Professor Andrew Martin on the Complex Psychology of Student Motivation

Thomas O'Donahoo

Co-founder & Co-CEO at Atomi


min read

Andrew Martin, Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of New South Wales, offers his insight on the topic of student motivation. In this conversation, Andrew explores the connection between student motivation and success and breaks down the Load Reduction Instruction model.

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[Music playing]

Simon: Hey there, welcome to Atomi Brainwaves.  A podcast about education for educators where we tackle a variety of issues in the world of pedagogy.  We’re recording here in the studio at Atomi, an online resource for second level learning used by students and teachers alike to help make education awesome and engaging.  We provide content for schools and students in Australia and the UK in the form of short, digestible syllabus-specific videos and classroom activities.  I’m your host Simon and I’m joined today by our special guest, Dr Andrew Martin, Scientia Professor and Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of New South Wales and Co-Chair of the Educational Psychology Research Group in the School of Education at UNSW, specialising in motivation, engagement, achievement and quantitative research methods.  Hello Andrew.

Dr Martin: Hi.

Simon: Quite a mouthful there!

Dr Martin: It is, yes.

Simon: I feel I could’ve gone on as well, there were quite a few other qualifications and roles...

Dr Martin: From here on, Andrew is just fine.

Simon: Fair enough, we’ll stick to Andrew for the time being.  Who knows what the future of this broadcast will hold?

Dr Martin: We’ll see.

Simon: But on the subject of that, of all those roles and all that history, I was wondering if you could kind of give us a brief overview of your journey through the years in education, how you got to where you are now and what you’ve picked up along the way?

Dr Martin: Yes I guess I found school enjoyable for the most part, but certainly some times of real challenge and so probably for me the low point of school was at the end of Year 10 where the Year Master at Parent/Teacher Night was surprised that I intended to go on to Year 11 and that was a fun night at home, I can tell you that much.  So I was fortunate that I was from a home that was well-resourced and parents who were able to help and a school that was also able to help, so I got my act together and with that good support around me and so Year 11 and 12 were a bit better than Year 9 and 10, and so I went on to university from there and was interested in Child Psychology, so I did that as an Undergrad, then I pretty much drifted I think for a few years, as I think a lot of young adults do...

Simon: Nothing wrong with that!

Dr Martin: No, and I think it happens more these days, back then there was a little more anxiety around it and “What are you doing with your life?” and life’s meant to be linear and you’re meant to be in a job now and so on.  But then around mid-20s I came back to university and did a Masters and then a PHD, and the PHD was in the area of “Fear of Failure” and the different ways how students will respond to their fear of failure.  So some will respond with fear of failure by succeeding, so many are perfectionists as being a failure fearer and others at the other end will just drop out and give up.  I was interested in that, and so that then kicked me into the area of motivation engagement, which actually I’ve been now researching for 30 years, but I think the impetus of my interest in motivation ultimately is that I know what it’s like not to be motivated, I’m interested in engagement because I know what it’s like to be disengaged, I lived that life, I was a great exemplar of that.  But I also know experientially that it’s also possible to haul yourself up, but critically I know how important it is for one’s environment to be able to help you to do that which is why I’m interested in both student motivation and what they can do themselves, but also the role of parents, teachers, schools in helping that happen.  So in a thumbnail, that’s where I’ve come from and what literally brings me here today.

Simon: Where you are here today!  What’s really interesting there is that idea of individual experience in forming so much of what followed, kind of taking what happened to you in school and what you picked up there, and that translating directly into your role today.  Something you touched on there, which I guess is kind of going to be the central focus of a lot of our conversation, is this idea of motivation cause I know that’s really at the heart of a lot of what your research and writing is about.  It’s almost a simple question, but let’s unpack it as we go.  How important is motivation to academic success?

Dr Martin: So...very important!

Simon: That’s all we need...very important.  You heard it here first.

