Conation? Increasingly of interest.

digital learningAt the recent Association for Educational Computing & Technology conference, Thomas Reeves addressed the topic of conation in his keynote. Conation is an idea that is relatively unknown, yet increasingly of interest. In short, it’s about one’s intention to act (and learn). And that makes all the difference.

One of the persistent mistakes that we see in corporate learning is a lack of meaningful evaluation. Too often, we only look to see whether people thought the learning experience (or instructor) was good. And, of course, it’s good if people are partial to the learning experience. Yet there’s more.

There are factors that facilitate learning and performance, and factors that interfere. And let’s be clear, the intent to learn is a crucial element that facilitates learning, and conversely there are many factors under our control that can prevent learning from being as successful as possible. We hear much talk about engagement, and engagement is essentially a consequence of conation. Consequently, conation is a topic worthy of investigation.


Cognitive science views conation as part of a trilogy. The core elements are cognition, affect, and conation. Each plays a role in defining our behavior. As a consequence, it’s important to distinguish between them.

Cognition, not surprisingly, is our conscious (and some unconscious) evaluation of the world and decisions on how to proceed. Our actions to perform are based upon what we’ve learned, and how we perceive the situation to be. And our cognition is malleable.  Our learning, naturally, is to develop our abilities to perform under specific conditions.

Affect is, in essence, who we are.  This involves our tendencies or traits.  Are we energized in groups, or does this drain us?  Scientists are still working on the important factors, but the Big 5 model is currently the best estimation.  Note that this is not learning styles, where research has established that most of the instruments aren’t valid, and you shouldn’t adapt learning to them anyway. Ultimately, your affect is hard to adjust. You can change what you know, and even how you respond, but your inherent nature seems to be largely a product of your innate tendencies and early experiences.

Conation, as has been indicated, involves your intentions. Will you act, or not? Will you engage? And this can be influenced. There are a number of factors that are involved, and need to be considered.

One factor is what your beliefs are about engaging. For learning, this involves your beliefs about your role in learning. Do you believe learning is something that happens to you, or is it something that that you actively participate in? A belief in active learning leads to more productive outcomes.

A related element comes from Carol Dweck’s work, which has demonstrated that learners who believe that their effort can lead to a change in their intelligence (a growth mindset) succeed better than those who believe their intelligence is fixed. Thus, helping develop a growth mindset can be a valuable contributor to success in learning.

A further element is the ability to persist. When people are motivated, when they understand the goal, their willingness to continue to strive is heightened.  Thus, motivation affects conation; increasing motivation increases the likelihood of success.

An inhibitor to success is anxiety.  While a small amount of stress increases success (the Yerkes-Dodson law), too much will decrease performance and learning. And the right amount of stress, particularly in the case of learning which can be inherently stressful, is likely to be already sufficient. Thus, managing anxiety is also a contributor to learning success.

As stated, conation is manipulable. To optimize performance and learning outcomes, then, we need to be aware of, and actively engaged in addressing, these elements. So what does this mean?

Engaged Performance

Dan Pink, in his book Drive, indicates three factors that contribute to work engagement. Each of these has a unique role in addressing people’s intention to engage. These three elements are purpose, autonomy, and mastery.

Purpose involves the individual understanding how what they do contributes to the larger purpose.  This ideally includes understanding both what the overall goals that the organization is trying to achieve and why they’re important, and how employee tasks contribute to this greater goal. As a consequence, it’s helpful to ensure that the organizational goals are shared broadly, and that the individual’s supervisor actively communicates why their role is important. It is essential that these purposes are authentic, as otherwise trust is lost and the purpose is undermined. Here we are addressing motivation.

Once the role of the tasks is clear, the individual should be given autonomy to purse them. There should be a clear belief on the part of the supervisor that the individual can achieve these tasks. At least, with support. Here we are incorporating motivation and a moderated bit of anxiety.

The third component is for the individual to be provided with goals that are within their reach, but not just within their grasp. That is, there should be some challenge. The role of the supervisor here is to provide the scaffolding necessary to succeed. This is emphatically not micromanaging, but instead is facilitating.  This involves regular check-ins, inquiries about barriers, and pointers or suggestions, rather than instructions.

One other factor here is safety, as Amy Edmondson’s discusses in her book Teaming. Here we mean it is okay of the individual has an occasional mistake, can share ideas without fear of retribution. If individuals feel like they can contribute, and experimentation towards innovation, their anxiety is reduced.

Engaging Learning

These factors play a role in learning as well as performance. Here we want to proactively design learning experiences that explicitly consider the elements that arise from the conative perspective. We should be explicitly engineering engagement into our design, as I argued for in Engaging Learning.

First, we should help learners understand why this learning is important to them. Too often, we provide learners with the objectives we use to design the learning. Yet these are framed from what they need, and do not address why they should care. Instead, learners should be presented with objectives that engage their WIIFM (What’s In It For Me). They need to be opened up emotionally to the learning experience as a prerequisite.

Which also means that the overall learning goals and practice need to be meaningful, in two ways.  For one, the activities that they engage in need to be clearly relevant to the outcome. Whatever they’re learning, they should see how their practice is tightly coupled to the outcome to be achieved.

In addition, they should care about the outcome itself. It should be clearly linked to something they want to be able to do that they can’t do now. Tapping into this intrinsic interest is a key factor in addressing conation.

We should also provide clear expectations to the learner. This involves two things, their role in the learning experience (and why), and what the coming experience will be like. Learners should be informed that they will be expected to process the material, and perform. And the why should be explained; that their active engagement in learning leads to better outcomes.

Similarly, the expectations about what the learning experience will encompass should be addressed. A mismatch between expectation and actual experience at some point during the learning process can undermine motivation and increase anxiety. There’s no problem if the learning process will meet the typical expectations, but if it differs, be sure to signal it appropriately.

The latter element, about expectations, helps address persistence. People are more likely to drop out if the effort becomes greater than they expected. At these point, it helps to provide encouragement.

There can also be clear rewards for effort. Marking points where an achievement has been reached can help maintain attention and diligence. Badges or other recognition may make sense.

Also, provide support, particularly if you suspect that the learners aren’t familiar or comfortable with the pedagogical approach taken. The right way to design the learning is for the outcome, not the learner, but that may require diverging from previous approaches. As recognition grows that problem-based and constructivist approaches are powerful, those familiar with more didactic learning approaches may need support.

The task itself that learners must execute, that is the practice that they must accomplish, should not be trivial. Challenge is engaging, if pitched at the right level. The alternatives to the correct choice or action should not be silly or obvious, but instead represent reliable ways learners go wrong. The level of challenge should also increase as learners develop their abilities.

Finally, as with workplace performing, learning should also be safe.  Learners should be comfortable with experimenting and learning. Assessment that counts, when necessary, should be accompanied by safe practice opportunities beforehand.

The emotional component of the learning experience should not be neglected. Conation is a framework that helps us understand and design workplaces and learning experiences that align with what’s know about how our brains work.  When we bring in intrinsic interest, reduce anxiety, make it safe, we increase the outcomes we care about.  Work, and learning, can and should be ‘hard fun’.