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Personal Goals Motivate Teens to Learn

Internal, Rather Than External Personal Goals, Help Teens Learn

WebMD Health News

March 25, 2005 -- Relating what teens learn in school to their own self-improvement may be a better way to encourage children to learn complex concepts, according to new research.

Researchers found when teenagers understand that what they're learning can help them fulfill internal personal goals rather than external ones, they're more motivated to learn concepts. But relating the learning material to external goals promotes literal memorization of facts alone.

Editor's Note: Food Pyramid Replaced

In June 2011, the USDA replaced the food pyramid with a new plate icon.

The results appear in the March/April issue of Child Development.

Internal Goals Motivate Teens to Learn

"Many children often don't find spontaneous interest in their study material," says researcher Maarten Vansteenkiste, a fourth-year doctoral student at the University of Leuven in Belgium, in a news release.

Therefore, teachers and parents use a variety of methods to increase the children's motivation to learn and make learning more relevant to their lives. For example, they may relate learning a particular subject to an intrinsic goal, such as self-development or health, or an extrinsic one, such as becoming more attractive or popular.

In a series of studies, researchers compared the effects of these two different motivational styles of learning among obese and nonobese teenagers.

Half were told that learning about a health-related issue, such as the food pyramid, was important for their health (an internal personal goal) and the other half was told learning about the issue would help them become more physically attractive and appealing (an external personal goal).

In addition, these approaches were presented in two different ways. Half of the teens were pressured to do there best using guilt-inducing language, and the other half were encouraged in a way that promoted autonomy.

Internal Personal Goal Setting Helps

The results showed that internal personal goal setting improved learning. The teens who related learning the subject to internal goals scored better on tests than those who related learning to external goals.

Relating the learning material to external goals appeared to foster literal memorization of facts and reduced the long-term retention of the concepts learned.

The researcher says that while extrinsic goals can be highly motivating and induce some behavioral engagement in the topic, the learning approach is more strategic and narrow-focused. These circumstances promote memorization of material and may fail to enhance conceptual learning.

Finally, the study also showed that inducing guilt and not promoting autonomy also undermined the teens' learning of concepts.

"In short, if teachers want to promote conceptual and thoughtful processing of learning material, they might do well in pointing out the intrinsic goal relevance of the learning material and using an autonomy-supportive style to introduce the learning material," says Vansteenkiste.

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