The Science of Education: Usefulness and Interest in Motivation

The two aspects of academic motivation I am focussing on seem obvious for motivation: usefulness and interest. As obvious as they may appear, they are aspects that don’t usually get the attention (or the kind of attention) they need in education.


Usefulness has to do with the perception that the learner has that the material they are learning is useful. “Students are more motivated when they have more distant goals and have long-range behavioral projects to obtain those goals than when they have only short-term goals” (Jones, 2009). Students tend to ask themselves – Is the material I am supposed to learn today have some utility in meeting my goals? As you can see, there are really two aspects that need to be addressed when talking about usefulness – a learner’s goals, and how the current learning material impacts those goals.

A learner’s goals represent the internalization of learning, and that concept is really addressed in the internalization of motivation article. If the learning has been truly internalized, the learner will feel empowered because they are learning what they really want to learn. What needs to be addressed here is how, what can appear to be tangential material, can be brought into focus as being useful in achieving a learner’s goals.

The first thing that needs to be done in any learning situation that wants to address the usefulness aspect of motivation, is to find out what goals the learners actually have. It is extremely difficult to motivate students to learn in the short term if their goals are – to get through school, to get a good grade, or to get a qualification. However, most students have more substantial longer-term goals than that, and most material can, with creativity, be made to appear somewhat useful to learners with almost any long-term goal.

The first task a teacher should undertake is to explain the usefulness of the material being learned. Obvious, but often not done. Instructors will tell the students about the importance of the material, but often couched in terms of short-term educational goals (you need to do well on the upcoming exam). This is not the same as explicitly explaining the usefulness of the material in meeting long-term goals. One suggestion is to have the students do an exercise where they list their long-term goals, and imagine how the material they are learning might be useful in meeting those goals.

A bigger problem with perceived usefulness is that there might not be any. If a student has a long-term goal of being an electronic engineer, or a social worker looking after sexually abused children, the usefulness of learning Shakespeare might be lost on them (and most of us). In the twenty-first, why is teaching students how to measure the height of a tree using triangulation still considered a core topic? This is a whole other problem that is beyond the scope of this article when you consider that the “core” subjects in secondary school that were set in the late 1890’s are still the core subjects today, not only in secondary school but in higher education as well – with no (or only superficial) change whatsoever.

Anyway – when learners believe that what they are learning is useful to their long-term goals, research has found that they are more motivated to engage in the work. They end up with more positive learning outcomes and put in more effort to learn the material. They will simply work harder if they think the material will be useful to them in accomplishing their long-term goals.


Interest in a subject is more complicated than the perception of usefulness. This is because interest has two very distinct phases – short-term or situational interest and sustained, long-term, personal interest in a subject. Although instructors often employ flashy or gimmicky demonstrations to engage a student’s interest, this works on the momentary or situational interest, and it takes some effort to transfer the situational interest to long-term, personal interest. It is the long-term interest that needs to be ignited.

Schraw and Lehman define long-term academic interest as “liking and willful engagement in a cognitive activity”. Note that there are two components to this definition, an emotional “liking” and the active part “willful engagement” in cognitive, or thinking activity. This relates directly to empowerment, as we know that when a learner is empowered to learn something they want to learn (are interested in) they do much better.

When a learner is personally interested in a subject, research has found that there are positive correlations with attention, memory, comprehension, deeper cognitive engagement, thinking, goal setting, learning strategies, and achievement! Something that I am certainly interested in.

So, how do we effect a transfer of interest from a situational, in the moment curiosity, to a long-term, personal interest in a topic? The first thing that a learner needs is to find out what they are interested in. This means that they need to have a range of content about the topic so that they can begin to satisfy their curiosity by finding out why. Too often, an engaging demonstration is followed up with the answer. If students have any kind of interest, stoke that interest by guiding their curiosity in a way that builds on the initial interest, and keeps the learner wanting to find out just a little bit more.

This – getting the right answer – mentality means that curiosity is satisfied with an answer that will only be useful on a future test. Not at all what a real learner wants, but enough to satisfy the myriads of regulators and accountants who watch over learning in our society.

The necessity of guiding, or scaffolding a learner in their journey is often the key ingredient missing in problem-based learning. In an ideal world, an initial interest in a subject would be followed up with a thirst for more that would be satisfied by a kind of learning that is based on searching and looking for more. However, learning is hard. Unless a learner is driven (much more power than mere curiosity) to find out more, when the work starts, their curiosity ends. However, if the teacher prepares and then gently nudges the learner in directions that will lead them to find out more – at the level that they are capable of (Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development), they will engage in exploration that will lead to true learning.

So, why doesn’t this happen? It is a lot of work for the teacher. I was involved in supporting a problem-based learning assessment for a class and found that the work to prepare for the learner’s discoveries was immense – far more than the preparation needed for a two-hour stand and deliver lecture. Building on a learner’s curiosity and nurturing it into real interest is hard work, and most of us choose to take the path of least resistance.

So how does interest make learning better? One leading theory is that when an individual is really interested in learning something, several things happen within the brain. The first thing is that interest increases the amount of attention that is devoted to a task. More attention on a task increases the processing power that is devoted to understanding, and so it makes the cognitive task seem easier. In addition, interest allows a learner to more easily access and search for prior knowledge that might be brought to bear on the problem or task. This is also an effect of allocating more attentional resources to the problem. Finally, it is thought that interest allows more raw cognitive processing power to be allocated to the task because of the decreased need to force yourself to concentrate (attention) on the task because it is interesting. The cognitive regulation of time and effort on uninteresting tasks take up considerable valuable resources that could be used for learning.

Interest means that a learner perceives a task to be easier and more enjoyable. Is it any wonder that increasing real interest in learning something leads to greater academic motivation, along with the associated benefits?

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