Thoughts on Motivation

When I was a youngster I devoured popular science books. I watched the BBC science programme, Horizon, religiously, and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos was the highlight of the TV week for me. I was a bit of nerd.

But as worked my through the education system and tried to find a happy medium between fascination and employability, I ended up studying chemical engineering. I was somewhat influenced by my brother who was two years ahead of me but my choice of disciplines was more to do with the fact that chemical engineering is the most ‘science-like’ of the engineering disciplines. It’s engineering at the molecular level.

At the end of my education journey I found myself an expert in membrane filtration, of all things, a subject that is, when you think about it, a very long way from the space science and astronomy of Carl Sagan. But here I was, deeply interested in obscure concepts like “concentration polarization” or the difference between “apparent and intrinsic rejection”.

I was thinking about these things the other week when I attended the 30th anniversary dinner of UCD’s Newman Fellowships. I was in the first ever ‘class’ back in 1989. When I was a scholar (as we were known then) I’d give the occasional talk and typically I was paired with another scholar whose research was centered on some aspect of the humanities. I’m remembering now the night I was paired with a Dutch guy whose talk was “Did Yeats propose to Maud Gonne?”. Mine was on “Preferential deposition of small cells in crossflow microfiltration of yeast suspensions”. Guess which talk sparked the most interest.

But the things is, most research in science and engineering could be classed as superficially boring; yet researchers devote their lives to their own obscure fields of study, making incremental improvements to our knowledge of the physical world. Why do they do this?

The answer it seems to me is that researchers enjoy the process of discovery, not to mention the sense of competition one gets in the research world. But more importantly, researchers devote their lives to seemingly dull topics because they have become experts in those topics. But this is true of many careers: people tend to be motivated to work hard at a job if they are good at what they do and especially if they see themselves as improving at it.

Motivation to persevere in academic learning or in sport or in playing a musical instrument is very much dependent on whether we are making progress. That sense of making progress is far more important, in my view, than being “engaged”, a word that is almost synonymous with “having fun” these days.

So if you want to motivate students, teach them well and ensure that they make progress, and especially,ensure that they know they are making progress. And give them a sense of direction.

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