This article develops a basic definition of conation, and examines the history of the concept from Greek philosophy up to the present. It next explains the changes in the definition and understanding of the concept, and presents some problems and solutions that scholars have presented over the last several decades. The article concludes with an examination of several conation studies that have recently been carried out in the field of education, and arrives at the current interpretations and applications of the concept.
Keywords: Affection; Aptitude; Cognition; Conation; Interactive Learning Model (ILM); Learning Combination Inventory (LCI); Learning Model; Personality Trait; Second Language Acquisition (SLA)
Unless we have a clear and agreed upon definition of what we mean when we use the word conation, we can neither understand how conation helps to explain human nature, nor discuss the current applications of its concept in various academic fields. This is particularly true of education theory, where conation has seen the most application in recent decades. However, before attempting to define conation, it should be noted that a great deal of the writing about conation has been, over the last three decades, essentially attempts at clearly defining it. Unfortunately, these scholarly efforts have sometimes created more confusion than clarification of the concept. Many scholars have realized that creating a clear definition for conation is quite difficult; the confusion and debate over what the word means, and how to conceptually apply it, continues up to the present.
The etymological root of the Latinate word conation comes from the Latin noun conatio, "act of attempting," which has its source in the Latin verb conari, "to attempt." However, the concept of conation even precedes this Latin root, going back to early Greek philosophy. As Messick observes, "The Aristotelian image of the psyche was divided into three parts: affection, conation, and cognition" (Messick, 1996, p. 357). Two of those parts seem much easier to explain than the part under exploration here; conation seems the most shadowy of the Aristotelian model of the mind. "Affection" and "cognition" are words most people have heard and generally use, but what does conation refer to? For Aristotle, "affection" refers to the emotions; "cognition" refers to thought or the process of thinking; and conation refers to motivation, or the active implementation of one's will. In terms of its meaning in contemporary education theory, Huit writes that,
Conation refers to the connection of knowledge and affect to behavior and is associated with the issue of "why." It is the personal, intentional, planful, deliberate, goal-oriented, or striving component of motivation, the proactive (as opposed to reactive or habitual) aspect of behavior. It is closely associated with the concept of volition, defined as the use of will, or the freedom to make choices about what to do. It is absolutely critical if an individual is to successfully engage in self-direction and self-regulation (Huitt, 1999, ¶ 3).
Huitt's definition fundamentally expresses the Latin root of conari ("to attempt"), and a lot of his definition centers upon the concept of taking action, of intentionally and deliberately achieving objectives. We also see the words "motivation" and "will" used in the definition, while the beginning of his definition refers to conation as the way humans connect knowledge and emotion to create human behavior. Huitt thus defines conation as some active and wilful aspect of the human mind that creates behavior.
Reviving the Concept
Richard E. Snow, whom other scholars have credited with bringing the concept of conation back into educational theory, writes that conation has been traditionally defined as … that aspect of mental process or behavior by which it tends to develop into something else; an intrinsic 'unrest'… the opposite of homeostasis … a conscious tendency to act; a conscious striving…, impulse, desire, volition, purposive striving… (Snow, 1996, ¶ 2).
Snow points out that the concept of conation was "deleted" from psychology all the way up to the 1980's (Snow, 1996, ¶ 3). Huitt also notes the absence of conation in the previous century of psychology. "At the beginning of modern psychology," writes Huitt, "both emotion and conation were considered central to its study; however, interest in these topics declined as overt behavior and cognition received more attention" (Huitt, 1999, ¶ 5). Kupermintz (2002) also credits Snow with reviving interest in the conative aspect of educational theory, and like other scholars, observes that the concept has been oddly ignored for a long time:
The call for including the study of affective and conative aspects in learning and performance of academic tasks has been a centerpiece in Richard E. Snow's theory of aptitude. Although the importance of these aspects of performance has been recognized, since the early days of the scientific exploration of intelligence by Binet and his followers, they have not become an integral part of contemporary thinking about cognitive functioning. It is only in the last 3 decades or so that significant attention has been given to domain-specific motivational factors that influence cognitive functioning in formal and informal learning environments. It was the integration of these motivational factors and other aspects of mental functioning that Snow, Corno, and Jackson (1996) thought was important for advancing the study of learning and performance. In their work, after Hilgard (1980), they differentiated the mind into three types of processes: cognitive, affective, and conative (Kupermintz, 2002, p. 123).
The most likely reason that conation was ignored in psychology for so many years is that conation is the most difficult part to test or verify. Kupermintz alludes above to the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Quotient test, and that is a good example of "scientific exploration" of the cognitive part of the mind. Anger, love, compassion, jealousy, and other emotions also seem more easily identifiable and testable through research, but conation seems a difficult aspect for scientific exploration. However, it may be that scientifically exploring and explaining conation could make significant contributions to psychology and education, which is why researchers have turned to it in recent years. As Huitt notes, researchers began to postulate that "conation is necessary to explain how knowledge and emotion are translated into behavior in human beings." Huitt also observes that a significant reason researchers have had difficulty accurately predicting behavior "is because the construct of conation has been omitted" (1999, ¶ 5). As Huitt observes, "Many researchers believe volition or will or freedom of choice is an essential element of voluntary human behavior and that human behavior cannot be explained fully without it." Huitt also notes that conation "is especially important when addressing issues of human learning" (1999, ¶ 6).
Three Aspects of the Mind
Although we have been speaking of three "parts" comprising the human mind, it is important to consider whether these "parts" should be perceived as parts, as though they can be separated from each other. It seems much more likely that these "parts" have an effect upon each other and are not actually separable; especially if we consider personality as an entirety. This is why Messick, who observes that affection, cognition and conation are often viewed or referred to as a "tripartite" model, asserts that "… a better term might be the 'trinity of mind,' which suggests the union of three aspects in personality" (Messick, 1996, p. 357). Kupermintz also points out the problem of dividing the mind into three parts:
… the cognitive, affective, and conative qualities of performance are not provinces; they operate in synergy. Keeping them separate … limits our ability to understand the totality of the performing individual (2002, p. 135).
A primary question among conation researchers, then, is whether by having largely ignored conation in psychology — and consequently in our educational system — educators may either cause adverse effects in their students' cognitive development, or at least are not taking full advantage of educational opportunities with their students. Kupermintz poses that question, and points out that researchers need to develop methods to research conation, and design tests that can yield consistent, demonstrable results. Kupermintz also observes that the way the three aspects of the human mind interact during learning processes or situations of performance remains largely unexplained (2002, p. 124). Other researchers have consistently pointed out this problem. For example, Messick observes that the relationships among the aspects of mind are quite complex, and that those interactions have always been "vague and amorphous" (Messick, 1996, p. 353). Thus, part of the problem in defining conation is a lack of understanding exactly how this aspect of the psyche interacts with the other parts.
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