How much is too much?

The MUSIC Model of Academic Motivation is the work of Dr. Brett Jones, and I think it’s a really great theory for discussing and designing classroom experiences. For those unfamiliar, the MUSIC model has nothing to do with MUSIC, but instead declares that student motivation is a factor of five things:

  • eMpowerment: how much the student feels in control of their learning
  • Usefulness: how useful the student feels the material is for their goals (short and long term)
  • Success: how much the student feels they can accomplish the assignment at hand
  • Interest: how much the student feels drawn towards the material, either because it’s situationally appealing (a funny speech) or speaks to their long-term interests (I love CS, so CS classes are always interesting)
  • Caring: how much you feel the instructor, classmates, etc. are invested in your learning.

You don’t need all five, but the theory says that any motivated student can attribute that motivation to one of those five. Typically, the more of these you hit, the more likely your students are motivated to learn.

Here’s a question: from a purely motivational perspective, can you have too much of each of these? Let’s analyze:

  • eMpowerment: Some research indicates that when people are given too many options, they are overwhelmed - they’re actually happier when they have fewer. This phenomena of “Overchoice” suggests that giving 1000 different potential projects to students might not work out great.
  • Success: A “Flowstate” is achieved when someone is fully immersed in an experience (e.g., musicians rocking out, video game players fighting a final boss), and its an ideal for most designed experiences. Setting up a scenario for Flow requires success, but also challenge. If students are too successful too often, there’s no sense of achievement, and their victories will seem hollow and dissatisfying.
  • Interest: “Seductive Details” are interesting but distracting additions to a lecture. It’s unfortunately not hard to add such details if you are over-focused on making things interesting and not educational.
  • Caring: Establishing connections with people is a tricky thing - you can’t come on too strong or you’ll make people uncomfortable. I’m not aware of a good citation here for people, so take it with a grain of salt. However, Ellie has given me a good example from Animal Science. When raising animals, you should occasionally ignore them - always paying attention makes it less valuable to them, but always ignoring them never establishes an emotional connection. In my own life, I’ve had teachers “come on too strong”, and make me want to disengage from them.

All of these aspects require a balance. However, I’ve left “Usefulness” off this list, because unlike the others, it seems to me like you can’t have enough of it. I can’t imagine someone would become less motivated BECAUSE they felt the lesson was too useful to them.

Does this mean that you can’t have too much Usefulness, but everything else is a balancing game? Not sure, but I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts!

Update (8/31/2015): I’ve still been thinking about this, and I’ve tried to label the feelings of having “too much” and “too little” motivation can mean, with regards to the MUSIC model:

  Too little Just right Too much
eMpowerment Restricted Empowered Adrift
Usefulness Wasting time Practical Pressured
Success Discouraged In Flow Ennui
Interest Bored Interested Distracted/Cloyed
Caring Deserted Cared for Stalked

Thoughts I have, looking at this table:

  • I don’t have a good name for “the feeling that you have when a task has just the right amount of Usefulness”. It’s hard to find adjectives that reflect the person and not the task.
  • I’m not sure “Cloyed” or “Distracted” is the right word for “Too much interest”, but I think they both get at interesting ideas.
  • It’s interesting to me that I came up with roughly synonymous words for “Too much empowerment” and “Too little caring”. There is some kind of connection there.
  • Similarly, “Too much success” connects to “Too little interest” - Ennui isn’t that different from Boredom.

It’s interesting to me that I don’t really have the words to perfectly describe each of these situations. Similar to how constructed languages sometimes expose ideas that might not exist in other languages.