Motivation in complex and multilevel learning environments

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The development of human behavior and learning is expected to be self-dependent and unique to the individual. Nevertheless, it is become impossible to divorce this individual learning process from the effects of the social context, in which this learning takes place or decimate the effect of the teacher as the principal facilitator of this knowledge construction process. That the learner will be successful in his regulating his endeavor is assumed and dependent on these immediate factors being able to remain constant and supportive.

Deci & Ryan, while proposing the theory of internalization, argue that the more internally valued and regulated a behavior is, the more it is expected as autonomous (as cited, in Stefanou, Perencevich, DiCintio & Turner, 2004). The three human needs of competence, relatedness and autonomy are identified as the critical aspects of motivation and hence optimal learning. This is echoed by Connell & Wellborn and Skinner & Belmont in presenting their motivation model as the level of engagement and a byproduct of the above human needs (as cited in Veermans, 2010). This engagement is extremely important and its absence may be equated to lack of the largest single ingredient to learning.

This essay will give a review of some of the aspects of regulating and sustaining learning and motivation in learning environments.

Learning process is a critical part of human development and it is an activity to commence at quite an early age. The knowledge acquired is essential and indispensable for navigation through the social environment. This knowledge also acts a basis for further future learning. Research has shown that, the child's mind is not 'tabula rasa' and it is able to develop and enhance cognitive processes that encompass language, number, facial recognition and the immediate environment in which the child finds itself (Veermans, 2010).

The human memory works in seemingly simple, yet complex way. The short term and long term memory exhibit how the human organism understands stimuli and is able to record them for future reference. The both finite and infinite roles of memory have a critical function and effect at all stages of human development and learning. (Veermans, 2010)

Learning is a process that spans several levels: what the teacher knows, the instruction methods, the learner interpretation and the learners' knowledge schema (Veermans, 2010). The effective transfer of knowledge from one level to another is dependent on the systematic organization of the content, the context and the maintenance of good level of interest especially on the part of the learners. The level of learning outcomes is dependent on the various levels competences of the part of learners. In effect, similar stimuli can result in a multiplicity of interpretation and meaning.

The aspect of autonomy, as manifested in organizational, procedural and cognitive has serious implications to the way learners of all levels have partake in the learning process. This is mainly because, learning is an autonomous process and learners have to be self-determined, and possess the psychological needs of autonomy, competence and relationship fulfilled in social contexts (Stefanou et al, 2004)

The environment in which our learners find themselves in at present is characterized by a number of challenges, many of which these learners have no direct control over. Presence of motivation, or its lack thereof, is an issue that learners at all levels have to grapple with. Secondly, the learning context and environment is an important factor in the success or failure in the success of the achievement of the learning objectives. The environment can either support learners in their quest of acquiring knowledge, or it has a possibility of decimating their drive to learn. Thirdly, the teachers, the teaching methodology and choice of content are another set of factors that would need to be addressed in order to promote a successful deep learning on the part of the learners.


The challenge for the current learning environments and the teachers is how to be receptive of their learners' varied motivation levels. Learners come into the classroom contexts with different levels of interests and personal characteristics. It is upon the teachers to have a good understanding of the individual learner and help him/her to adjust to the classroom context and come to terms with the learning group.

Since the learning group is not homogenous in terms of their motivation levels, there is a possibility that some learners will have little or no interest. On the other side of the continuum, there will be the group of learners who will be too eager to learn. As a teacher, how do I encourage more interest to learn in these low motivated learners? The presentation of the teaching-learning objectives should be so simply clarified to them, so that the learners find a relationship to the content at hand. In other words, there should be seen a relationship between the current learning material and the learners' stock of knowledge (entry behavior) and the future end career goals. The current learning will be seen as a link and stepping-stone to the greater heights. Once the learners establish a connection, it becomes easier to apply their problem-solving skills to tackle the learning material.

Equally, for those learners who have enough motivation, the teacher has to help create an environment that helps to regulate and sustain this motivation till the end of the learning process. This is because, even great, over-the-top motivation can be vulnerable to disappointment and disillusionment once learners fail to see the connection between their past, present and the future learning endeavors.

The Learning environment

The learning environment is the basic infrastructure in which the whole learning process plays itself out. Therefore, this environment should be tailored to accommodate, support and sustain worthwhile relevant learning sessions. How can be tailored? Who is responsible for this structuring?

It is fact learning starts off at an early age. In addition, learning takes in many social contexts, be it at school, home and other social arenas. Lepola, Salonen, Varaus & Poskiparta (2004) point out that adults, parents and teachers have a unique responsibility of providing an emotionally and intellectually stimulating context for children, in matching the scaffolding to learner's competencies and maximizing the children's development.

Apart from the home and society as a whole, the classroom remains the primary context in which learning through motivation takes place, with the aim of acquiring and justifying ideas, constructing meaning and deliberately creating independent critical thinking (Stefanou et al., 2004).

