Being (de)motivated while learning

Software carpentry and learning

I am going through the 11th iteration of software carpentry for instructors and I am quite happy about the way Greg Wilson conducts his bi-weekly calls and focuses on evidence-based learning techniques.

At first my expectations from this course were those of simply learning how to teach specific software carpentry lessons, that is, traditional master classes on software engineering, tools and accompanying cookbooks.

During the first session I quickly realized that his approach goes far beyond that.

Greg is attacking the very roots of the learning process in order to provide a solid teaching base, ultimately offering robust, research-based, (scientific) software literacy to the world.

How motivation works

Going through chapter 3 of how learning works ebook from Software Carpentry’s recommended reading there’s an illustrative experience from a teacher on her first class speech:

So I told my students on the first day of class, “This is a very difficult course. You will need to work harder than you have ever worked in a course and still a third of you will not pass”

Which I heard a lot of times myself and somewhat learned to ignore during my university days. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those words were followed by unintended consequences:

But to my surprise, they slacked off even more than in previous semesters (…) their test performance was the worst it had been for many semesters.

By using several research papers as a foundation to understand those situations, how learning works concludes that:

Limited chances of passing may fuel preexisting negative perceptions about the course, compromise her students’ expectations for success, and undermine their motivation to do the work necessary to succeed.

Again, I’ve seen this happening time after time on different academic contexts over the years.

This week’s assignment

So in this week’s course session, Greg asked us to describe a personal experience during our education where we saw a similar situation.

Sometime during my high school years, Iñaki, my physics teacher said something like:

If you don’t put more effort on physics, I think you should consider fixing motorbikes on FP instead.

FP (Formación Profesional) is the spanish educational route for those who want to skip university and pursue a more applied professional degree. FP is often mocked by spanish society (some teachers too) and regarded as “lower paid” and “less honorable” means to earn a living than going for more traditional academic degrees.

This is a myth since there are many FP professionals that make a very decent living out of roles such as DBA (in spanish)Germans know that very well and hire accordingly.

I believe Iñaki wanted me to succeed in physics and meant well, targeting at my self-esteem as a way to push me harder. Looking back, I see that it was a bad move that effectively de-motivated me. Although I did pass, it did not enjoy the subject as I should have, didn’t learn it as thoroughly and, therefore, didn’t earn higher scores.

I tend to obsess on topics I like. Curiosity keeps me awake at night, it’s like an unconscious autopilot that drives me towards higher understanding. As I discover and dig deeper on subjects I want to learn more about, I completely lose track of time. In my experience, frictionless, smooth learning almost invariably results in well cristalized knowledge and high scores.

Later on, while undergoing my computational biology masters degree in Sweden, I re-discovered (bio)physics while diving on the incredible world of ion channels and biomedicine in a very different learning environment.

I loved it.