Dr Martin: It’s peddling back a little from that.  Motivation is something that when you say the word everyone nods and says “Oh yes, we know what that is”, but in fact motivation is multidimensional, there are many parts to it, both good and not-so-good.  The good comprises things like self-confidence, valuing your school, persistence, planning, and the not-so-good includes the things like fear of failure, anxiety, helplessness, disengagement.  And so when you know all these key parts of motivation, and so in our research program, we’ve developed the motivation and engagement wheel that represents those key factors of motivation both the good, the bad and the ugly, and all of that.  You can then start to understand how it is important to academic success and so students who are confident, that’s one part of motivation, they’re inclined to persist longer, they’re inclined to stick at problems a little bit longer if they hit the wall, they’re more inclined to try alternative approaches if they don’t get it first go, they’re inclined to look at something that they might not initially know and not give up at that point but say...they back themselves.  And so that being the case, you can see for all those reasons high self-confidence and high-efficacy is strongly associated with their academic outcome such as laying an achievement.  

So the first answer is motivation is really important because it’s a means to desirable ends.  But importantly, the research is also clear, and any parent and teacher will tell you, it’s not just the means to desirable ends, it’s a desirable end in itself.  It is good to feel confident.  It is just in itself good to feel there’s value in what you’re studying and doing.  In itself, it’s good not to be frightened of a bad mark or a teacher asking you a question in class.  And so a desirable end in itself, I think we often think about motivation...we want kids to be motivated so they do better, and that’s fine.  But I think we underestimate the importance of, in itself, being an outcome and we look at that also.

Simon: Just picking up on one thing you said there, which I found kind of interesting, was obviously you were talking about motivation but you’re using the word confidence and being confident a lot, almost as if the two were synonymous.  So just pulling on that thread a little, is one necessary to the other?  Does someone need to be confident in order to be motivated, or is it possible to achieve that kind of desirable outcome of motivation without being particularly confident?

Dr Martin: So we tend to see confidence as one part of motivation, but picking up on the last part of the question, it is possible to be not confident and still try hard, and so we’ll find, for example, that there are some students who doubt themselves, that are fearful of failure, that anticipate a poor outcome, and so they invest a lot of effort so that doesn’t happen.  Sometimes it can be a little deceptive where you’re seeing a student working really hard but when we do our research and you dig under that, it’s not enthusiasm and aspiration and confidence that’s striving them, it’s in fact fear and avoidance.  And we find over time, that’s what I was mentioning was the negative aspects of motivation, and so over time we find that unless we can change the reasons why they’re doing it, so moving it from an avoidance orientation to what we call an approach orientation, so you work hard not because you don’t want to fail or look dumb or get into trouble, you work hard to improve, to develop skill, to master, to learn something new.

So we try to shift the underlying drive from that avoidance to the approach, and so it’s interesting...yes, you can lack self-confidence and work hard, but we would say that’s not for the greatest reasons, and we also find that you’re at risk of burning out because that’s almost a negative fuelling of your drive, and we find you can run out of puff or setback tends to be more debilitating for you because it confirms the doubts you have about yourself and then you realise the house of cards fall down...I really am dumb...I’m really not cut out for this...well bugger it, I’m not going to try anymore.  So, even though you’re working hard initially, you’re often at risk of early abandonment because of low self-confidence.

Simon: I definitely agree that fear can be your primary motivator, it’ll only lasts so long.  But I wonder would you say there’s a place at all for fear to a small degree because there are those who might say imagine a student whose 100% confident, well could that stray over the line as arrogance and sort of lose motivation because they feel “I’ve got this covered, I don’t need to worry”.  Is there a place at all for a little bit of fear of failure, or would you say just say it needs to be wiped out from the motivation spectrum entirely?

Dr Martin: So on the self-confidence, yes.  We have done some research into over and underrating of one’s abilities and we find that, in the main, it’s not too bad to just think you’re a touch better than you are.  Not too much better because there’s that complacency and also setback can again be debilitating because you thought you were a whole lot better than...but just to have a little bit of an edge, raise the bar on your aspirations and self-expectations a little bit, we find it good.  On the fear side of things, and I guess this is where...on the plus side, so the student whose working hard because they’re frightened of failing, on the plus side, they’re working hard and so there are some students who are neither fearful nor are they working hard, and so you’ve got to deal with’ve got to improve the study skills.  But the student who’s fearful at least usually they’re effort is in the mix so the aim is to actually shift the reasons why they do what they do, and so you address their fear of failure whilst maintaining their effort.  

