Finding Meaning in the Mundane

A study on overcoming student boredom with purposeful learning

Unfortunately, learning is not always an exciting and pleasant process. In many subjects, particularly STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) courses, important skill-building tasks are often perceived as repetitive and tedious, such as completing math problems or balancing chemistry equations. For teachers, motivating students to persist and complete these academic exercises can be a challenge.

Why, then, do some students press on, while others become distracted or give up?

Recent research suggests that a prosocial purpose for learning — a goal to learn in order to empower oneself to have a positive impact on others — can help students regulate their attention and behavior. This prosocial purpose for learning can make unpleasant academic tasks far more bearable by giving them meaning.

In a series of four studies*, Assistant Professor David Yeager (a frequent PERTS collaborator), Dave Paunesku (the Executive Director of PERTS), and their colleagues showed that a purpose for learning can improve students’ self-discipline in school and raise achievement.

In a study with college-bound high school seniors, students who wanted to do well in school so that one day they could help others — who had a purpose for learning — viewed tedious academic tasks as more meaningful. They didn’t see those tasks as pointless, but rather saw them as way to ready themselves to do meaningful things they care about in the future. They were also more likely to persevere in the face of challenge, stay on task, and choose math drills over mindless games and videos. In addition, students with a stronger sense of purpose were more likely to enroll in college the next fall.

The researchers didn’t merely identify a relationship between a purpose for learning and academic achievement. They also showed that targeted interventions can help students develop a purpose for learning and stay more motivated. A randomly selected group of ninth-grade students were assigned to read about other students’ prosocial reasons for learning and write about their own reasons for learning. Students who had been earning poor grades prior to the intervention in math and science earned higher grades after the intervention when compared to a control group that did different activities. The intervention had a similarly positive effect on undergraduates in college, who spent more time studying exam review questions than their peers in the control condition.

Most students have goals related to learning, such as doing well academically in order to be successful in a future career. However, when students are motivated to work hard in school so that they can make a difference in the world, they are better at persisting on academic tasks, especially when they don’t find them particularly interesting. These findings are especially relevant to educators trying to engage students who are frequently distracted or frustrated. Teachers can guide students to understand how learning in school today can help them to accomplish meaningful, prosocial tasks in the future. In this way, students can learn to see mundane tasks as meaningful and important.

Stay tuned! To assist teachers in implementing such practices, PERTS will be adding a Value Course to the Mindset Kit.

*Yeager, D. S., Henderson, M. D., Paunesku, D., Walton, G. M., D’Mello, S., Spitzer, B. J., & Duckworth, A. L. (2014). Boring but important: A self-transcendent purpose for learning fosters academic self-regulation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 107(4), 559