LaTB Stories #1: Alex W.


My name is Alex Wonnell, aka Wonz.  I work in a middle school in Burlington, VT.  

Dr. Kou Murayama, who researches motivation and learning, presented some of the most interesting and relevant research I saw at the November 2016 conference.  

As educators, we are constantly trying to motivate students. Do rewards work?  When should I provide this carrot?  What’s best for long-term learning? Murayama’s research provides much-needed context and science in this domain.  

Here is a list of Dr. Murayama’s general findings:

  •         Intrinsic Motivation (IM) leads to more long-term consolidation of learning.
  •         Extrinsic Motivation (EM) leads to more short-term learning.
  •         IQ is strongly related to baseline math achievement. However, growth in math achievement is unrelated to IQ.  
  •         Unlike IQ, IM predicts long-term learning.
  •         We can increase IM by promoting a sense of competence, relatedness to teachers and peers, and choice.
  •         IM may enhance people’s resilience to failure feedback.
  •         Performance-based incentives do not always work.
  •         Extrinsic rewards may not enhance learning for interesting work; there is an undermining effect.  
  •         Extrinsic rewards could facilitate performance with “boring” work.

What to do with Murayama’s findings?  

I particularly found increasing intrinsic motivation to be most valuable.  I spend most of my time in school with a high-needs, highly un-motivated student who has suffered developmental trauma.  Most of the work he does relies on an extrinsic reward, like throwing a ball around.  To him, all work is “boring” unless it’s a game.  So, Murayama’s conclusions partly validate these methods in this context.  

I balance these extrinsic rewards with several of Murayama’s intrinsic reward techniques.

I provide constant positive feedback to create feelings of competence; I encourage classmate communication to promote relatedness; and I ALWAYS give options.  “You can’t make me” is a very common response I get; providing choice is a way to make him feel more autonomous while providing a chance at increasing intrinsic motivation. (While this method is not completely self-directed, it is less forced.) Part of the art of teaching is the delivery and creativity designing the choices.  

In a way, I look at the work I do as extrinsically motivating his intrinsic motivation.  Dr. Murayama’s research has given me greater insight into this paradox.

In sum, Murayama provides a beginning framework to understand motivation in education.  The classroom is a complex environment – one very different from a laboratory – but his research can help steer us in the right direction. No wonder that he won the 2016 “Transforming Education Through Neuroscience” Award.

[Editor’s Note: Have you got a Learning and the Brain story you’d like to share? Email me at [email protected]]


Murayama, K., Elliot, A. J., & Yamagata, S. (2011). Separation of performance-approach and performance-avoidance achievement goals: A broader analysis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 103(1), 238. (Article)

Murayama, K., & Kuhbandner, C. (2011). Money enhances memory consolidation–But only for boring material. Cognition, 119(1), 120-124. (Article)

Murayama, K., Matsumoto, M., Izuma, K., Sugiura, A., Ryan, R. M., Deci, E. L., & Matsumoto, K. (2013). How self-determined choice facilitates performance: A key role of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Cerebral Cortex, 1241-1251. (Article)

Murayama, K., Pekrun, R., Lichtenfeld, S., & Vom Hofe, R. (2013). Predicting long‐term growth in students’ mathematics achievement: The unique contributions of motivation and cognitive strategies. Child development, 84(4), 1475-1490. (Article)


category: L&B Blog

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