Back in the day, I ran a vocational training and adult basic education program for low-income residents of Chester, a city with the dubious distinction of having the highest crime and unemployment rate in the state of Pennsylvania. The program was funded by the city of Chester and had previously been managed by a local non-profit - rather poorly it would seem, given its dismal job placement and dropout rates. My employer - Associates for Research in Behavior - took over the city’s contract with the promise of improving outcomes by applying the principles of motivation to the business of training adult students.

The main principles were:

Payoff: hard work is not sustained without some kind of payoff.

Markers of Progress: when the big payoff is far off, motivation may flag without clear markers of progress (little payoffs), such as completed tasks, new skills, passed tests, and meaningful praise.

Doability: what’s required needs to be within the person’s repertoire of skills and behaviors, which expand in time with continued effort and growing self-confidence.

Consequences: slacking off and violating the rules carries clear consequences.

Less Attractive Alternatives: the alternative to serious goal pursuit is likely to be unpleasant, e.g., failure, isolation, depression, boredom, insecurity, unpredictability, poverty, social rejection. and lack of status, freedom, and a sense of safety.

So how did these principles play out on the ground? Here are some examples:

Payoff: students were paid a stipend for program participation. Each student had weekly training goals, which were reset every week depending on their performance. If they met all their goals by the end of Thursday, they could have Friday off and still receive their full stipend (with the understanding that meeting goals early one week meant more ambitious goals the following week). Of course, the best payoff was getting a well-paying job.

Markers of Progress: the weekly training goals consisted of passing several short modules. Passing a module required real competence in the subject matter (the equivalent of getting a ‘B’). Failing a module got an ticket to the tutor, followed by another try at passing. Every passed module meant one step closer to meeting the weekly training goal.

Doability: lesson plans were constantly tweaked to make sure the challenge level was moderate and appropriate to the student’s skills. Students acquired a real sense of competence and accomplishment, which increased their self-confidence in their ability to achieve learning and performance goals (i.e., self-efficacy). Students’ successes were celebrated and publicly acknowledged, e.g., who passed their GED, got a job, etc. Note that self-efficiency grows with personal success and by observing the success of “similar others”.

Consequences: our initial students (holdovers from the previous program) were a rather raucous bunch, more interested in socializing and playing music than learning new skills. After a bit of trial and error, we came up with a rule book listing unacceptable behaviors and the very clear consequences for each behavior. After three rule violations, students were kicked out of the program (but allowed to reapply after six months).

Less Attractive Alternatives: the main alternative to program participation and completion was continued poverty, financial insecurity and limited prospects due to a lack of skills. Ok, so the program didn’t create these alternatives as a motivation tool - but the positive experiences related to training made these alternatives more salient.

So how did it all turn out? Swimmingly. By the time I left to pursue my own flaky goals, program size had tripled, thanks to positive student feedback, improved test results, and high job placement rates. And the place had become so quiet, with students hushing each other so they could concentrate on their studies.