How do we bring the findings on motivation to the classroom?

A few of the readings/videos for this week described the phenomenon that when a reward is placed for the production of good work, it inhibits our ability to do well. They also state that allowing people to work on projects that they came up with and are interested in facilitated immense imagination and superb results. But how does this information translate to the classroom?

In most classroom environments, student passively learn information and reproduce that knowledge on an exam to ‘prove’ that they ‘learned’ it. While I think most of us agree that the majority of students are memorizing for the short-term and not learning for the long-term, the students still need to be taught information and take the time to understand it. It’s hard for them to be imaginative in producing a product pertaining to class information if they don’t already know it. So, how can we take this information that we know from learning and assessment and apply it to our learning environments?

I think we need to take an interdisciplinary approach to teach students and ensure that they are taking in the information. First, students will have to be taught in a very typical manner. But after going over information, instructions can have the students work in groups or by themselves on example problems or have a class discussion. Instructors should also ensure that when they are going over problems in class that they are of similar difficulty to that of the homework or exams. If the difficulty level is much higher on homework and exams than what was presented by the teacher, students feel that they are not grasping the content and lose motivation.

In the last couple weeks of the class, instructors could stop assigning traditional problem based homework move to a group of individual project. But, instead of assigning a specific project, the instructor could ask the students to come up with a project of a certain criteria and present it to them before they begin work on it. This could facilitate students doing work on projects that they are motivated by.

In all of this, I am still unsure of how to approach grading. I feel that students will remain unmotivated in interacting with the material if they are not given a grade. However, I think that presenting material and going over problems that is commensurate withe the level that is found on homework and exams will aide in the stress students feel towards grades. In addition, we should have less of an emphasis on bell curves and failing people and use grades as a way to prove to ourselves that we are good teachers. If our students have an 85% average in the class, they will be happier and feel more respected, and we can take that as an indicator that we are doing well because our students are learning. Taking away grades entirely and making instructors give oral exams to each individual student to understand their grasp of the material also creates a lot of work additional work. If we move the emphasis in classes away from grades and more toward learning, everyone will benefit.


3 Replies to “How do we bring the findings on motivation to the classroom?”

  1. Hi Deborah,

    I think you’re right about how students (sadly) are passive in their own education and learning, but I think that’s largely a product of the system that we have created and put them through from 1st to 12th grade–and beyond.

    Thinking about how to bring motivation front and center into the classroom, I wanted to share one take on the issue. What if the first part of a course (during the syllabus review conversation) we talk to our students about our philosophy on grading and assessment and make it clear that it’s not about the grade, but about the learning taking place. And while there won’t be the incessant grading of every assignment or task, and we don’t care about cumulative points, etc., it is expected that students develop agency in their education because if they don’t, they’ll be taking that class again. (So something like the “not yet” approach to assessment). And perhaps allowing a little freedom of choice within the course will help, too. So are there ways we can allow students to choose the subject of their projects and reports instead of always handing them an explicit project statement?

    While the alternative methods might be more work on the front end for teachers, they pay in dividends for students (and I mean undergraduates/graduate students here) because alternative helps them see themselves as adults instead of cogs in a machine. I’d argue that it may be more time-consuming to give an oral exam, it does provide an opportunity for the students to show what they know vs being asked to respond to a standardized test—which is an approach we already know doesn’t work for many learners.

    Thanks for your post! I enjoyed reading it. You’re working through some tough issues in teaching and learning.

  2. I agree with Sara! You are working through some tough issues for which there are no clear-cut answers. In my own praxis, I’ve found it very helpful to distinguish between giving feedback (formative assessment) and “grading.” We do have to grade, but the teachable moments are at the feedback stage.

  3. It is a valuable note on this topic. I agree with changing the focus from grade to learning. However, evaluating the quality of learning is another issue. Maybe, considering the effort of students and creating a constructive competition based on taught material can be helpful.

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