In class this week we discussed how to authentically assess students’ level of understanding of a topic and motivating them to engage with material in classes. It often seems like grades are the only motivator for students and I totally agree with Alfie Kohn’s argument that grades as they are now cause students to seek the easiest task or the path of least resistance. Rather than risk a lower grade, students will choose a less challenging option.
While discussing this in class, I remembered at time when for some crazy reason I was intrinsically motivated to try to learn extra. In my first high school, we had some leverage as to what teachers we got, and in our sophomore year, the humanities classes (English and History) were combined into one “Humanities” class, or Hum, as we called it. While the classes should be equivalent, and they really probably were, one Hum was known to have more difficult teachers. I don’t know what I was thinking but I wanted to challenge myself for some reason (crazy!) and I actually requested the more difficult teachers.
At the end of the year, I had lower grades and I felt stupid. It was like I got punished for trying to push myself. After that I stopped trying to go the extra mile for a long time. I think that I’ve gained back some of that internal motivation, but how do we keep other students from losing it?
The focus on grades finally clicked with me as a TA this week. I have been grading presentations for a class, and the teacher hasn’t posted the grades yet. One of the students was curious about how her group did on the two presentations, so she came and asked what her grades were. I spent about 5 minutes going over the grades and why they got each score. After I tried to explain in detail, she said “A 96 and a 98? Ok” and then walked away. She didn’t care one bit about why she got the grade, as long as it was an A. I can’t say I haven’t been guilty of that as a student myself.
So the question that we all [as (potential future) professors/teachers] have to answer is this: how do we use grades and assessment to give students motivation to learn without punishing them when they choose a harder path?