Influence of Grading Practices on Motivation to Learn

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Bruner (1966), writing when cognitive psychology was just beginning its surge to the forefront of educational theory, stated, “The will to learn is an intrinsic motive, one that finds both its source and its rewards in its own exercises” (p. 127). Teachers are interested in fostering intrinsic motivation in their students. Many teachers consider developing “the will to learn” itself–more likely today called an interest in lifelong learning–as a learning goal for their students.

Bruner observed that all intrinsic motivation involves one or more of the following categories, the “natural energies that sustain spontaneous learning” (p. 127): curiosity; the drive to achieve competence; the desire to emulate a model; and reciprocity, the need to work together with others to accomplish an objective. I find these categories help me as a teacher to understand the complexity of motivation in classroom processes, which is why this section on learning and motivation begins by discussing Bruner, despite the age of the theory. Bruner’s categories were the lens through which I was able to finally understand the complexity of classroom teaching. It made sense to me that the same lessons–and, for our purposes here, the same classroom assessments–were simultaneously functioning in different ways for different students. One student, for example, might want to learn some material because he is genuinely interested in and curious about it. Another student might be paying attention and doing the same tasks because she wants to become competent. A third might be doing the same work, thinking “I want to learn to do that like my teacher does.” A fourth student might become motivated to learn when he participates in a group project-he would “get into it,” as some students would say. It is also easy to envision combinations of these categories, for example when a student wants to do what the teacher models but also is genuinely curious about a subject.

My point is that Bruner’s general theory of intrinsic motivation was my “way in” to realizing how complicated classroom processes were, and how educational psychology needs to drive our educational practices but will never be reduced to a recipe that will guarantee the educational outcomes we desire. As you read the rest of this book, keep in mind this idea of simultaneous processes, of different students perceiving the same things in different ways and doing the same tasks for different reasons. It will keep you from becoming too simplistic in your application of recommendations for grading practices and will allow you to appreciate the myriad effects your grading practices may have on your students.

Several theories about motivation and learning relate the kinds of student perceptions listed above to the development of student motivation. Theories of motivation and learning, of course, are not about grades alone, or even about assessment alone. This section outlines some important developments in understanding motivation that are particularly relevant to grading.

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