Being motivated helps learning – a lot more than you’d think

25 September 2011 by Eric-Wubbo Lameijer, posted in Uncategorized


One of my favourite books on talent is Daniel Coyle’s ‘The talent code’. And from that book, the above is my favourite picture. What does it mean?

The above graph is from an investigation by Gary McPherson et al. who studied primary school children taking up music lessons, interviewing and testing them in advance, trying to predict how fast they’d learn to master their instrument. Why did some students soar ahead, while others lagged far behind? Was it IQ? Aural sensitivity (whatever that is)? Math skills? Sense of rhythm? Sensorimotor skills? None of them seemed to explain the differences in performance. One thing, however, did.

That one thing was motivation, as measured by the question “How long do you expect to play this instrument? Through this year? Through primary school? Through high school? All your life?” These answers were subdivided into three categories, short-term commitment, medium-term commitment and long-term commitment. Next to that, McPherson measured how much each child practiced every week: low (20 minutes a week), medium (45 minutes a week) and high (90 minutes a week) [EWL: I’m not certain whether Coyle has reported these measures accurately, as future top pianists, for example, started out at between 60 minutes and 90 minutes a day, even at age 5] Anyway, the above grapth shows the measured relationship between musical progress, on a performance scale, motivation, and average weekly practice.

The stunning thing about these results is that practice in itself barely makes performance perfect in the low-motivation group, but that intensive practice seems to synergize with high motivation; if you have high motivation but practice briefly, you will already outshine hard-practicing students with low motivation, but if you combine high motivation and high practice, performance soars far above what you would expect from the rest of the data. For example, 20 minutes of practice with high motivation gives the same results as 45 minutes of practice with medium motivation, but if you’d (mathematically) expect motivation to double learning speed, 45 minutes of high motivation should give the same effect as 90 minutes of medium motivation. Not so: it gives far more, if we would extend the lines, it’d give the same effect as 360 minutes per week of medium-motivated practice. Motivation and practice time seem to feed off each other in quadratic or perhaps even exponential ways!

The conclusions that can be drawn from this are:

1) You spend less time learning while making more progress when you practice more per week; Spending 20 minutes per week learning something is very time-inefficient, in 1 year you have spent 1040 minutes for a level that you could have reached in less than a third of the time if you had practiced twice as much every week. So, try to concentrate your practice. There’s probably a practical limit for it, but that limit seems unlikely to be lower than 90 minutes a week.

2) Before you start learning something, check your motivation, and try to get it as high as possible; you’ll save lots of time, and make much faster progress.

Of course, McPherson’s research leaves at least one puzzling question (how can motivation be so powerful) and one pragmatic question (how can you upgrade your motivation?). The answer on the first question is, if we can believe research on monkey’s reported in “Principles of Learning and Memory” by Rainer H. Kluwe et al. (eds), that monkeys who don’t pay attention to a signal don’t learn anything from it, and that motivation may well work by energizing the mind to pay careful attention, instead of going “through the movements”. On how to enhance motivation, I unfortunately don’t know any ultimate psychological answers; I’ve recorded my insights so far in a post on growing a passion. Additional insights are however welcome, given the importance of motivation in learning, we may want to know as much about it as possible.


Edit: while the diagram is a scan from Coyle's book, the original version can be found in McPherson's paper "Commitment and Practice: Key Ingredients for Achievement During the Early Stages of Learning a Musical Instrument", Council for Research in Music Education, 147 (2001), 122-127. Thanks to reader Katharina for reminding me!

4 Responses to “Being motivated helps learning – a lot more than you’d think”

  1. Samantha Alsbury Reply | Permalink

     Brilliant blog, hadn’t come across Daniel Coyle’s book before, will have to read it.

  2. Katharina Reply | Permalink

    What article of McPherson do you refer to?
    And what ist the source of the diagram?

  3. Eric-Wubbo Lameijer Reply | Permalink

    Hi Katharina,

    the diagram as pictured is from the book "The Talent Code", by Daniel Coyle, in my case on page 104. The primary source is McPherson's article "Commitment and Practice: Key Ingredients for Achievement During the Early Stages of Learning a Musical Instrument", Council for Research in Music Education, 147 (2001), 122-127 (to be specific the picture is on page 124). I hope this helps, I'll in any case add the reference to the actual blogpost, thank you for reminding me.

  4. Katharina Ritschel Reply | Permalink

    Thank you for the information, it's a really interesting article!
    Let's stay motivated!

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