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.

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.

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.