I just need to pass the course: instrumental learning and statistics

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16 January 2019

I am interested in instrumental motivation, when a learner is doing a course of study in order to get a piece of paper – a qualification, which is generally the means to an end. I suspect that many students of statistics have instrumental motivation and I am interested in what affect that has on their learning and on the teacher of the course.

Personal experience of learning

All my life I have been a high-achieving, engaged learner. I liked to learn and to become more knowledgeable. I still like to learn and am not interested in any more qualifications. I love to read about teaching and think about how I can be a better teacher and help other teachers, particularly in mathematics and statistics. This blog and my YouTube channel are manifestations of this. For twenty years I taught at university and recently I wrote a first year statistics course for an online educational provider. I have tended to assume that people who took courses wanted to learn.

In the last six months I have been required to take an online course of three papers plus a practicum to enable me to work in schools as a relief/supply/substitute teacher. Taking part in this course has been an eye-opening experience for me and is making me think again about different kinds of learners. Though some of the material in these courses is interesting, I am doing the course because I need the piece of paper to get a job. That is it. I resent that I am required to do this entire course, but I do realise that it is not the fault of the people administering the course. Every minute I spend on the course that is not needed, is time that I could be spending with my family or earning money – both important roles!

The world is full of instrumental learners

Now I will also have learners in my classes that are instrumental – that only want to do the absolute minimum to get through the course, pass and move on. I had previously felt no kinship to people who felt like that, but right now I have a better understanding of their needs. As I wrote the online course I hoped that people would find the material interesting, and did my best to engage them. However, I am sure that there will be people who take that introductory statistics course, possibly the majority, that simply want to do the absolute minimum in order to pass the course and get on with their other studies.

In New Zealand we have a school qualification (NCEA) that has a combination of internally assessed and externally assessed components. It is possible for a student to complete the requirements of the qualification through internal assessment only. Teachers are concerned that students choose not to study the material in the external assessments as they do not need to sit them. This leaves gaps in their understanding of probability and statistics. It is frustrating to see students make those choices, but the reality is that the students are often making sensible decisions about their use of time.

When do we lose the joy of learning?

Anyone who has watched babies and young children will know that there is an inherent drive to learn. They find new things, put them in their mouths, feel them, bang them… They try over and over to get mobile so that they can find out new things. Most children in the early years at school are similarly motivated to learn. But somewhere along the line, the joy of learning drains away. Maybe it is the fault of our schooling system. I suspect that motivation to learn is subject specific, though. Young people will put a lot of time and effort into mastering the controls of a new computer game, or the intricacies of a sport. When we are faced with communicating with people who speak a different language, we are motivated to learn so that we can connect. It has been exciting to me to see the growth in desire to learn Te Reo Māori, the language of the indigenous people of New Zealand.

Instrumental learners matter

I suspect we are all instrumental learners more often than we admit to ourselves. When I started my PhD I was excited to be learning, and researching and planning to make a difference. Eight years later I just wanted the thing done. What I needed was the piece of paper saying PhD, and to be over with it so I could move on with my life.

Often we learn things as a means to an end. My husband attends regular courses in workplace safety, first aid and cone placing as part of his job as a land surveyor. He and his classmates would not attend a single one of those courses if they were not required. However he does find them interesting at times, especially when there are lots of good stories!

Seducing learners into wanting to learn

As I have been trying to avoid spending more time than the minimum on my teaching refresher course I have occasionally found myself interested and reading around the topic, despite my worst intentions. The writers have succeeded in seducing me into learning. One of my assignments received a much higher mark than I had intended, and almost against my will I found myself doing a good job on the next assignment. I cannot imagine the people running the course realise how much I have tried NOT to engage – and my marks make me look like the ideal student.


Motivation is key to learning, but there are different forms of motivation. Even though we would love all our learners to be studying our subject for the interest and joy of it, this is unlikely to be the case. In statistics teaching it is very likely that the majority of our students are taking the course from necessity. We may be able to engage them through seductive teaching despite their initial intentions. What do you think?

I come back to my favourite teaching quote from Kevin Maxwell:

Our job is to teach the students we have. Not the ones we would like to have. Not the ones we used to have. Those we have right now. All of them.

And that includes instrumental learners!



1 Comment

  1. Subhash Chandra says:

    My experience has been pretty much the same as yours Nic… and as Kevin Maxwell said …

    “Our job is to teach the students we have. Not the ones we would like to have. Not the ones we used to have. Those we have right now. All of them.”

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