It will be important that this learning environment provides the right tools (materials, tasks, strategies) and the conducive atmosphere for the learner to feel free to experiment and try out various choices and possibilities. In addition, the learning context should also provide a clear-cut connection between student motivation, instructional practices and learning outcomes (Stefanou et al., 2004).

The provision of such an environment is stimulating to a well-motivated learning mind and freedom to try out novel and creative options greatly helps in the learning process. Well-tailored, the environment is able to sustain higher learning and solving of complex task becomes such an exhilarating experience to these motivated and well provided learners thereof.

Here, a question arises. How does the learners adapt, from differentiated socio-economic backgrounds, to an intellectually balanced classroom context?

The Teaching Style and Communication Structures

The teaching style and the communication structures are vital to creating this balance and promoting a fulfilling, worthwhile, lifelong learning. As key participants in a learning process, there should be a strong communication channel between the teachers and the learners. Teachers should take the leading role in orchestrating this dialogue, by understanding the learners' needs, respond to learners' questions and provide their own perspective and feedback to the learners.

Perry & VandeKamp (2000) emphasize the importance of feedback. This essentially gives learners an opportunity and willingness to correct their mistakes and be able to identify effective learning strategies for dealing with learning difficulties and producing meaningful outcomes.

On the other hand, a free and democratic leadership style has a strong effect in heightening learners' motivation, participation and completion of the learning tasks (Stefanou et al., 2004). Learners should be made to feel that they are in control of their learning experiences, and they are free to express their feelings, ideas and questions. This freedom of choice will extend to the solutions that the learners will explore. Once these learners feel they are recognized, and are free to participate, contribute and explore, this creates a good relationship to the core of the learning process and are more motivated to learn. Therefore, the teachers will have to employ a myriad of instructional strategies in order to sustain the learners' response and enhance the learners' continual participation in the learning process.

From the above, we can conclude that the classrooms contexts can either facilitate or frustrate the learners' impetus in the knowledge acquisition process. Authoritarian leadership, coupled with threats, strict deadlines and other forms of evaluation and surveillance restrict and hinder the learners' participation and cognitive development. (Stefanou et al., 2004).

Teachers has multifaceted role of teaching, evaluation and enforcing the management of the classroom. In many instances, teachers have the role of enforcing various forms of autonomies. Stefanou et al. (2004) identify the three forms of autonomy that these instructors are expected to put into place. These are organizational, procedural and cognitive.

From the research, Stefanou et al. (2004) single out cognitive autonomy as the most important form of autonomy that should be emphasized in order to maximize the learning potential of the learners. In effect, the teaching methods should reflect a lot of cognitive autonomy, whereby teachers are delegating more space and opportunity for learners to explore their potential to tackle, and solve learning challenges with little direct help from the teachers. It is through this way that focus on the goals of the task will be maintained, by the learners' themselves.

Stefanou et al. (2004) give a word of caution that the overemphasis on organizational or procedural autonomy may lead to cognitive overload and result in less critical thinking. The overloading is seen in the inclusion of too many not-so-necessary procedures and rules, and there is a danger of these rules helping to distract the goal of learning. Since the primary role of learning is cognitive development, then the teachers should avail the learner with more opportunities for critical thinking through the justification of their learning choices and self-reliant, independent formation of relevant meaning.

There is need for learning environments that provide a clear-cut connection between student motivation, instructional practices and learning outcomes.

Inequalities in Education

Many times, the inequalities in educational contexts are an offshoot of the social, cultural and economic inequalities that are evident within the larger society. Therefore, social cognitive structures are constructed in interaction and human behavior is greatly influenced by the context in which the individual is situated (Mehan, 1998). Instances of teaching-learning practices conspiring with society to propagate the differences, as seen in some tests, experiments and learning strategies, proceed to restrict, and subjugate the innocent learning individual into the same stereotyping and deprivation of autonomy to choose cognitive opportunities.

There is great need of making classroom contexts socio-culturally neutral and compatible to all individual learners who pass through them. It is up to the teaching body to adapt their teaching methodology in achieving a learning context that serves the interests of all its learners and that minimizes the effects of the entry behavior differences of its learners. The general and specific learning goals can be well achieved when there is a better understanding of the relationship between social structure, culture and interaction and helping to minimize the conflicts that might arise thereof (Mehan, 1998).

Departing from the individualized learning and embracing collaborative nature of learning, among the learners and teachers, is one of the ways cognitive development can maximized. In this emerging scenario, critical thinking, rational argumentation and the consensual process between experts (teachers) and novices (learners) should be promoted (Mehan, 1998). In resonance with this view is 'scaffolding', which stands out an essential way of regulating and supporting learning and motivation. The zone of proximal development involves the expert-teacher using his/her regulative skills in identifying and determining the novice-learners' needs and effectively adjusting the support to match the learners' competencies (Lepola, Salonen, Varaus & Poskiparta, 2004).