Interestingly, one of the seductive aspects of giving up is that it usually alleviates anxiety, once you’re no longer...when you’re not in the game where there’s no chance of failure, then you alleviate anxiety.  So a lot of the time that students cut class or abandon or give up is partly because they hit the wall, but the other part is it has a relieving effect in terms of reducing anxiety.  Now we’re into the murky world of failure dynamics and it’s really interesting.  The other thing is there’s the difference of distress and eustress.  So distress is a verse of anxiety and things like that, but eustress is where there’s a positive arousal, so you’re still physiologically aroused and so we find that can be quite adaptive and indeed we do find that a modest level of arousal is helpful for performance.  So even in the fear terrain, if we can start actually shifting it from that aversive anxiety through to the more stimulating arousal in terms of performance and academic processes, then that distinction’s important as well.

Simon: It’s a really kind of fascinating exploration of the internal element of what’s going on in terms of motivation, but if I can I want to steer us for a moment into the external area of it and kind of explore if we can a little bit what the external factors are that are impacting student motivation and engagement the most?

Dr Martin: So there are many factors outside of the student and, however, importantly, there are many factors within the student’s control, and so our job as researchers is to identify what are the contributions of each and so factors in the student’s control...their choices, their attitudes, how much work they’re investing and also I guess factors inside of them, their aspects such as genes temperament and so on, and all of that is in the mix.  But certainly the research is also clear that parents or carers, teachers, peers impact as well.  But ultimately we do get back to, in the end, it’s the student who will have to choose, in the end it will be the student who makes decisions and forms expectations and assumptions.  We’re familiar with the expression, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.  And there’s a great deal of truth in that and I would often roll that out with teachers at professional learnings sessions and so on.  But one teacher once put her hand up and she said, “That may be the case, but you can salt the oats to make it thirsty”, that was an epiphany as a researcher and as a parent, so what’s our jobs, ultimately we can’t force kids, if you do, our research is pretty clear, the wheels will fall off.  Kids will give up.  Kids feel controlled.  The teacher/ student or parent/child relationship starts heading south.  You force a kid, particularly into adolescence, and we usually find that that works.  

So what can we do?  

Well we can salt the oats to make it thirsty, we can create climates and conditions where kids are prepared to do a little bit more rather than a little bit less.  And we can all look back at teachers who have done that, for one reason or another, they’ve managed to shape the environment, administer the tasks, assess us in particular ways, talk to us and encourage us in particular ways, talk about goals that are of our research programs is “Personal Best Goals” and that’s a great way to let kids aspire to success which is accessible to them, and firing up curiosity and interest.  We can’t force them to do stuff.  As I said, you might for a while, but in the end it’s unsustainable, but we can certainly create climates and conditions.  And the other thing, not all kids will switch on at that moment.  Kids come online at different points in their development, and so those teachers and parents that are just chipping away and maintaining environments when the child and young person says, “Okay, I will do a bit of work.  What do I do?”  The environment is ready, the messages have been going in, and they’re able I was getting back to at the start of the interview...when I decided to wake up and get with the program, things were such that I could...

Simon: It really seems to be kind of that idea of salting the oats, but it’s quite a fine balance in setting up that environment, getting it just right to create the right conditions.  And I suppose following on from that, if we kind of move into the sort of technical area, you have advocated for a method of instruction and that you’ve dubbed LRI and I’d love it if we could kind of talk about that, what it is, what it’s designed to do?  Tell us about it.

