Feedback & Motivation

Marilee Sprenger notes in her book Learning & Memory – The Brain in Action that “the single most dynamic influence on the brain’s chemistry may be positive feedback.” If you’ve been following this blog then you know that the “feel good” neurotransmitters–serotonin, dopamine and endorphin–can be released by the brain in response to external stimuli such as exercise, laughter, singing, listening to music, and, perhaps the most powerful of all, positive feedback.

This brings me to my previous post, Intentional Wording, where I suggest that the words we use in providing feedback make a difference in how that feedback is perceived and valued. Generic statements usually are devalued because they are said too often to too many people, do not contain any specific comments that cause the listener to feel they are known by the speaker, and do not provide sufficient useful information.

In Teaching with the brain in mind, Eric Jensen states that feedback must be of good quality, accurate, timely, corrective and positive. Since more mistakes in learning tend to happen when something is first being learned, there are a number of ways to provide regular feedback that will assist the learner in making changes to their learning. Some of Jensen’s suggestions (page 55) for providing feedback include:

• model building
• peer editing
• pair-sharing
• using spell-check
• student presentations with audience feedback
• using a video, audio tape or mirror
• using a checklist or rubric

Besides using words as feedback, it is not uncommon to use a reward system as a motivator or as feedback. You’ve probably heard the spiel: if you perform such and such, then we will do thus and thus, or you will receive this and that. The implication of these words is that the activity should be done in order to receive the reward. Unfortunately, such a system impedes the goal of learning, which is learning for learning’s sake. Ideally, we want to foster intrinsic motivation and not extrinsic motivation. Purdue University Calumet’s School of Education has an online textbook by Edward Vockell, Educational Psychology: A Practical Approach, that contains much useful information. In particular, I refer you to Chapter 5, which is all about motivation, or skip directly to the chapter on Intrinsic Motivation.

Returning to Sprenger’s book, she sums this up in a paragraph that says it all:

Positive feedback raises serotonin levels and is itself a reward. We need to talk more with our students and give them the feedback they need. Recognition is more powerful than rewards. Celebrating at the end of a unit gives students an emotional memory that may help motivate them for the next unit. This celebration cannot be based on test results or behavior, however–or it becomes a reward.

And I love Sprenger’s solution for dealing with students who ask her what they will “get” if they score well on something.

I simply walk up to the student, take his hand, and shake it. The issue is usually dropped.


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