Jacobs Foundation Research Fellow

Matthew Apps

University of Birmingham

Research Focus

Matthew Apps examines the psychology and neuroscience of motivation. Why do people find things effortful? Why do we often avoid effort? And how do we motivate behaviors to reach our goals? He uses cutting-edge computational, psychological and brain imaging tools to answer these questions. His work involves building new theories of motivation, developing computer game based tasks to test them, and examining what systems in the brain motivate behaviours in order to find new ways to help people achieve their goals.

My plans for the fellowship period

Achieving goals often requires the ability to work over extended periods of time towards fixed deadlines. For children and adolescents’ education is often determined by this. For example, when exerting effort into learning before exams. But how does the ability to motivate efforts before deadlines arise in the developing brain? And do some young people struggle with working out when to exert effort to make sure they have done all the work on time? During my fellowship I will use novel experimental tools that can precisely measure young people’s decisions of when to exert effort to reach deadlines and can quantify how proactive (work hard at the start) or reactive (leave it late) people are.

For this project I will (1) undertake a large online study examining whether there are particular traits in youths associated with being proactive, reactive, or failing before deadlines and (2) use brain imaging to precisely characterise how brain development scaffolds the ability to meet deadlines. This project will quantify the developing psychological and brain processes that underlie a key aspect of motivation and provide the first steps for technological and educational interventions that help young people’s learning by meeting their deadlines.

How will my work change children’s and youth’s lives?

Deadlines are a major feature of assessments in educational systems across the globe. Children and adolescents may succeed or struggle, not because of their capacity to learn or comprehend material, but because they have yet to develop the ability to work towards a deadline. However, we don’t know at what age does this skill develops nor how it aligns with brain development. Could educational policies and methods of assessment be improved and better targeted by understanding when young people develop the ability to work effectively towards deadlines? And can we create tools for educators or young people’s that help them develop this ability?

My fellowship will take the first steps towards answering these questions. This work will start to build the evidence base that will help to shape educational policy, ensuring that children are assessed in an age-appropriate way, and that some children are not disadvantaged. The evidence base can be used to inform training provided to teachers to help children who struggle with the ability to meet deadlines. Moreover, it will be used to develop tools and apps that can help young people, so that they all have the chance to flourish.