Dr Martin: As a motivation researcher, I had been researching this for probably about 20 years and a lot of it was looking at those student factors...the student’s self-confidence, the student’s valuing, the student’s fear...and other researchers and practitioners, there are a lot of great strategies to do to promote confidence, reduce anxiety and so on.  However, there was a certain level of frustration at a certain point in our research program where we could roll out great strategies to target confidence and things like that, however, if kids weren’t experiencing success, all the amount of positive self-talk, after a while, it’s not credible.  You can look yourself in the mirror and say I’m great at maths, but if you keep not understanding what’s going on in class, you’re not figuring things out, you’re not getting great results, you’re not learning much, then after a while your positive self-talk is not credible.

Simon: The diminishing module returns the same thing.

Dr Martin: Exactly, and so there was a point in time where we had to look at instruction and because that was a point obviously where students were either learning or not learning, and so where students were our focus on motivation, when we’re looking at instruction teachers become front and centre.  With myself and Greg Liem, he’s in Singapore, we were asked by John Hattie and Eric Anderman to write a chapter in their Handbook of International Student Achievement a couple of years ago to review various instructional practices that were most highly associated with achievement gains, and so we reviewed the full scope from hard-core explicit so “Direction Instruction” with a capital “D” and a capital “I” right through to enquiry proper base, those more constructivist discovery-oriented.  So what we found were that the largest achievement gains were associated with explicit instructional practices and they were relatively null or small effects for the more constructivist enquiry problem-based exploratory discovery-oriented approaches.  In some ways that was quite confronting because there are strong traditions around that constructivist approach to teaching, and so we started diving into more research around instruction and, in particular, cognitive psychology and ,in particular, cognitive load theory.  Essentially, the main aspects of memory that are associated with learning, one is working memory or short-term memory, and the other is long-term memory.  Working memory is really limited, the classic phone number length or 15 seconds...

Simon: Yeah, whatever is in your head...

Dr Martin: Absolutely, it goes in and out.  So the bulk of who we are, actually everything that we are, sits in long-term memory, and so the role of instruction is to build up the body of long-term memory and so when kids go into an exam, they’re hauling the information from their long-term memory, but so are we when we cross the road, so are we when we’re reading, it’s all stored in long-term memory, and working memory retrieves it and as soon as it uses it, dumps it, retrieves the next bit, and so on.   Now when you’re in class, so it gets to long-term memory by your working or short-term memory, so you can’t jam working memory up otherwise it just won’t get to your long-term memory.  The risk is that if you present information that’s there’s too much of it, it’s too complex, it’s not a linear, then it’s too much for working memory to process.  So only part of it goes to long-term memory and the rest is just lost, and so if that happens too much, then you’ll only get half of the topic or you’ll confused things or misinterpret, and so what has been found that if you instruction overload students too early in the process, it jams working memory or clogs it up, and so not enough is sent to long-term memory.  That’s the explicit side of instruction and so presenting information in bite-size manageable systematic ways so that the working memory is not burdened in the early stages of learning.  

So explicit instruction is the front end when students are novices, but what cognitive load theory searches also found was that if you bang on with the explicit instruction, once someone has automated or become fluent in the core skills and knowledge, then it actually becomes demotivating and it’s called the “expertise reversal effect” and that is if you keep banging on with explicit highly structured when someone’s got it, they’re thinking “I’ve got it, you don’t have to keep...”.  Then the expertise reversal effect, what they in fact found was in fact that It’s at that point that more autonomous independent problem solving approaches are appropriate.  And so we developed...the cognitive load theory is highly experimental cognitive scientary, so we developed the instructional aspect of that called “load reduction instruction” when students are novices at first.  You present information as I said in bite-size linear manageable ways, they have appropriate practice at things relative to our long-term memory is for it to stick in there you have to burn it, and burn it requires repetition a bit of drill, practice, worked examples, and so on.  And then over time as they become fluent and automated in that skill and knowledge, you then move them onto more independent discovery and quarry-oriented because if you do I said, if you keep banging on with explicit you’ll get the expertise reversal effect, and so what load reduction instructions says is that it a false dichotomy to think in terms of explicit versus discovery, that’s a false dichotomy.  

