Motivation and Learning

Questions to consider:

  • How do different types of motivation affect my learning?
  • What is resilience and grit?
  • How do I prevent negative bias from hindering my learning?

In this section, you will continue to increase your ability as an informed learner. Here you will explore how much of an influence motivation has on learning, as well as how to use motivation to purposefully take an active role in any learning activity. Rather than passively attempting to absorb new information, you will learn how to make conscious decisions about the methods of learning you will use (based on what you intend to do with the information), how you will select and use learning materials that are appropriate for your needs, and how persistent you will be in the learning activity.

There are three main motivation concepts that have been found to directly relate to learning. Each of these has been proven to mean the difference between success and failure. You will find that each of these is a strong tool that will enable you to engage with learning material in a way that not only suits your needs, but also gives you ownership over your own learning processes.


Two students studying at home by Scopio from

Resilience and Grit

Grit can be defined as personal perseverance toward a task or goal. In learning, it can be thought of as a trait that drives a person to keep trying until they succeed. It is not tied to talent or ability but is simply a tendency to not give up until something is finished or accomplished. This personality trait was defined as “grit” by the psychologist Angela Duckworth. In a 2007 study, Duckworth and colleagues found that individuals with high grit were able to maintain motivation in learning tasks despite failures (Duckworth et al., 2007). Their study showed that grit and perseverance were better predictors of academic success and achievement than talent or IQ.

Applying Grit

The concept of grit is an easy one to dismiss as something taken for granted. In our culture, we have a number of sayings (“If at first you do not succeed, try, try again”) or famous quotes (Edison’s “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration”) that capture the essence of grit. The problem is we all understand the concept, but applying it takes work.

The first step in applying grit is to adopt an attitude that looks directly to the end goal as the only acceptable outcome. With this attitude comes an acceptance that you may not succeed on the first attempt—or the nineteenth attempt. Failed attempts are viewed as merely part of the process and seen as a very useful way to gain knowledge that moves you toward success. Thinking about unsuccessful attempts as “failing forward” is a helpful way to maintain positivity.

An example of “failing forward” would be studying for an exam. In your first attempt at studying you simply re-read the chapters of your textbook covered in the exam. You find that while this reinforces some of the knowledge you have gained, it does not ensure you have all the information you will need to do well on the test. You know that if you simply read the chapters yet again, there is no guarantee you are going to be any more successful. You determine that you need to find a different approach. In other words, your first attempt was not a complete failure, but it did not achieve the end goal, so you try again with a different method.

On your second try, you copy down all of the main points onto a piece of paper using the section headlines from the chapters. After a short break you come back to your list and write down a summary of what you know about each item on your list. This accomplishes two things: first, you are able to immediately spot areas where you need to learn more; and second, you can check your summaries against the text to make certain what you know is correct and adequate. In this example, while you may not have achieved complete success, you will have learned what you need to do next. In true grit fashion, for your next try, you study those items on your list where you found you needed a bit more information, and then you go through your list again. This time you are able to write down summaries of all the important points, and you are confident you have the knowledge you need to do well on the exam. After this, you still do not stop, but instead you change your approach to use other methods that keep what you have learned fresh in your mind.

Persistence by Lucas Kazmierski from Noun Project

Keeping Grit in Mind

The concept of grit has been taken beyond the original studies of successful learning. While the concept of grit as a personality trait was originally recognized as something positive in all areas of activity, encouraging grit became very popular in education circles to help students become more successful. In fact, many of those who were first introduced to grit through education have begun applying it to business, professional development, and their personal lives. Using a grit approach and working until the goal is achieved has been found to be very effective in not only academics but in many other areas (Neisser et al., 1996).

The New York Times best-selling author Paul G. Stoltz has taken grit and turned it into an acronym (GRIT) to help people remember and use the attributes of a grit mindset. His acronym stands for growth, resilience, instinct, and tenacity.

