The Allure of Variety

Very little in the world can be objectively characterized (e.g. right or wrong, dull or interesting, etc.) Most things are open to interpretation, and our interpretations then shape what we believe reality to be. Yet those interpretations themselves are shaped by our expectations. When we expect somebody to be a jerk and we see them grab something, we tend to think they took it from somebody, not that they are bringing it to somebody.

Expectations about school are particularly important. Because most K-12 classrooms are similar, student expectations can play a large role in whether a class is interpreted to be interesting, challenging, or worthwhile. The question is, how does one influence expectations about school?

A group of Australian psychologists may have found an answer in a new experiment on the influence of perceived task variety. They told subjects attending a cycling class that they would either engage in two similar 10 minute activities or two different 10 minute activities. In reality, everybody did the same 20 minute routine. It turned out that expectations about variety had a significant effect.

Results showed that participants exposed to messages about variety in an exercise class enjoyed the class more, found it more interesting, and perceived greater internal causality than those who received messages about similarity in the class. Moderator analyses indicated that expectations of task variety were particularly conducive for task interest among participants who usually demonstrated lower intrinsic motivation for exercise.

Although the experiment dealt with expectations about a cycling class, given the general predictability of cycling and the standard motivation for that type of activity (you do it because it’s good for you, not because it’s exhilarating), I don’t think it’s a stretch to apply the results to a generic school classroom.

In general, the findings hint that it may be a good idea to rethink the way we talk about school subjects. After all, the “Math-English-Science-History” thing we have going on hasn’t changed much in the last 80 years. Perhaps if we named K-12 classes more like college classes and did a better job stressing the different units or topics within a particular class, schools could glean some of the gains from increasing expectations of variety.

None of this is to say that altering expectations about variety is a surefire way to improve learning, but it is another one of those low-hanging fruits that it seems stupid not to experiment with, especially given the fact that the effect of perceived variety was largest for those who already had the least intrinsic motivation. Those are the students who really need a push to get serious about learning, and we should be doing everything we can to find the right kind of push.
Dimmock, J., Jackson, B., Podlog, L., & Magaraggia, C. (2012). The effect of variety expectations on interest, enjoyment, and locus of causality in exercise Motivation and Emotion DOI: 10.1007/s11031-012-9294-5

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