The two own fact mutually dependent and the success of one is inextricably tied to the success of the other, and that if you do not move students onto rich discovery-oriented activities once they’ve got the skill and knowledge, then your squandering the working memory gains you’ve had by presenting the explicit instruction first.  So we argue both are in fact critical to high quality learning but it is the order in which they take place that’s absolutely key because then you’ve accommodated the realities of the cognitive architecture of the human mind.

Simon: That’s really articulately laid out and really stands to reason what you’re saying and can really follow the rationale of it.  One thing that occurs to me listening to you there, obviously as you’ve laid out there, there’s the explicit element needs to come first before you move onto the discovery element in order to capitalise on what’s been learnt in terms of knowledge and skills, but for a teacher who’s seeking to implement LOIs, if we kind of get into the nitty-gritty of it all, how do you recognise that point, that turning point from explicit towards discovery.  What should a teacher be looking for to find when they need to move from one to the other, or is there anything in particular that should be looked for?

Dr Martin: I guess the first part of that is for the teacher to really get a sense of the prior knowledge that kids are walking into that class with because that will determine where in the novice stakes they are, and so because you will now know “How much do I have to break it down?”.  Sometimes a little bit of a pre-test “Where are they at?” or you might have taught them in the previous topic so you’ll know, but just to get a sense of where they’re at and that’s the point where you know where to jump in, and I hasten to add high ability, gifted and talented students, they have the same realities of working a long-term memory, they have the same constraints on their working memory, what we find is they tend to require fewer repetitions and little less practice.  But where we see teachers dumping too far in the deep end even with them cause they are also novices in the early stages of learning, but you can move through that explicit phase a little faster with these kids.  And so then the question is “At what point do you move?”

This is where it’s really important...there are 5 key principles in load reduction instruction and the final principle before you hit...the fifth principle being once they’ve got it, move them onto a rich autonomous independent learning activity...but number 4 is what we call feedback feedforward and that’s where teachers are getting a sense of how much the students know the skill or knowledge they need to become fluent at.  That might involve just simply looking at the work asking them some questions, it might involve a little quiz, it might involve a worksheet, but it’s all aimed at getting a sense of “There’s been some core skill and knowledge that I’ve wanted to teach these kids, and have they got it”, and that’s the point you can move them on.  I think also...and teachers will use their judgement because they might not be quite there, but they’re there enough to move on, they’ll get a sense of even if they’re at 80-90% of the skill and knowledge, but motivationally you feel they’re ready to move on, and you move them on.  

So teacher judgement comes into this a lot and I do like the “I do”, “we do”, “you do” model and people can Google that to see various implementations of that, but the “I do” aspect is that the teacher instructing in that classic didactic way, “I’ve got something to say”, the teacher is the expert and does have a lot of knowledge to impart.  But I do used the “age to minute” rule, so if they’re 7 years old, they’re taught more than 7 minutes in that “I do” phase, however, I cap it at 15 if they’re 17 but still taught 15 before you hand it over.  And then there’s the “we do” phase where the teacher has developed, as I said, some half-worked examples or a little worksheet or a Q&A, and that’s where the teacher is getting a sense “Have they got it?”.  Sometimes you’ll think “They looked at me as though they understood” cause that’s part of the ploy, but clearly they haven’t got it, and so “Okay guys, back to me”.  But then there’s a point where the teacher is satisfied “Yeah, they’ve got it” and the teacher has identified...that’s the middle bit “we do”...and then when the teacher is satisfied they’ve got it, they move to the “you do” stage and that’s where students will engage in independent activity.  I should also say, it’s not a bad structural model for the class as a whole because, particularly in mixed ability classrooms, there will still be a couple of kids who still don’t get it, so while the bulk of the class in the “you do” phase those one or two or three kids who didn’t quite get it at the “we do” phase, the teacher then moves quietly around and works with them individually.  So it’s actually not a bad approach to differentiate and to manage the realities of mixed ability classrooms.