  • Growth: Your propensity to seek and consider new ideas, additional alternatives, different approaches, and fresh perspectives.
  • Resilience: Your capacity to respond constructively and ideally make use of all kinds of adversity.
  • Instinct: Your gut-level capacity to pursue the right goals in the best and smartest ways.
  • Tenacity: The education that you commit to with persistence, even in the face of challenges.

There is one other thing to keep in mind when it comes to applying grit (or GRIT) to college success. An attitude of tenacity and “sticking with it” until you reach the desired results works just as well for graduation as it does for studying for an exam, preparing for a presentation, or completing a project.

How Do You Get Grit?

A quick Internet search will reveal that there are many articles out there on grit and how to get it. While these sources may vary in their approach, most cover about five basic ideas that touch on concepts emphasized by Duckworth. What follows is a brief introduction to each. Note that each idea listed here begins with a verb. In other words, it is an activity you must do and keep doing in order to build grit.

  • Pursue what interests you: Personal interest is a great motivator! People tend to have more grit when pursuing things that they have developed an interest in.
  • Practice until you can do it, and then keep practicing: The idea of practicing has been applied to every skill in human experience. The reason everyone seems to be so fixated with practice is because it is effective and there is no “grittier” activity.
  • Find a purpose in what you do: Purpose is truly the driver for anything we pursue. If you have a strong purpose in any activity, you have reason to persist at it. Think in terms of end goals and reflect on why doing something is worth doing.
  • Have hope in what you are doing: Having hope is about focusing on how it will make things different for you or others. While this is somewhat related to purpose, it should be viewed as a separate and positive overall outlook in regard to what you are trying to achieve. Hope gives value to purpose.
  • Surround yourself with gritty people: Persistence and tenacity tend to rub off on others, and the opposite does as well. As social creatures we often adopt the behaviours of those we spend time with. If you are surrounded by people that quit early before achieving their goals, you may find it acceptable to give up early as well. On the other hand, if your peers are all achievers with grit, you will tend to exhibit grit yourself.

It’s All in the Mindset

Fixed vs. Growth Mindset

The research-based model of these two mindsets and their influence on learning was presented in 1988 by Carol Dweck (Dweck & Leggett, 1988). She determined that when a person sees their intelligence as something that can be developed over time, rather than something that is static, their ability to overcome challenges and succeed increases. That is, when you’re focused on sticking to a goal even in the face of adversity because you know it will help you to learn and develop, your chances of success are greater. This has become known as the fixed vs. growth mindset model. In this model, the performance-goal-oriented student is represented by the fixed mindset, while the learning-goal oriented student is represented by the growth mindset.

The Growth Mindset and Lessons About Failing

Something you may have noticed is that a growth mindset would tend to give a learner grit and persistence. If you had learning as your major goal, you would normally keep trying to attain that goal even if it took you multiple attempts. Not only that, but if you learned a little bit more with each try, you would see each attempt as a success, even if you had not achieved complete mastery of whatever it was you were working to learn. With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that Dr. Dweck found that those people who believed their abilities could change through learning (growth vs. fixed mindset) readily accepted learning challenges and persisted despite early failures.

Improving Your Ability to Learn

As strange as it may seem, research into fixed vs. growth mindsets has shown that if you believe you can learn something new, you greatly improve your ability to learn. At first, this may seem like the sort of feel-good advice we often encounter in social media posts or quotes that are intended to inspire or motivate us (“Just believe in yourself!”), but in looking at the differences outlined between a fixed and a growth mindset you can see how each part of the growth mindset path would increase your probability of success when it comes to learning.

What is a Mindset?

“Mindsets are beliefs – beliefs about yourself and your most basic qualities and abilities.” (Why Cultivating a Growth Mindset Can Boost Your Success, n.d.)

What is a fixed mindset?

What is a growth mindset?

“In a fixed mindset, most people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success – without effort. They’re wrong.” “[In a growth mindset] People believe their most basic abilities and qualities can be developed and cultivated through dedication and hard work. Brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities.”

Watch the video below that illustrates the difference between a fixed and a growth mindset.


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