Effort and Interest
Effort, Interest, Effort and Interest
The research literature provides support for John Dewey's observation that effort and interest in education can be understood as being both oppositional and complementary. Five minutes of work on a task may feel like hours to a student who does not know what the next steps need to be, or even what the longer-range goals for the work are–especially if the student does not have a developed interest for the task. Similarly, a student with a well-developed individual interest for Latin may be able to briefly glance at the third declension adjective endings and decide he knows them, while another, equally able student with a less-developed interest for Latin, has to work after school to learn these endings.
Effort usually refers to whether a student tries hard, asks for help, and/or participates in class. Studies of student effort suggest that the more difficult a task appears–in the sense of the task's difficulty and the likelihood that the student can complete it successfully–the less likely it is that the student will be motivated to take the task on. On the other hand, studies of student effort also suggest that effort is associated with the possibility of doing well on a task. Thus, students might be expected to figure out what they need to study, study it, and be successful–if they have the ability to do the assigned task, confidence in this ability, and no anxiety about the task.
Whether students exert effort or not is typically described as a choice or decision that is made by the student about whether success is possible. Students' expectancy value is influenced by their previous success, their perceptions about teachers' beliefs and practices, their goals, and by their self-concept. Students' beliefs about both their own abilities, and about the relation between ability and effort, influence the likelihood that they will exert effort. As Carol Dweck points out, students' beliefs develop over time in conjunction with experience. She also notes that students are increasingly influenced by the feedback they receive, meaning that some change in students' beliefs and motivation is possible.
Deborah Stipek's research, for example, suggests that students are engaged and learning takes place when teachers promote effort in the classroom by emphasizing participation, setting high expectations, and encouraging students to support each other as learners. If students have a clear understanding of the goals of the tasks they are assigned, they also might be expected to be better able to effectively regulate the possibility of their success. In fact, students who have a sense of efficacy, who both value and experience feelings of enjoyment for the task, can also be expected to expend effort to master the task.
Interest describes the cognitive and affective relationship between a student and particular classes of subject matter. However, one student's effort to master Latin, mathematics, or lacrosse is not likely to be the same as another student's efforts. Moreover, how a student approaches different subjects can be expected to vary, just as the background and basic abilities that each student brings to each subject will vary.
Interest can hold a student's attention, encourage effort, and support learning. It also has been found to enhance strategic processing. Furthermore, students can experience more than one type of interest concurrently.
Three types of interest can be identified, each of which reflects differing amounts of knowledge, value, and feelings. These are: (1) situational interest, (2) individual interest (sometimes referred to as topic interest), and (3) well-developed individual interest. Situational interest refers to the short-lived or momentary attention to, or curiosity about, particular subject matter, and can be accompanied by either positive or negative feelings. Individual interest is a relatively enduring predisposition to experience enjoyment in working with particular subject matter. An individual interest may or may not provide a student with the support to put forth effort when faced with a difficult task, presumably because the identification of individual interest in terms of enjoyment provides no information about the depth of a student's knowledge about the topic. Well-developed individual interest is a relatively enduring predisposition to re-engage particular classes of subject matter over time. A student with a well-developed individual interest for a subject has more stored knowledge and stored value for that subject than he or she has for other subjects. With more stored knowledge and stored value for a given subject matter, the student is positioned to begin asking curiosity questions that drive knowledge acquisition, consolidation, and elaboration, and that leads the student to persist in the face of frustration or difficulty.
Well-developed interest is the type of student interest to which most people are referring when they talk about interest and its impact on learning. For example, students who immerse themselves in a task they have been assigned, or who are willing to expend a lot of effort to master a skill that will allow them to begin work on some future project, are likely to have a well-developed interest for the subject of that project. Importantly, the student who has a well-developed interest for a subject area may not seem to be aware that he or she is exerting effort. Instead, it appears that interest may free up possibilities for students to push themselves, just as it frees up their ability to process interesting stories.
A student does not simply decide to have a well-developed interest for a subject about which he or she has previously had either little knowledge or value. Nor is a well-developed interest a set of beliefs about utility or value. In fact, a student who has a well-developed interest for mathematics may or may not be aware that he or she has begun to think and question in ways that are similar to a mathematician.
A student could, however, make a decision to learn about a subject, and in so doing move rather rapidly from having a situational interest to having an individual interest for it. In this instance, the student's decision to work on developing his or her knowledge is a choice and would involve effort, and would probably be identified as an individual interest. Once the student began to generate his or her own questions about the subject, worked to understand these, and did not find major investments of time effortful, the student might then be considered to have a well-developed individual interest for the subject matter.
All types of interest require conditions that allow the interest to be maintained, to continue to deepen, and to merge with other content. A number of studies have suggested the importance of providing students with meaningful choices, well-organized texts that promote interest, and the background knowledge necessary to fully understand a topic. Even students with a well-developed interest for a particular subject need to be supported to continue challenging what they know and assume in order for their interest to be sustained.
Effort and Interest
The research reviewed here suggests that effort needs to be understood as involving choice, as being rooted in beliefs, and as being influenced by feedback. In addition, interest needs to be understood as a cognitive and affective relationship between a student and a particular subject that varies depending on the type of interest being described. As Andreas Krapp has observed, students who want to be doing what they are supposed to be doing because of a well-developed interest are not a problem for educators. The challenge for education could be understood as one that involves figuring out how to get students to want to do what teachers want them to do. However this interpretation sets effort and interest at cross purposes and is not productive. Instead, the research suggests that educators should focus on the complementarity qualities of effort and interest. Providing students with conditions that will involve them in deepening their knowledge should position them to begin asking their own questions about a particular subject matter; recognize that they both have the ability to work on developing their understanding of, as well as their confidence about their ability to work with, the subject matter; and provide support for developing interest and effort that includes trying hard, asking for help, and/or participating. In fact, as John Dewey anticipated, it appears that when conditions to support student interest are in place, effort will follow.
See also: MOTIVATION.
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