February 12th, 2008

Frustration and Pleasure: Keys to Great Assignments


I asked a high school friend why he likes video games so much. “It’s fun because at the level you’re on you can do some things but not others. You really want to learn how to do those things you can’t so you can move on to the next level. And you feel like you’re so close … you just keep trying and trying and then you get it.”

Do we ever see that kind of motivation and effort in the classroom? Not regularly, at least not in my classroom. I wonder if the folks who design video games know anything about cognitive psychology. Maybe, but I’ll bet their careful design is more a function of the market economy, even though a cognitive psychologist could explain their success.

What if we designed assignments so that students succeeded enough to feel confident at the same time they were challenged enough to be frustrated to point where they would keep trying?

I don’t do video games, but I experience something that seems the same with my knitting. If a pattern is too easy, it’s boring, mindless. I just want it to be done or worse than that, I don’t bother finishing it. Knitting is my hobby, but I’m still interested in exercising my mind (at my age, I need to). So, I look for patterns that are just a bit harder than what I can comfortably do. In the beginning I overestimated my skill level and tried all these complicated patterns that were clearly beyond my ability. I wasted expensive yarn, got frustrated and then angry, which is past the point of being frustrated but still committed to figuring it out.

The fact is that it’s difficult to come up with this kind of assignment design. Good assignment design first requires an intimate knowledge of what students currently know and can do which is, of course, complicated by the fact that they don’t all start with the same knowledge or skills. After that, good assignment design requires creativity, imagination, and thinking outside the box. Students have already done so many assignments and have not been challenged or enticed by any (or very many) of them.

If there are points involved, you can get a student to do almost anything. But what a difference it makes when they actually get into a project, when they are challenged, realize they are going to have to work hard to succeed, and then go about making that effort. In those moments we see the powerful nexus between motivation and learning.