We often say that we learn from our failures. But neuroscience does not completely agree. The reality is that humans are more likely to learn from mistakes if they have experienced a sufficient amount of success.
The brain produces motivation by the secretion of dopamine in the nucleus accumbent (also known as the reward pathway). For example, when a student gets an answer correct, dopamine is released to motivate the desire to get more answers correct in the future. Once a brain has established a pattern of success, it is strong enough to overcome occasional failures and setbacks. The experience of repeated success develops a strong drive to push through the occasional set back to receive the dopamine reinforcer.
Success is even important to maximize the motivation of students who have experienced academic accomplishments. Research conducted by Wolfram Schultz found that elite athletes’ brains require success to develop good training habits. Using fMRI, functional magnetic resonance imaging, athletes were shown video recordings of themselves being victorious or experiencing defeat. The athletes who saw themselves being victorious experienced activation of dopamine motivating them to train harder. Those who saw themselves failing actually experienced activation in a region of the brain associated with the loss of motivation and did not train as hard. This study demonstrates that even highly motivated individuals still require ongoing success to persevere.
How the brain produces motivation is especially important for students who struggle. A pattern of failure produces a lack of motivation. Even when the students experience some success, their motivation is fragile, meaning one setback can be enough to stop them from trying again. Teachers have often experienced struggling students giving up due to a minor setback. The typical scenario includes a student having some initial success; the teacher encourages and praises the student, believing he has turned the corner. Then the student has one failed test or even one wrong response in class that results in the student giving up and not wanting to try again. This is why cognitive neuroscientist Ian Robertson said, “Success and failure shape us more powerfully than genetics and drugs (Robertson 2012).”
So why are some students more than others easily motivated or defeated? A student’s temperament plays an important role in motivation. Temperament can be defined as how capable an individual is to adapt to new situations and bounce back from life’s difficulties. Students with easy temperaments seem more able to bounce back from setbacks and can maintain a positive outlook during challenging times. Students with difficult or anxious temperaments tend not to bounce back from setbacks as quickly and are inclined to view challenging situations pessimistically. Because there is a range of student temperaments, it is helpful when teachers can be sensitive to the fact that some pupils’ motivation levels are impacted by their neurobiological makeup, resulting in the student being less motivated due to a history of school failure or losing motivation quickly with just a few setbacks.
In order to build students’ motivation, I recommend trying these approaches:
- Each year teachers should attempt to establish a classroom culture in which all students believe that they can be successful. This message must be repeated with regularity and reinforced by the teacher’s actions.
- Utilize formative assessment to help determine how well students are comprehending and retaining information, and then test when there is an expectation of success. In addition, consider giving two test scores: the traditional grade and a score which indicates the rate of improvement. This action allows teachers to focus on effort and improvement rather than just traditional grades.
- Reframe wrong answers by avoiding using the traditional x mark and the color red, which students who have persistently failed tend to have a negative reaction to. Establish a mindset where students view wrong answers as opportunities for future progress.
- Consider giving diverse types of tests not just written: oral, picture identification, demonstration of gestures taught during lessons. These creative forms of assessment allow students who learn and retain differently to demonstrate their strengths and be more successful.