A dissociation between engagement and learning: Enthusiastic instructions fail to reliably improve performance on a memory task

Motz, B.A., de Leeuw, J.R., Carvalho, P.F., Liang, K.L., Goldstone, R.L. (2017). A dissociation between engagement and learning: Enthusiastic instructions fail to reliably improve performance on a memory task. PLoS ONE, 12(7): e0181775. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0181775

Despite widespread assertions that enthusiasm is an important quality of effective teaching, empirical research on the effect of enthusiasm on learning and memory is mixed and largely inconclusive. To help resolve these inconsistencies, we conducted a carefully-controlled laboratory experiment, investigating whether enthusiastic instructions for a memory task would improve recall accuracy. Scripted videos, either enthusiastic or neutral, were used to manipulate the delivery of task instructions. We also manipulated the sequence of learning items, replicating the spacing effect, a known cognitive technique for memory improvement. Although spaced study reliably improved test performance, we found no reliable effect of enthusiasm on memory performance across two experiments. We did, however, find that enthusiastic instructions caused participants to respond to more item prompts, leaving fewer test questions blank, an outcome typically associated with increased task motivation. We find no support for the popular claim that enthusiastic instruction will improve learning, although it may still improve engagement. This dissociation between motivation and learning is dis- cussed, as well as its implications for education and future research on student learning.

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