike: A big one though is technology. Not only the people using it, but other people around the person can be negatively affected by a laptop being used for non-work related things (admittedly this was a study done in lecture theatres) Sana, F., Weston, T., and Cepeda, N. J. (2013). Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers. Computers and Education, 62, 24-31.  My big problem with technology in the classroom is that it often encourages multitasking, and there is very clear evidence that we aren’t able to multitask efficiently!

Gaia: I am sure you have seen this – not entirely an overlapping discussion, but bringing in some of the positives to offset the negatives is the use of technology not in the context of the classroom, but for home learning in particular for kids with difficulties.  

Mike: It’s all about the use of the technology. It’s a tool, not a pedagogy.

Drjessicahamer: I think technology is extremely important and helpful in learning …but uncontrolled “mindless” use probably not.


ModSu: Thank you everyone for taking part this evening. Feel free to ask further questions at any time on the website under the ‘Ask’ tab. And join us again for another live chat next week, 1st Feb 4-5pm.

Posted on January 24, 2018 by modsu in Live Chat Transcript, News. Leave a comment

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