The Educational Benefits of Purpose

What are the biggest impediments for teachers in the classroom? According to a recent national survey, the most frequently cited problem was “students lack of interest in learning. (Among teachers in high-poverty schools, 76 percent said this was a serious issue.) These kids know what they need to do - they just dont want to do it.

One solution to this problem is to make classroom activities less tedious. Students might be bored by the periodic table, but get excited about the chemistry of cooking. Statistics is dry; the statistics of baseball is not. In other words, the same student who appears unmotivated when staring at a textbook might be extremely motivated when the material is brought to life by a charismatic teacher.

But this approach has its limitations. For one thing, the interests of students are idiosyncratic; the spin that appeals to one child is tiresome to another. In addition, some academic tasks are inherently difficult, requiring large doses of self-control. It shouldn't be too surprising, then, that 44 percent of middle-school students would rather take out the trash than do their math homework. Not every subject can be gamified. Not everything in life is fun.

So how do we help students cope with these "boring but important" tasks? That question is the subject of a fascinating new paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by David Yeager, Marlone Henderson, David Paunesku, Gregory Walton, Sidney D'Mello, Brian Spitzer and Angela Duckworth. The researchers began with the observation that, when adolescents are asked about their reasons for doing schoolwork, they often describe motives that are surprisingly selfless, or what the scientists call self-transcendent. If a student wants to become a doctor, she doesnt just want to do it for the money she probably wants to save lives, too.

While previous research has documented the benefits of self-transcendent motives among employees in unpleasant jobs hospital orderlies, sanitation workers and telemarketers all perform better when focused on the noble purpose of their work Yeager, et. al. wanted to extend this logic to the classroom. It was not an obvious move. Its easy to say 'cleaning up this trash helps people,'" wrote first author David Yeager in an email. "It's harder to say that learning fractions helps people...It wasnt clear than any kid would say that, or that it would be motivating.

The first study involved 1364 high-school seniors at ten urban public high schools, scattered across the country. The students were asked to rate, on a five point scale, whether or not they agreed with a series of statements about their motives for going to college. Some of the motives were self-transcendent ("I want to learn things that will help me make a positive impact on the world"), while others were more self-oriented ("I want to learn more about my interests.")  

After giving the students a bevy of self-assessment surveys, it became clear that self-transcendent motives were correlated with a variety of other mental variables, such as self-control and grit. As the scientists note, an important element of self-regulation is the ability to abstract up a level, so that one understands the larger purpose of a trying task. (If you dont want to eat the marshmallow, think about your diet; if youre trying to stay focused on your homework, contemplate your future career goals.) Whats more, this boost in self-regulation had real consequences, allowing the scientists to find a strong link between measures of purpose and college enrollment. Among those students with the least self-transcendent purpose, only 30 percent were actively enrolled in a college the following school year. That percentage more than doubled, to 64 percent, among students with the most purpose.

In addition to these survey questions, the scientists gave the students a new behavioral test called the "diligence task." What makes the task so clever is the way it mirrors the real-world temptations of the digital age, as students struggle to balance the demands of homework against the lure of YouTube. In the task, students were given the choice of completing tedious math problems or watching viral videos/playing tetris. While the students were free to do whatever they preferred, they were also reminded that successfully completing the math tasks could help them stay prepared for their future careers. Not surprisingly, those who reported higher levels of self-transcendent purpose were more diligent, less likely to be tempted by mindless distraction.  As the psychologists note, these results contradict conventional stereotypes about the best way to motivate low-income students. "Telling students to focus on how they can make more money if they go to college may not give them the motives they need to actually make it to college graduation," they write. Instead, these students seem to benefit the most from having selfless motives.

This research raises the obvious question: can self-transcendent purpose be taught? In their second study, Yeager, et. al. conducted an intervention, attempting to instill students with a more meaningful set of motives. They asked 338 ninth graders at a suburban high-school in San Francisco Bay area to complete a reading and writing exercise during an elective period. Half of the students were assigned to the self-transcendent purpose condition, which was designed to get them to think about their selfless motives for learning. One student wrote about wanting to become a geneticist, so they could "help improve the world by possibly engineering crops to produce more food," while another student wanted to become an environmental engineer "to be able to solve our energy problems."

The remaining students were assigned to a control condition. Instead of thinking about how to make the world a better place, these students were asked to read and write about how high-school was different than middle-school.

The intervention worked. After three months, those students with lower math and science grade point averages who were exposed to the purpose intervention saw their GPAs go up by a significant 0.2 points. (Higher achieving students also saw a slight boost in GPA, but it wasn't statistically significant.) Although the intervention only lasted for part of a single class period, it nevertheless led to a lasting boost in academic performance.

The last two studies tried to unpack this effect. After priming undergraduates to think about the self-transcendent purpose of their schoolwork, the students were asked to engage in a tedious academic exercise. They were given 100 review questions for an upcoming psychology test and encouraged to learn deeply from the activity, which meant spending plenty of time working through each question. The results were clear: students exposed to a self-transcendent purpose intervention spent nearly twice as long (49 seconds versus 25 seconds) on each review question. Importantly, this was done in a naturalistic setting, write the scientists. That is, [it involved] looking at real world student behavior on an authentic examination review, when students were unaware that they were in a random-assignment experiment. Not surprisingly, this additional effort led to higher grades on the ensuing exam.

In a final experiment, the scientists demonstrated that a purpose intervention could increase performance on the diligence task, in which students are asked to choose between a tedious math exercise and vapid viral videos. Once again, a sense of purpose proved useful, as those primed to think of selfless reasons for schooling were better at persisting at the math task, even when it was most boring. “We just don’t often ask young people to do things that matter,” wrote David Yeager by email. “We say, ‘Be selfish for now, later when you’re an adult then you can do something important.’ But kids are yearning right now to have meaning in life.”

In the paper, the scientists quote Viktor Frankl, the psychiatrist and pioneer of logotherapy, on the importance of having a meaning in life. (I wrote about Frankl here.) “Ever more people have the means to live, but no meaning to live for,” Frankl wrote, in a critique of modern life. Society excelled at satisfying our physical wants, but it tended to ignore those spiritual needs that couldn’t be measured in a lab or sold at a store.  This was a tragic error, Frankl said, for it led us to misunderstand our most fundamental nature. “A human being…doesn’t care primarily for pleasure, happiness, or for the condition within himself,” Frankl wrote. “The true sign and signature of being human is that being human always points to and is directed towards something other than itself.”

I have a feeling Frankl would have enjoyed this paper. His critics frequently accused him of deliberate ambiguity, of remaining obscure about what “meaning” actually meant. And the critics had a point: there is no pill that can give us purpose, and it’s often unclear what a therapist can do to help a patient discover his or her reason for being. In the absence of empirical evidence – his own life was his best proof - Frankl was forced to rely on aphorisms, such as this one from Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.”

And that’s why I think Frankl would have found these new experiments and interventions so interesting. They are reminder that meaning matters and that its impact can be measured; an intangible sense of purpose comes with tangible benefits. Again and again, we underestimate ourselves, assuming we are selfish and shallow, driven to succeed by the fruits of success. But this research proves otherwise, showing that teenagers are capable of working for selfless goals. In fact, such goals are what make them work the hardest. Because they have a why, the how takes care of itself.

Yeager, David S., et al. "Boring but Important: A Self-Transcendent Purpose for Learning Fosters Academic Self-Regulation." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. October 2014