How to fix an overly left-brain student

I have had some frustrating experiences with very talented, but also very grade-focused students, which lead me to analyse the problem and its solution.

So we know from Octalysis that two kinds of motivation are left brain (extrinsic) motivation and right brain (intrinsic) motivation, and the ideal is to have a balance between the two.

What you encounter in teaching is that some students are extremely reliant on either the left or the right brain motivation, to the extend that it causes them trouble, even if they skilled at their subjects.

Today I will discuss the student that is overly left-brain, dominated by concrete and somewhat rational motivations to the exclusion of other motivators.
This student is focused on grades, and sees school work as a means to earn grades and a diploma, bringing access to further studies or a job. The focus will often be on the safe path, attempting to solve any problem exactly the way that the teacher imagined it should be done.
If the student is ambitious or dutiful, she might eventually be worn down by the workload, becoming a joyless person and even develop a depression. Studies by the researcher Skaalvik show that a considerable number of Norwegian students suffer from “performance pressure” related to their studies, which puts them at risk for developing psychiatric issues. Intrinsic right-brain motivation could prevent this fate, but the student will not seek this out on their own, being more focused on her grades (and other duties) than her own well-being.

A less ambitious student would not burn out the same way, but will instead annoy the teacher with a constant attitude of “what do I get out of it?” and “will this affect my grade?”. And he will of cause cut any corners he can while maintaining his grade.
Finally, intrinsic motivated students tend to forget everything they have learned shortly after a test or an exam, getting the grade was all that mattered, and after that the brain cleans out the “useless” information.

No matter the level of ambition, left-brain dominated students can be helped by the same approach. Of cause you need to offer them the antidote of intrinsic motivation: tasks that are interesting or fun because they involve creativity, social relations or curiosity.
For a talented student, this could be doing a different assignment than the rest of the class, one that involves more research and independent thought than standard work.
The critical part is that you have to convince the student that she will get (at least) the same out of doing the fun thing, that she doesn’t simply run a huge risk of failure with this choice.

Then the rational thought of the student will be this: “I can do this boring task, or this interesting task. If both tasks takes the same effort, and gives me the same reward, then of cause I should do the interesting task.”
This is the way to lead a too rational, left-brain dominated student to start getting some intrinsic motivation. With a bit of luck, he will discover that studying can be interesting and fun, and seek out more ways to have fun on his own.

Looking for more content about gamified teaching? Check out the blog post Exploration of knowledge

or all blog posts about gamified teaching:  Gamification of teaching (link)

One thought on “How to fix an overly left-brain student

  1. Thanks for this interesting reflection and useful insight into that kind of student that is so usual in our classrooms and, most definitely, needs some guidance to focus their energies in a more self-positive manner.

    My two cents. In my teaching experience with secondary school students in Spain, one usually succesful approach I have used with those talented and overtly left-brain (accomplishment-led) students is having them tutor classmates, giving them an incentive (in their grade) related to their tutee’s improvement. While keeping it apparently left-side, we indirectly give them choices to activate Meaning (elitism, she is the chosen one, no one else can do that difficult task), Empowerment (creative ways to solve the problem of teaching, instant feedback from the classmate) and Social Influence (obviously).

    Best regards from Asturias!


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