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Motivations and Incentives

First and foremost in studying and exam-taking are the incentives which drive or motivate us toward a goal. Incentives can be roughly divided into two classes: rewards and threats (or rewards and punishments). Basically, we react toward pleasant things and away from unpleasant ones. If you are “lacking in motivation,” or, more correctly, low in motivation, it means that you have not reacted enough toward the rewarding side of study or away from the fear of failure in a way that brings out your best self.

People who do not measure up to their potential ability are called “under-achievers.” The graph in Fig. 1 illustrates their relative position (UA). Industrious, driving people who have less ability for over-achievers (OA)] can sometimes outshine their brighter but less well motivated classmates. The ellipse of dots from L (low) to H (high) is to be ex­pected when one arranges performance (vertical scale) with the results of the same individuals’ “scholastic aptitude test” scores. Each dot repre­sents a person. What is not expected are the two clusters outside the ellipse at OA and UA. It is believed by some observers that these two clusters represent people who were either hard-working, well-organized, and welloriented, with an intense desire to succeed (OA) or “promising” persons (UA) who failed to score as well as expected because of complex difficulties, including personal problems, lack of good orientation at the start, inadequate know-how, or a combination of these and other things. Other observers belittle these findings by suggesting that the “scholastic aptitude test” cannot measure scholastic aptitude. There is agreement, however, in the belief that performance involves the whole individual, not a separate part of an individual measurable by tests of a simple type. (The diagram is based upon an interpretation of scores from several sources.)

How can high motivation be created? Where does it come from? How does it apply to studying and taking exams?

The causes of high motivation seem to occur throughout an individual’s lifetime. They have been traced back through adolescence to childhood, where incidents are known to have a tremendous influence, back into infancy as well, and by some investigators into foetal life.

Fig. 1. Over-achievers and under-achievers

Incentives of different kinds will naturally appeal to different kinds of people, according to childhood and adolescent experience. Within a given individual, incentives tend to shift, at least superficially. The incentives of self-respect, self-gratification, and self-advancement tell much of the early story. Later in life, other incentives enter the picture.

If one can clearly relate the self to the outcome of studying, it becomes easier to study. The pleasure of winning, of showing someone you could do it, the fear of failing, and the shame of not measuring up, if you can only personalize these forces and direct them toward reading books and toward high-level mental activity, can be your strong allies in making the most of study time. Exactly what will appeal to you as an incentive is hard to say. Loftier goals – the betterment of one’s family, community, nation, etc. – usually arise later in life. If you can relate your work to these goals, you are indeed displaying a high degree of maturity.

Most students have vague incentives which have not been brought into sharp focus. As you read along in this book, perhaps you will begin to see what education is all about, and this comprehension will help sharpen your own incentives.

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