Influence of Grading Practices on Motivation to Learn (page 2)

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

Attribution Theory

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).

Goal Orientations

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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