Feeling Socially Connected Fuels Intrinsic Motivation And Engagement

Our "social side of education reform" series has emphasized that teaching is a cooperative endeavor, and as such is deeply influenced by the quality of a school's social environment -- i.e., trusting relationships, teamwork and cooperation. But what about learning? To what extent are dispositions such as motivation, persistence and engagement mediated by relationships and the social-relational context?

This is, of course, a very complex question, which can't be addressed comprehensively here. But I would like to discuss three papers that provide some important answers. In terms of our "social side" theme, the studies I will highlight suggest that efforts to improve learning should include and leverage social-relational processes, such as how learners perceive (and relate to) -- how they think they fit into -- their social contexts. Finally, this research, particularly the last paper, suggests that translating this knowledge into policy may be less about top down, prescriptive regulations and more about what Stanford psychologist Gregory M. Walton has called "wise interventions" -- i.e., small but precise strategies that target recursive processes (more below).

The first paper, by Lucas P. Butler and Gregory M. Walton (2013), describes the results of two experiments testing whether the perceived collaborative nature of an activity that was done individually would cause greater enjoyment of and persistence on that activity among preschoolers.

All children participating in the experiment worked alone on an individual task. The researchers gave children different signals about the collaborative nature of the task - in this case, a challenging puzzle. In the “psychologically together” condition, children were shown a picture of an unfamiliar child and were told that he/she was working on the puzzle in another room "right now" and that they would do the puzzle "together." There were two “psychologically separate” control conditions. In one, children were told that another child had worked on the puzzle "weeks ago." In the other, that they were "taking turns" on the puzzle with another child.

According to the researchers, children in the “psychologically together” condition spent more time working on the puzzle and reported greater enjoyment of the activity than children in the two control groups. In other words, this study found that the feeling of working together increased intrinsic motivation and persistence among children working on their own.

In the past few years, much attention has been paid to preschool programs targeting academic and behavioral skills. But, as the authors note, programs "combining a focus on cognitive and self-regulatory development with explicit attention to social relational-processes that motivate children" would seem to hold the most potential.

Now, some might wonder, would such an approach also work with older students (and adults)? Earlier this year, Priyanka B. Carr and Gregory M. Walton published a paper describing a series of experiments testing the same basic idea: Whether cues that signal an opportunity to work with others fuel intrinsic motivation in adults as they work independently.

The design and procedures resemble Butler and Walton's -- i.e., participants worked alone and received different signals about whether the activity was collaborative or not. The researchers found that participants in the treatment condition (who were led to think they were working in the activity with others):

[P]ersisted 48–64% longer on a challenging task (...), reported greater interest in the task (...), required less self-regulatory resources to persist on it (...), became more engrossed in the task and performed better on it (...), and spontaneously expressed greater enjoyment of and interest in the task (...) [than participant in control conditions].
Predominant theories hold that motivation arises from beliefs about one's self (e.g., one's competence) and from situational factors (e.g., goals, personalization, novelty etc.). By contrast, Carr and Walton focus on and explore the perceived social-relational context as a stand-alone source of intrinsic motivation.
A feeling of working together arises (...) not so much from social structures, such as when people work together physically or share outcomes, but from cues that signal an invitation to work together with another person or group or that signal that others treat you as though you are working together. (...) [T]he power of situations lies in their psychological construal or meaning.  As a consequence, people may experience a feeling of working together (...) even when they work alone.
There are many implications of this research for schools, but l will just highlight a couple. First, in terms of faculty learning, one challenge of collaborative planning and professional development is finding the time and the space to do it. This research suggests that symbolic cues of working together may increase a group’s -- in this case, teachers' -- sense of shared purpose, even as individuals perform work on their own. Of course, I am not suggesting that we forget about things like good old collaboration, where teachers work physically with other teachers; all I am saying is that there may be more than one way to instill connectedness among school faculty, that these ways may be combined, and that, given the pressures facing teachers and schools, we'd do well thinking hard and creatively about levers such as a shared sense of purpose. Finally, as any educator will tell you, not all collaboration is equally effective; attention to how individuals experience and construe "working together" is key.

As for student learning, one wonders how standardized testing squares with all of this. While test preparation and test taking are not all that goes on in the classroom, these activities seem to be increasingly central to today's schooling, and are thus likely to act as a kind of "backdrop." It does not seem like social belonging, relationships, or social connections are prominent features of that backdrop. But perhaps they should be.

Beyond the experimental work outlined above there is compelling evidence from the field suggesting that: 1) a person’s perception of their social belonging in a given context (in this case college) can be improved via intervention; and 2) such change can have lasting positive effects for that person.

A recent Science publication by Gregory M. Walton and Geoffrey L. Cohen (2011) describes a short intervention delivered to two cohorts of African-American and European-American students in the second semester of their first year at a selective college. Participants were randomly assigned to a “belonging” (treatment) or a control condition. The intervention furnished students with a narrative framing social adversity in school as "shared and short-lived." The goal was to encourage students in the treatment group to attribute adversity to "common and transient aspects of the college-adjustment process" and not to "fixed deficits unique to themselves or their ethnic group."

To accomplish this, students in the “belonging” condition read a report showing that senior college students had, like them, worried about whether "they belonged in college during the difficult first year," but that they usually outgrew these concerns over time. To encourage internalization of this message, participants were asked to write an essay describing how their own experiences echoed those in the report, turn their essay into a speech and deliver it to a video camera. The procedure lasted one hour and was the same in the control condition, but addressed topics unrelated to belonging.

Previous research by Claude M. Steele (e.g., "stereotype threat") and others has shown that members of socially stigmatized groups, such as African Americans, may experience more uncertainty about how much they fit into or belong in mainstream settings and institutions relative to other groups. For these reasons, the researchers predicted that African-American students would benefit from the intervention more than non-minority students.

In contrast to all other groups, African Americans in the control group showed no improvement in GPA from the fall of their freshman year, the semester before the intervention, through their sophomore, junior, and senior years (...). By contrast, the GPAs of intervention-treated African Americans rose over time (...). The GPAs of European-American students also rose over time (...) with no difference by condition (...). (...) [T]he intervention set African Americans on an upward trajectory such that the gap between them and their European Americans classmates closed over time. By students’ senior year, the gap was cut by 79%.
The researchers also looked at daily surveys, collected the week after the intervention. Among African Americans in the control group, "feelings of belonging in school rose and fell with the degree of adversity students reported having experienced earlier that day and the day before." As for African-Americans in the treatment condition, this relationship was not there, which suggests that the intervention was successful in providing an alternative way for African Americans to make sense of negative experiences. In turn, this newly acquired ability positively influenced their academic achievement later on.*


These three studies show "that motivation and achievement derive from feelings of togetherness, social belonging, and connection," underscoring the importance of "developing broader theories of motivation that incorporate both people's individual attributes and self-perceptions and their social-relational perceptions and expectations."

In sum, the social side of change may be as much about a person's actual social context as about their perception of that context. Second, seemingly small social-psychological processes are partially responsible for large social trends such as social inequality or the achievement gap; the work by Cohen and colleagues shows that these processes are malleable and can be shaped by small but very precise interventions that cause a lasting "switch" in how people interpret the world around them, setting them on a different and better life trajectory.

- Esther Quintero


* Walton and colleagues recently used the social belonging intervention "to mitigate the effects of a "chilly climate" women may experience... in male dominated fields." Women in the treatment group increased their engineering grade-point-average (GPA) over the full academic year, eliminating gender differences. The full paper is available here