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Influence of Grading Practices on Motivation to Learn (page 3)

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

Self-Worth Theory

Covington (1992, p. 74) based his thinking about motivation on the assumption that “the search for self-acceptance is the highest human priority, and that in schools self-acceptance comes to depend on one’s ability to achieve competitively.” He reviewed theories of motivation, including attribution theory and theories about achievement goal orientations, and looked for ways to light the way forward. He acknowledged that students were not on equal footing with regard to ability; some students are more able than others. He recommended that schools work to create a condition he named motivational equity:

Obviously, not everyone is equally bright, nor can all children compete on an equal footing intellectually. But at least schools can provide all students with a common heritage in the reasons they learn. Everyone can experience feelings of resolve and a commitment to think more, and to dare more; feelings of being caught up in the drama of problem solving, and of being poised to learn and ready to take the next step. Low ability is no barrier to this kind of excellence. (p. 21)

The second recommendation that Covington made was that educators work to foster goal-oriented cognitions. This means providing students practice in the strategies they need in order to learn how to learn and how to think, to set learning goals, and then decide how to achieve them. This involves helping students to see intelligence as a resource that they can useand even improveand not an innate, unchangeable limit.

How do we foster motivational equity and encourage students along the road to achieving learning goals they set for themselves? What role does grading play in those efforts? Covington proposed six instructional guidelines (pp. 160–170), broad generalizations for which he provided research evidence (see Figure ). Not surprisingly, grades and grading policies figure in most of them.

First, schools must provide inherently engaging assignments. Intrinsic motivation must have an opportunity to show itself, and everyone is motivated to do something. One strategy he suggests is providing assignments that have manageable challenges, arouse curiosity, and stimulate the imagination. This recommendation is supported by more recent work in educational psychology that highlights the role of student interest (Bergin, 1999; Brophy, 1999; Hidi & Harackiewicz, 2000). It also harks back to Bruner’s (1966) noting curiosity as a primary driver of intrinsic motivation.

Second, teachers must provide sufficient rewards for students who engage in these tasks successfully. Rewards must not be scarce, and they must come in such a way that the act of learning itself becomes a reward. This means that rewards, including grades, should come as a result of learning, not just participation. It also means that grading should be, to as great an extent as possible, under the control of students. Giving students choice in assignments on which they will be graded or having students participate in their own grading (e.g., grading themselves or conferencing with a teacher) are examples of ways grading can become a tool in fostering motivational equity and student development as learners. Research evidence suggests that if you give students the criteria for good performance, students can use them both to accomplish their tasks and also to judge their accomplishments.

Third, Covington recommends working to enhance effort–outcome beliefs. In other words, teachers need to provide opportunities for students to exercise some personal control over their work and have that effort lead to expected and valued learning or achievement. There is some evidence that when students are given choices and have the opportunity to exercise control, they in fact do get better scores. Students who are already mired in a cycle of failure will need special assistance to do this. Teachers will have to help them set realistic goals, so that they can believe they will be able to repeat their successes on future assignments. The grades students get on their work will be their evidence.

Fourth, Covington recommends working to build the connection in students’ minds between effort and self-worth. If school tasks are competitiveas, for example, when a limited number of high grades are availablepride in success or shame in failure depend on students’ perceptions of their ability. Classroom learning assignments, rewards, and grades should shift so that they emphasize effort, so that pride in success becomes linked to pride at working hard, and so that success is available to anyone who expends effort. This will involve a shift in the types of tasks and the amount of choice involved, so that students who expend effort really will be successful. To be clear, Covington does not recommend giving high grades “just for trying,” but rather structuring assignments tailored to students’ abilities and interests so that students who do try actually will succeed.

Fifth, teachers should work to promote positive beliefs about ability among their students. An incremental view of intelligence, viewing it as the ability to learn instead of the ability to outscore classmates, will foster motivational equity. Finally, Covington recommends improving relationships between teachers and students. Sharing the power to decide about learning and sharing the responsibility for evaluating that learning will make a big step in this direction.

Covington and Mûeller (2001) made the case that approach and avoidance motivations were more important than mastery or performance goal orientations. In particular, any kind of approach-oriented striving, whether for knowledge or for recognition, stood in stark contrast to “avoidance goals driven by the fear of failure.” The harm was not whether the goals were internal or external, but whether there was fear:

These avoidance goals present a worrisome picture. Yet they are unlikely to be caused primarily by the offering of reward such as grades or even by their extrinsic character. As we see it, the problem is not that grades are essentially foreignor extrinsic to the act of learning itselfbut, quite the opposite: Grades have become inexorably linked to the achievement process. Grades are highly charged with personal meaning. For many students grades carry the burden of defining their worth. The underlying reality is that intrinsic values become imperiled not principally because of the tangible, extrinsic features of the rewards that dominate in school, but because all too often the individuals’ sense of worth becomes equated with high marks that are rendered scarce by competitive rules. (pp. 166–167)

Covington and Mûeller pointed out that students strive for the highest grade they can achieve for different reasons related to the degree to which knowledge is valued. If students strive for good grades to impress other people or to avoid failure, then learning is valuable only to the extent that it enhances the student’s status. If students strive for grades in order to use the feedback to improve their learning, then grades become part of the learning process itself. In this way, Covington and Mûeller acknowledge what others have called mastery and performance orientations, but they interpret these as reasons for the primary striving (approaching or avoiding) students exhibit. They described four “kinds” of students that many teachers would recognize. Notice how grades play a role in each.

Failure-avoiding students are not motivated to approach learning, and they are very motivated to avoid failure. They use self-defeating strategies like setting impossibly high goals. When they fail to meet them, they can protect themselves from being thought “failures”; after all, no one could be expected to achieve impossibly high goals. Achievement brings relief, at least temporarily, at not being found out as incompetent. For these students, caring about grades undermines learning not because grades are external rewards, say Covington and Mûeller, but because for these students grades have come to mean measures of their self-worth.

Success-oriented students are motivated to approach learning, and are not particularly motivated to avoid failure. They would risk temporary failure in their efforts to learn, and would interpret failure as feedback that a learning goal was not yet mastered. Success-oriented students interpret grades not so much as external rewards, despite the fact that they are usually awarded by teachers, but as information they can use in their own learning.

Overstrivers are motivated to approach learning, but they are also motivated to avoid failure. In effect, succeeding as learners is their strategy for avoiding failure. Getting good grades is the external meter for this group that tells how well they have succeeded. Unfortunately, avoiding failure with a good grade in one assignment carries a natural punishment for this group, since they have that much more to prove next time.

Finally, failure-accepting students are motivated neither to approach learning nor to avoid failure. Threats of bad grades will not convince these students to expend extra effort. Offering rewards to these students won’t do that, either. Failure-accepting students may drop out of school, or if they stay in school, it is for a reason outside of their success or failure in the classroom. Covington’s instructional guidelines for motivational equity (Figure 3-1) are especially important for these students.

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