Q&A: Professor Examines Ways We Can Better Motivate Ourselves

October 10, 2019

A pen, card, iPhone and roses on a table

Image by Ylanite Koppens

The following article is part of a series previewing the events taking place during Wentworth’s Inauguration Week, October 15-20.

What motivates you? Are you more likely to do something because it brings you joy or because you feel you have no other choice? Dr. Jonathan Stolk seeks to answer these questions and others in workshops planned for Wentworth faculty and staff next week.

Stolk, professor of materials science and engineering education at Olin College, has spent years working with students and educators to help them better understand intrinsic motivation, which comes from within a person and is borne of interest and enjoyment in a certain task.

We spoke with Stolk ahead of the workshops.

Q: Do people generally consider what motivates them or how they are motivated?

A: One of the reasons the motivation topic resonates especially in academia is we all have experiences where we feel different motivations, some positive some not. Most people don’t have a formal language to describe it, but almost everyone has thought about this in an abstract way. In everyday language we use phrases like, “That experience was really motivating for me.”


Q: Once a person knows what motivates them, what can they do with that information?

A: They can see more of what's going on in a given situation, and can adjust their behavior in a way that will lead to more positive motivation. We don’t want to see students identify that they’re simply not motivated or believe that a particular class is not for them. We want to equip people with an understanding of their own drive that allows them to adjust and adapt to different situations, to find ways to positively engage.

Q: Can someone change their framework? Can they go from extrinsic to intrinsic?

A: Part of motivation theory is a concept called internalization, which happens when people find ways to shift external drive, like pressure to perform or a sense of guilt, into more personally endorsed motivations by finding value or interest in an activity. For example, there was a long period in my career where I hated going to faculty meetings. I had a negative framing of the “wasted” time I spent in them. At some point I started working on finding positive framing and I settled on the idea that faculty meetings are not about the information, they are about connecting with my colleagues. This allowed me to find personal value and enjoyment in these gatherings. We want students to be able to do the same thing with courses they initially think they just “have to take” or topics they think they will dislike.

Q: Can the same person find different types of motivation in different things? For example, someone is motivated to go to work in a different way than they might be motivated to vote in an election.

A: There is an idea in motivation theory that says we have situation-specific motivations are near-term, dynamic responses to everyday moments. We have seen groups of students who will go to one class and express a very positive sense of motivation; two hours later they’ll go to a different class and have very different type of engagement.  There are also contextual motivations – more enduring motivations within a domain. You might feel very different about health versus religion versus work versus politics. You can have different motivational patterns across different domains. But none of these responses are fixed -- you see long-term changes in how you engage in different domains. A student might into a class and think they’re going to hate it. But they end up shifting their engagement and ultimately end up switching into that major because they like it so much.


Q: What are you hoping to show people at Wentworth?

A: I want to promote the idea of autonomy and autonomy-support in learning. I want to create an open experience to allow learners to take more control and make choices. We can do that as course designers and look for ways not to overly constrain the experience and help others find passions and enjoyment.

We think a lot at Olin about how to frame the work for students to discover something individually. It’s not always easy. Our students go through K-12 under a rigid structure and we have to be careful not to throw them into a high autonomy situation too fast. The level of choice and control has to enable learners to find a sense of importance or value, or a sense of interest and passion, in the experience.

Q: It sounds like the Oct. 15 workshop will be hands-on?

A: Hands-on, for sure. These are short sessions designed to provide little bursts of motivation theory. I’ll show some of my research data and talk about different types of motivation and factors to consider when designing for intrinsic motivation.

If you are attending, think about courses or programs you’ve taught recently. Dissect them from a motivation point-of-view. What do you see at the group level and individually? Once we understand what's going on in the classroom, what do we plan to do about it?

The first “Understanding & Supporting Intrinsic Motivation” workshop will take place Tuesday, Oct. 15 at 10:00 a.m., with a second workshop at 1:30 p.m.  A “lunch and learn” will be held at noon. Wentworth staff and faculty interested may sign up for one session by contacting the Office of University Events at 617-989-4378 or universityevents@wit.edu

--Greg Abazorius

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