Are stories we can relate to the key to learning?
In 2003, Greg Walton and Geoffrey Cohen, two American psychologists, devised an intriguing experiment. They took a group of Yale undergraduates and gave them an insoluble math puzzle to work on—but with a small catch. Beforehand, the students were asked to read a report written by former Yale math student Nathan Jackson. This was ostensibly to provide the students with a bit of background information on the math department, but was actually a ruse put together by the two researchers.
Jackson was, in fact, a fictional student, and the article was written by Walton and Cohen. In the report, “Jackson” tells of how he had arrived at college unaware of what career to pursue, how he had got interested in math, and how he was now teaching math in a university department. In the middle of the report was a panel with a bit of biographical information about Jackson: his age, hometown, education, and birthday.
Now, here’s the clever part. For half the students, Jackson’s birthday was altered to match that of each individual student; for the other half it was not. “We wanted to examine whether something as arbitrary as having a shared birthday with someone who was good at math would ignite a motivational response,” Walton said. Having read the report, the students were asked to solve the math puzzle.
To the astonishment of Walton and Cohen, the motivation level for the students in the shared-birthday group did not just nudge up, or even jump up: it soared. The matched students persevered on the insoluble puzzle a full 65 percent longer than those in the nonmatched group. They also reported significantly more positive attitudes toward math and greater optimism about their abilities. To be clear: These were students who shared the same attitudes toward math before they read Jackson’s story.
“They were in a room by themselves taking the test,” Walton said in an interview with the author Daniel Coyle. “The door was shut; they were socially isolated; and yet [the birthday connection] had meaning for them. They weren’t alone. The love and interest in math became part of them. They had no idea why. Suddenly it was us doing this, not just me.
“Our suspicion is that these events [what we have called sparks] are powerful because they are small and indirect. If we had told them this same information directly, if they had noticed it, it would have had less effect. It’s not strategic; we don’t think of it as being useful because we’re not even thinking it at all. It’s automatic.”
What we are seeing at work here might be called motivation by association: a small, barely noticed connection searing deep into the subconscious and sparking a motivational response. In the case of the Yale students, the connection was a shared birthday, triggering a powerful jolt along the lines of: “I am similar to this guy; he has achieved really good things in math; I want to achieve those things, too!”
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