Influence of Grading Practices on Motivation to Learn (page 2)
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.
Weiner (1979) offered a theory of motivation for some classroom experiences based on attribution theory. Attribution theory assumes that the search for understanding is a basic–if not the basic–source of motivation. To understand an event, you need to know what brought it about. The idea was that students identify causes of various classroom events along three dimensions: stability (whether the cause was changeable over time), locus (whether the cause was internal or external to the student), and control (whether or not the student had control over the cause). Thus, for example, if a student receives an F on a test and thinks that happened because he or she is stupid, that causal attribution is stable, internal, and uncontrollable (“I can’t help how I was born”). If a student receives an F and thinks it is because he or she didn’t study, that’s unstable (whether or not I study can change from test to test), internal, and controllable. If a student receives an A and thinks it’s because the teacher wrote an easy test, that’s unstable, external, and uncontrollable.
Weiner reviewed research that suggested these attributions of cause have psychological consequences. Perceptions of stability are related to the size of changes in expectations following success or failure. If a student attributes success on a project to stable reasons (e.g., “I am good at this”), then he or she can reasonably expect to be able to do even more next time. Perceptions of locus of control (internal or external) are related to self-esteem. Success attributed to ability fosters feelings of competence and confidence, whereas success attributed to luck fosters surprise, but not increased future expectations for success. Failure attributed to lack of ability fosters feelings of incompetence, whereas failure attributed to lack of effort fosters feelings of guilt and shame. Perceived control relates to helping others and emotional responses such as liking others.
Evans and Engelberg (1988) studied student perceptions of school grading. They administered questionnaires to fourth through eleventh graders at four different schools. The questionnaires asked about students’ attitudes about being graded, their understanding of grading systems, and their causal attributions about why students get good grades. Their results suggested grading concepts develop gradually. Older students had a better understanding of grading schemes than younger students, although even older students did not comprehend complicated grading schemes. Older students displayed more dissatisfaction and cynicism about grading than younger students, and older students rated grades as more important than younger students.
The causes for grades that students reported to Evans and Engelberg at least partly supported attribution theory. Younger students and low achievers thought that grades were more influenced by external and uncontrollable causes, whereas older students and high achievers thought that grades were more influenced by internal and controllable causes.
This theory gives us two interesting ideas to think about in regard to grades. First, the same grade can be perceived differently by different students, and used by that student as part of a complicated web of perceptions and reasoning to make sense of his or her world. Second, it is possible for a teacher to encourage internal and controllable causal attributions by giving additional feedback in addition to the grade (“I liked the way you wrote this paragraph, Timmy, because I can tell you tried very hard to use lots of descriptive adjectives”). This, of course, will work only if the additional feedback is true and clear, but it underscores the educational importance of helping students to set grades in productive contexts. For a review of the kinds of feedback that research suggests are most powerful, see Hattie and Timperley (2007).
Recently, educational psychologists have become interested in the reasons students pursue academic goals, called achievement goal orientations. In the past 20 years, the study of goals has become the predominant focus of researchers and theorists studying achievement motivation (Elliott & Thrash, 2001). As this literature developed, different researchers used different terms for goal orientations: task involved or ego involved, learning oriented or performance oriented, and mastery focused or ability focused (Ames & Archer, 1988).
Currently, most writers use the terms “mastery goals” and “performance goals” to identify these two kinds of achievement goals. Students with mastery goals have self-improvement motivations, are interested in the development of competence, and adopt a view of evaluation where they judge their achievement based on how well they did at particular tasks. Students with performance goals have self-presentation motives; they want to be seen demonstrating competence. They adopt a view of evaluation where they judge their achievement based on how well they did compared to others.
Motivation theorists who are interested in the differences between approach and avoidance have identified a two-dimensional classification based not only on whether the reasons for learning are self-improvement or self-presentation goals (mastery vs. performance), but also on whether the direction comes from a desirable event or an undesirable one (approach vs. avoidance; Elliott & Covington, 2001). Thus it is possible conceptually to have students wanting to learn more about a topic for its own sake (mastery-approach motivation), wanting not to lose skills they already possess (mastery-avoidance), wanting to be seen as “smart” or competent by others (performance-approach), and wanting not to be seen as “stupid” or incompetent by others (performance-avoidance). Three of these categories have been the topic of recent research. Mastery-avoidance goals are less well studied to date (Elliott & Thrash, 2001).
The implications of theories of achievement goal orientations for classrooms are particularly important because evidence suggests that, in addition to their personal goal orientations, students can perceive classroom goal orientations as well. Ames and Archer (1988) studied students’ perceptions of the mastery and performance dimensions of the classroom by asking students to respond to phrases like “The teacher makes sure I understand the work,” indicating mastery goal emphases in the classroom, and “Students want to know how others score on assignments,” indicating performance goal emphases in the classroom.
In Ames and Archer’s study, students who felt the classroom was more mastery oriented reported using more effective learning and study strategies, preferred challenging assignments, had a more positive attitude toward the class, and tended to believe that success was a result of effort. In contrast, students who felt that the classroom was more performance oriented tended to focus on their own ability, in particular, attributing failure to lack of ability.
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