Challenges, however, must be at the proper level of difficulty in order to be and to remain motivating: tasks that are too easy become boring; tasks that are too difficult cause frustration. In addition, learners’ tendencies to persist in the face of difficulty are strongly affected by whether they are “performance oriented” or “learning oriented” (Dweck, 1989). Students who are learning oriented like new challenges; those who are performance oriented are more worried about making errors than about learning. Being learning oriented is similar to the concept of adaptive expertise discussed in Chapter 2. It is probable, but needs to be verified experimentally, that being “learning oriented” or “performance oriented” is not a stable trait of an individual but, instead, varies across disciplines (e.g., a person may be performance oriented in mathematics but learning oriented in science and social studies or vice versa).
Social opportunities also affect motivation. Feeling that one is contributing something to others appears to be especially motivating (Schwartz et al., 1999). For example, young learners are highly motivated to write stories and draw pictures that they can share with others. First graders in an inner-city school were so highly motivated to write books to be shared with others that the teachers had to make a rule: “No leaving recess early to go back to class to work on your book” (Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt, 1998).
Learners of all ages are more motivated when they can see the usefulness of what they are learning and when they can use that information to do something that has an impact on others—especially their local community (McCombs, 1996; Pintrich and Schunk, 1996). Sixth graders in an inner-city school were asked to explain the highlights of their previous year in fifth grade to an anonymous interviewer, who asked them to describe anything that made them feel proud, successful, or creative (Barron et al., 1998). Students frequently mentioned projects that had strong social consequences, such as tutoring younger children, learning to make presentations to outside audiences, designing blueprints for playhouses that were to be built by professionals and then donated to preschool programs, and learning to work effectively in groups. Many of the activities mentioned by the students had involved a great deal of hard work on their part: for example, they had had to learn about geometry and architecture in order to get the chance to create blueprints for the playhouses, and they had had to explain their blueprints to a group of outside experts who held them to very high standards. (For other examples and discussions of highly motivating activities, see Pintrich and Schunk, 1996.)