A Worthwhile Project

Well, another summer is in the books. Another school year is upon us. So, what will you be doing to keep your (and your students) interests peaked and motivated this year?

What about a research project that could just turn into a lifelong passion?

I must admit out of the gate, every time I write about something that shows the gulf between teaching and learning, I wonder if anyone cares enough to read it. The art and craft of teaching in a way that actually promotes learning is not on a lot of professors’ “to do” lists, after all.


A friend of mine is set to defend his dissertation in December, and his initial findings about how much professors actually read specific to teaching and learning is hugely disappointing. The self-reported metrics he shared with me on the phone were mind-blowing. Faculty report reading 207 chapters (via books, journal articles, etc) per year regarding their discipline but only .7 (yes, less than a single chapter) reading about how to improve teaching and learning. No offense to my buddy, but I’m hoping to find some flaws in his research method when it comes out! (Sorry Seth) Because otherwise…

So, in the spirit of faculty trying to improve the learning paradigm, let me offer a suggestion. Try this for the theme of your Fall kickoff for both reading and research: Conation.

Conation is an interesting little word. According to a few websites, it’s actually on the list of the 1,000 least used words in the English language. But when you read more about it, I hope you’ll be as frustrated by that as I am.

See, Conation is a very important concept with regard to education. There was a time that Conation was one angle of a triangle that represented learning. The three points were: Cognition, Affection, and Conation.


The first one (typically seen at the top) is easy – it’s basically all we worry about in education (unfortunately). Cognition is all about thought, knowledge, and understanding. It’s generally agreed upon that a score can indicate cognition, even though there is SO much evidence that scores or grades are barely a proxy for cognition. But regardless, cognition is the basic measure of school likely because it is the easiest to measure (via those proxies) – it’s grades, test scores, gpa, etc.

The second, while not really measured much, is still understood in general terms. Affection speaks to feeling, engagement, or even satisfaction. Temperament, values, and emotion make up a student’s affect as it relates to learning. The important aspect of affection denotes that there is more to learning than formal experiences. Affection encompasses much more of a person’s “whole self” which suggests that formal learning is impacted greatly by non-formal learning experiences. (One example might be loneliness. 7% of college students report feeling lonely and almost all of them flunk out or dropout of school, despite having no cognitive issues whatsoever…) So while we should measure these things far more than we do, at least we have a working knowledge of how they play in the learning cycle.

But the last one, Conation, is a mystery to most people. As already noted, it is likely a word you have never heard before. But, based on the first two points of our triangle, perhaps you are guessing what it might be? Perhaps you have seen the words Motivation or Behavior visualized as the third point of the learning triangle. Perhaps it’s one of those?

If you guessed either, you are half right. See, Conation is actually a combination of the two. Hence, breaking it apart is doing it an injustice. Conation is about volition, orientation, and interest. It is the power or act which directs or impels to effort of any kind (including both muscular AND psychical). My favorite descriptor is the word striving. In other words, Conation is the sweet spot between motivation and behavior.


Can you see just how important it is? It’s a crucial component of learning. You might go as far as to say it’s the lynch pin! And most educators have never heard of it before.

A very wise professor and friend of mine described conation like this – what are the questions you might ask in a job interview? Or perhaps a better way to say it – what WOULD you like to know after a candidate comes out of an interview?

Do you care that they got all A’s, or all B’s? Would you even ask that? (Almost nobody ever does.) Wouldn’t you prefer to know how quickly they solved problems? Don’t you want to know how they worked in groups? Did they lead or follow? Did they sabotage the process and ride the group’s coattails, did they bully other participants and takeover the project, or did they play as a genuine teammate? Don’t you want to know that? How do they actually “dig in” when assigned a task or project? How do they work?

Aren’t those the concepts we TRY to ascertain during a 30-60 minute interview? (Yet almost always failing.) Wouldn’t it be great if a student’s transcript contained far more than a grade? Would metrics around affection and conation be extremely helpful to both the student and anyone evaluating a student’s success? I contend that they would.

So perhaps it’s time we start looking at conation once again. Now that technology has evolved as it has, can we measure it? (I have done so.) Could we ultimately report back to students a “Conation score” that might help them understand better how they learn? (I know we could.)

So, perhaps this Fall, as you pitch a few research projects to your students, grad assistants or colleagues, you might suggest Conation (or Affection for that matter). Just start with a forensic dive into the term ‘Conation’ and go from there. I’m betting what you and/or your students unpack turns into a life-long, well-worth-it effort.

Good luck and good learning.