Simon: It certainly makes a lot of sense and I guess one thing that I imagine appeals to teachers is this notion of “It’s a model very much to work off”, but as you’re saying there, it’s not written in stone and there’s a great deal of room for teachers to rely on their own intuition and expertise.  And I guess just on that thought if I can ask you quickly, how have you found teacher response to be to this instructional model that you’ve built?  Have you found, generally speaking, that it’s been positive, the teachers engage with it, or does it take a little time for teachers to come on board?  How has that response been?

Dr Martin: The response is very good when you first lay out, as I said, the realities and the cognitive architecture of the human mind, and in some ways the brutal realities of the limitations of working memory, but also the vast capacity of long-term memory.  So when you lay that rationale out, teachers are on board with that but, more importantly, when you say “If you don’t move on to more constructivist opportunities”, you’re short-changing your students.  That also resinates strongly with teachers and the idea is to bring what ideologically is tended to be two camps (laughing) that bore each other over the last how many decades.  The aim is to actually show that high quality learning and instruction comprises both, but at the right moment.  So that’s certainly how the reaction that we’ve been getting from teachers.

Simon: That’s really good, sounds like it’s been a generally positive reception.  One other...a term that you touched on earlier “the engagement wheel”, I was wondering if we could dive into that a little more and explore exactly what that means cause I found it quite an intriguing concept when I came across it.  Could you explain a little more about what that means and how maybe that connects into the LRI model?

Dr Martin: So the motivation engagement wheel is it comprises 11 key parts of motivation engagement starting with...and there’s the positive motivation that includes things like self-efficacy and valuing, there’s positive engagement that refers to things like planning, persistence and task management, there’s the negative motivation that comprises anxiety, fear of failure and low sense of control, and then there’s negative engagement that comprises self-sabotage and disengagement.  And what we find is that we can pretty much map all students against these key parts of their motivation and engagement, both their strengths relative to themselves but also areas that might need attention.  But this wheel...wherever a human being is required to perform, wherever they’re evaluated in some way, this the workplace here, those factors are alive and hopefully well, hopefully not unwell, and in the sporting domain we research amongst the elite and sub-elite athletes, in the performing arts the wheel is relevant to musicians, dancers and so on.  

So the motivation engagement wheel we’ve developed as a general wheel of motivation engagement and indeed among teachers, and so no surprises in our research we find that there is a correlation between where the teacher is sitting on the motivation engagement wheel and where the students are sitting.  So they’re the key parts to the wheel that follow from a fair bit of theory but also the reason it’s critical to understand that motivation goes from a multidimensional is because we tend to talk to students in very nebulous vague ways, “Be more motivated”, “Switch on”, “Present your work more clearly”, “Try harder”.  Everything I’ve just said, when you drill as many “try harder”, there’s many dimensions of effort, “What bit of trying do I need to be working on?”  It might be nice for a quick pep up to say “Hey, you’ve been motivated this term, keep it up”.  When we follow students up or if we say “You’ve got to be more motivated next term”, when we follow students up and they’ll grudgingly agree that’s what they have to do, but they haven’t got the foggiest what they’re going to do from that point, “I don’t know, do more”, “I don’t know what she was talking about”.  

So the motivation engagement wheel is critical because it lands that nebulous vague construct down to ground and when you talk to a student about valuing maths, they understand what that is, or when you talk to them about persistence, it becomes concrete.  And so it’s a really helpful way to land these ideas to ground, but vitally from that point, once you identify and target at terms what needs attention, then the intervention of practice follows very well from that.

Simon: Sort of filling out those maybe more vague less concepts with a bit more of that concrete landing for them.

Dr Martin: And I think we need to do that a lot more with children and young people to land some of these vague ideas to ground so that they can action them and so something about them.

Simon: That makes sense.  So into our last question on motivation, we’ve covered an awful lot in terms of general theory, internal and external factors, but I kind of want to bring into a conversation here that’s quite relevant in this notion of technology with young people and its effect on their cognition, it’s something we hear an awful lot about, maybe even too much, but one area where it’s definitely talked about is the effect of technology with children on their motivation.  And I guess I wanted to get your opinion on do you think that this kind of advent of an era of everybody’s got a computer in their pocket and young people, kids as young as 4 or 5 have access, do you think that’s had a fundamental change on motivation for children, or is it just a change in how we understand it or how it manifests itself?

