In Brief

Teachers who blend motivational approaches may be hindering rather than helping their students, according to research in December's Journal of Educational Psychology (Vol. 96, No. 10).

Teachers often seek to make learning relevant by pointing students toward either intrinsic goals concerned with natural inclinations such as self-development or helping others, or extrinsic goals, concerned with external rewards such as prestige and financial success. While past research suggests intrinsic goals are more effective than extrinsic goals in promoting learning, researchers sought to determine whether combining both types would hold greater benefits due to the goals' increased utility.

However, the new study indicates the goal combination may distract from learning, says lead researcher Maarten Vansteenkiste, a fourth-year doctoral student at the University of Leuven, Belgium.

In the study, 245 19- to 20-year-old female first-year students at a Belgian teacher training college read written instructions for required reading about recycling-related issues during regular class time. The researchers gave three groups of students different sets of instructions for future-intrinsic goals, future-extrinsic goals or a double goal that combined the two.

The future-intrinsic instructions--representing the goal of community contribution--told participants the text would help them teach their future toddlers how to keep the environment clean. The future-extrinsic instructions--representing the goal of financial success--told participants the text would advise them how to save money by recycling. The double-goal instructions told the third group the task served both purposes.

After students studied the texts, researchers tested their reading comprehension. Students who read the intrinsic-goal instructions best recalled the information, while those who read the extrinsic-goal instructions scored worst.

Meanwhile, those in the double-goal condition fared worse than those in the intrinsic-goal condition, even though--in the researchers' view--the double goal had made the task seem more valuable and therefore should have bolstered students' performance the most. Instead, the extrinsic goal, which did not expressly promote learning, appeared to interfere with students' mastery focus, according to the researchers.

Those who read the intrinsic instructions scored highest because they were more fully focused on mastering the learning material than those in the other two conditions, the researchers explain. By comparison, extrinsic goals shifted students' attention from learning to external indicators of worth, compromising their comprehension, they note.

"The results confirmed that less is sometimes more," says Vansteenkiste. "Offering fewer goals to increase the relevance of learning is sometimes better, depending on the type and contents of goals."