Getting myself to practice was always a challenge, for as long as I can remember. I mean, I always did get around to it eventually, because there were plenty of extrinsic motivators like lessons, rehearsals, performances, and competitions on the horizon that helped to spark some motivation.
But whenever I had a longer break between lessons, or if there weren’t any performance-like events on the calendar, finding the motivation to practice was a lot tougher. And I often went through many periods of time in which I didn’t feel a ton of intrinsic motivation to practice my scales, etudes, and work through the repertoire on my list.
Extrinsic motivation isn’t all bad, of course. So it’s not like we need to get by on intrinsic motivation alone – but it’s nice when we can rely on both, and not extrinsic motivation alone. Because the research suggests that there are some pretty meaningful side benefits of being more intrinsically motivated. Like increased levels of effort and persistence, and a tendency to experience less anxiety in performance.
So…how can we increase intrinsic motivation? Especially in our students, who might be more accustomed to relying on extrinsic motivators to keep themselves going?
A golf study
A team of researchers (Badami et al., 2011) recruited 46 female university students to participate in a golf putting study.
Everyone was given 60 practice putts, where the goal was to get the ball to come to a stop on a small 2-inch (5cm) target a little over 13 feet (~4 meters) away.
The target was set up like a bullseye, with a series of rings drawn around the target – at 10cm, 15cm, 20cm, etc. all the way up to 75cm. Each of these rings was labeled with a letter to indicate what “zone” the ball was in. Zone A, for instance, was worth 150 points, Zone B was worth 140 points, and so on.
Participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups, and then proceeded to take 60 practice putts. These 60 putts were divided up into 10 sets of 6 putts each. And they were told that after each set of 6 putts, they would receive feedback on half of their putts.
One group – the feedback on good putts group – received the scores for their three best putts from each set of six putts. For instance, if they hit zones H, E, B, D, D, G, and C, the feedback they received after that practice block would be “Putt #3: 140 points; Putt #4: 120 points; Putt #6: 130 points.”
The other group – the feedback on poor putts group – received scores for the three worst putts in each set of six putts. Like, “Putt #1: 80 points; Putt #2: 110 points; Putt #5: 90 points.”
What the participants didn’t know…
One interesting detail to keep in mind is that while the participants knew to expect feedback, they weren’t told whether this was positive or negative feedback. As in, the researchers never specified whether the feedback they would be receiving was related to good putts or bad putts. More on this in a little bit…
The main thing that researchers were interested in was motivation, so when participants finished taking their practice putts, they all completed an intrinsic motivation assessment that was designed to measure things like their level of interest and enjoyment and perceived competence. Which included items like “golf putting was fun to do” or “after putting for awhile, I felt pretty competent” that they had to rate on a 1 to 7 scale (1=strongly disagree; 7=strongly agree).
So did the type of feedback they received have any effect on intrinsic motivation?
There was no difference between the two groups’ interest/enjoyment scores, but there was a significant difference between the two groups’ perceived competence ratings. Where the participants who received feedback about their best putts in each set tended to experience a greater sense of competence than the group that received feedback about their worst putts.
And most importantly, the feedback on good putts group had higher intrinsic motivation scores after their practice session.
This finding is consistent with other research in the area of “cognitive evaluation theory.” Which is basically the idea that positive feedback – or even informational feedback (i.e. instructional or technical suggestions on how to improve) – leads to an increased perception of competence. Which in turn, increases intrinsic motivation.
Back to that interesting detail…
So rewinding things a bit, do you remember how I said that the participants were deliberately kept in the dark about the nature of the feedback they were receiving? Where they weren’t explicitly told whether they were receiving feedback about their good or bad putts?
The researchers purposefully set up the experiment to minimize the chances of participants guessing what the feedback pattern was. And for the most part, they were successful. Because when participants were asked if they thought they received feedback on their best putts, worst putts, or a mix of both good and bad, 91% thought they received feedback on both good and bad putts. Only four participants (all in the feedback on poor putts group) guessed correctly that they got feedback on their worst putts.
The implication, is that intrinsic motivation can be influenced on an unconscious level. As in, the positive feedback group experienced a boost in both their sense of competence and in intrinsic motivation, even though they had no idea the feedback they were getting was highly selective.
As I think about this little detail some more, it makes me wonder if their boost in perceived competence may actually have been partly because of the way this was set up. Like, if they assumed that the feedback they were receiving represented a mix of good/bad performances, even though the reality was that they were only getting feedback on their best putts, wouldn’t it be natural for them to interpret the results as suggesting that their average performance is pretty darn decent? Not realizing that their “average” performance was actually their best performance? That’s not addressed directly in this study, so I can’t know if there’s anything to that, but still…maybe something interesting to ponder some more…
Anyhow, a couple caveats.
The main one is that because the study doesn’t say that the participants were skilled or experienced golfers, presumably, these were all novice golfers. So it’s not clear how the results might change if the study looked at highly skilled golfers, and what sort of effect this type of feedback would have on more experienced athletes or performers, who might already be motivated in various ways to work on their craft.
That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if the results were still similar, as no matter what level we are currently at, I think we always want to feel competent, and getting feedback from those we trust about the things we are doing well is pretty nice whenever it occurs. Especially when we do also have to confront the things we aren’t doing so well…
Ok, so increasing intrinsic motivation is great, but does this ultimately have any measurable benefits on learning?
That goes beyond the scope of this particular study, but the short answer is yes, other research does seem to suggest that there is a link between feedback after good performance, intrinsic motivation, and improved learning. So in the week ahead, maybe pay particular attention to times when students get something right, make sure to highlight what worked, and see if you can observe any shift in their sense of competence, or in their motivation to work in these areas that they begin to feel more capable in.
And if you’d like to do a little more reading on that link between feedback, intrinsic motivation, and learning, here’s an old post from the archives which looks at a 2011 paper which suggests that feedback after we do things well or correctly does indeed seem to enhance learning: Why Feedback About Success May Be More Powerful Than Feedback About Failure