Dr Martin: Yeah, and a really good question.  To a large degree (laughing)...

Simon: Thank you very much.

Dr Martin: As all the other ones have been, I hasten to add.

Simon: Too much praise, if anything, but please continue.

Dr Martin: We’re still in unchartered territory almost by definition because it keeps evolving.  The implementation of technology in education rolled out far faster than we could evaluate it, but the research is now rolling in and I think we’re getting a better sense of where it optimises educational processes and where it might become a headwind.  If I can go...and I’ll get at it from a cognitive science perspective and then from a motivational perspective...if we go back to what we were saying earlier, if you think about how important it is for instruction to be presented in a way that does not overly cognitively burden the learner, particularly when they’re doing new stuff that’s challenging and demanding, if we accept that the working memory can be jammed pretty quickly, and so we’ve got to present information in a fairly careful way in the early stages of learning so that we optimise our chances of getting it to long-term memory, once we think about that and then now let’s move ourselves into a situation where we’re sitting at the desk doing our homework or an assignment and the phone’s dinging with messages, or you’re on a computer screen where there’s a fair bit of activity happening that we call as extraneous to the actual learning content, every time that happens it takes up a part of our working memory and so the challenge with technology is that we’ve got to really understand is it creating a burden on working memory, particularly for novice learners, or for students who are at risk who might have a learning related disorder or disability such as ADHD or whatever, and so we find that it does, and so it is when you’re splitting your working memory between doing the homework and reading the rolling messaging or whatever, then almost by definition only part of that information is going to be sent back to long-term memory.  

So when we see it from a cognitive science perspective, we do have to put greater thought into (a) what devices are around when you’re meant to be doing something else, and (b) the nature of the material we present to them.  So it might look all flashy and wary and nice sounds and colours and all that, but if it’s extraneous to what’s needed to be learnt, then there’s a high risk that the working memory is not processing to long-term memory what needs to be learnt.  So these are the cognitive science and so that’s not to say we get rid of technology but we do put a lot of careful thought into online programs, online activities and so on, and so that’s that side of it.  Now I get to the motivational side of it, and so one of the parts of the motivation engagement wheel is what we call task management and 3 or more years ago, whenever I was talking to parents and teachers about that, I talk “You know, you’ve got to do what’s important first, manage your time, if you run out of glue or scissors...”  So if you manage yourself as a student, and that’s where I’d end, but now I don’t I keep going now because there’s another part of students, children and young people’s lives...actually in all our lives if we’re honest, but let’s keep it safe and talk about kids (laughing)’s not about us, we do all this perfectly...and that is managing your digital, your e-life, your mobile life, and that encompasses a lot of things, it encompasses impulse control.  So as I said, do you turn messaging off, do you put the mobile phone out of the study area when you’re meant to be doing something.  

It also involves when you’re doing online research for a task, do you stay on track or do you dive into rabbit holes which you know are quite irrelevant?  Profoundly interesting, I hasten to add, and let’s not dismiss the importance of incidental learning, but up to a point.  What happens at night?  Do you remove all technology from the bedroom so you get a decent night’s sleep?  So when technology was first coming out in the education space, we were talking about the digital divide, and that divide was essentially people who had access to the internet or even had a computer, we’ve moved a long way since then, most people do.  As an Educational Psychologist, there’s a new digital divide and that is the divide between students who can self-regulate their use of technology and those who have a lot of trouble self-regulating.  As I said, managing devices, impulse control, staying on track, and so on.  And that is from an Educational Psychology perspective, that’s a new digital divide.  We do hear the term that students, that young people are digital natives and I accept that in their social networking, their gaming, they’ve certainly seen digital natives in hiding game icons off desktops and all that (laughing)...tricks of the trade...I’ll give them the native “gurnsey” on that one, but when it comes to the application of technology for academic and “scholly” processes, I find they’re digital novices and these children and young people need explicit instruction on generating good search terms, on when they see the first two pages on Google to discern what look like good websites that have some rigger about them.  

Then they land on that page and they’re able to distil the information from that page, then when they’ve got that information, they’re able to translate that into their essay or the science “prac” or their business report or whatever.  We weren’t born with these skills, they need to be taught and they need to be practised.  And so I think we get back to this novice versus expert status, and then when they have those skills, they’re cooking with gas.  There will be some of that in primary school but I certainly talk to schools about being very explicit moving them from digital novices to digital natives when it comes to scholarship, certainly in their first one or two years of high school.

Simon: And it ties right back into the LRI model, doesn’t it?

Dr Martin: Absolutely.

Simon: This idea of explicit, in terms of being a digital scholar and then that moves into discovery along the same path as any other.

Dr Martin: Absolutely, and then it becomes once they have the skills and knowledge, it is then high quality discovery.  It takes them to spaces.  I think the other point I’d make, I’m remembering your earlier question about what’s teachers’ reception to LRI.  The other thing that excites teachers is they have tremendous influence over long-term memory.  What we find about experts and high ability is that one thing is they have very well organised long-term memories, that is, they seem to know things under themes, and facts under those themes, and when it’s very well organised, it means they can retrieve that information very quickly.  So if we think of long-term memory as a house, if it’s a maths question there is a maths room and algebra is in one of the filing cabinets and you can find it very quickly, and so the working memory acts as a long-term memory very, very quickly.  

How do we build or organise long-term memory?  

Teachers have tremendous scope for doing that because they can create the cognitive architecture back in that long-term memory by presenting information in very organised ways, that is how it is represented in the student’s long-term memory, and so that’s another aspect of empowering teachers in terms of having deep reach into long-term memory, if you like.  And I think the technology is another aspect of that where you can create well organised ways of going about it.  Then there are times when teachers say “Just free wheel it”, there are times where the right answer is not needed and there are times to explore and so I don’t rule out these pure discovery opportunities early in the learning process but what I do tell teachers is we find that they are motivating but they may not yield the learning games that may be targeted.  And so the other part of it is to have very clear goals on what you want out of something, so if you say “I just want them to immerse”, then pure discovery early is fine, but if you say “Actually, I need them to really know these things”, then you would frontload those explicit.  And then the next question is “I need them to apply these things”, and that’s when they would stretch their wings into that more exploratory space.

Simon: It’s really compelling stuff in the area of motivation and condition and I get the sense that you could talk about this for hours and hours.  Unfortunately, that’s as much time as we have for discussion around that.  Before you go, we like to ask guests when they come in for just a little bit of advice or a little story from their years in education.  Doesn’t have to have anything to do with what we’ve been talking about, doesn’t necessarily have to do with education at all, just a little authentic bit of Andrew Martin advice/anecdote!

Dr Martin: I’d say, what I haven’t spoken about in some ways, it’s been a little bit hard and pointy edged around cognitive science and so on, I guess one thing I haven’t spoken about is underpinning and overriding it and infused through all of this are the relational dimensions, and so I have touched on it, but the capacity for relationships to rescue motivation and then to sustain it is absolutely key and I think if I was to go back to where we began in the interview, back to that Year 10 student, but the Year 11 student who is switched on, I would have to go back and say it was the relational dimensions of my life and particularly one or two teachers taking the time that certainly was a major part in unlocking me.  So I think that’s probably the way I’d end that.  We can’t underestimate from a moment the power and the reach of those relational aspects of not only motivational science and cognitive science, but I think everything around that as well.

Simon: Masterfully done, linking that final answer back to the first answer.  Very impressive drain piping there.  Well played!

Dr Martin: Thank you.

Simon: Well that’s all we have time for today folks.  Big thanks to our special guest, Dr Andrew Martin for coming in and talking to us.  Hopefully we’ll see you back again for wherever we land in the world of education next.  In the meantime, you can check us out at  It’s goodbye from Andrew.

Dr Martin: Good bye.

Simon: And it’s goodbye from me.  See ya.

[Music playing]


Published on

March 18, 2020

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