As a teacher, the constant struggle of “how can we make them want to learn?” haunts us before every lecture. We want our students to be excited to come to class, crave the material, and walk away happy with this epic newfound knowledge in hand. To put it simply, we want them to want it.

Intrinsic motivation, as described in Dan Pink’s TedTalk, is what we strive for as educators. A go-getter attitude with an air of excitement is what we hope to see in every student that walks through our doors. Unfortunately, when this doesn’t happen, we tend to do one of two things: blame it on them or on ourselves. We may come away believing that they aren’t a good student, we were never meant to teach, and our material was, even after hours of preparation, lack-luster. The problem with this line of thinking is that, more often than not, this lack of intrinsic motivation is not due to either of the aforementioned individuals. Instead, it is due to the omnipresent extrinsic motivation of the omnipotent grade.

As Alfie Kohn suggests in “The Case Against Grades,” this obsession over the grade (more often tied to a fear of failure and/or overwhelming need to “succeed”) can be a true hindrance on our students. Not only does it force them to worry about a number, it actually prevents them from getting excited to learn. There are many students who really want to learn, but due to many factors (e.g., lack of sleep, complicated material, instructor teaching style), they actually lose all focus on learning simply because they have their eyes on the external prize.

The argument over the failure or success of assessment has been a long standing one. However, I think a huge factor that needs to be taken into consideration when making this argument is our students’ motivation. What is truly motivating them? Is their desire to learn, or is it the number on a test? To say that assessment is a system-flaw would be an understatement.  In the larger sense, assessment could be potentially damaging to students’ intrinsic motivation in an irrevocable way. Thus, the question is: how do we, as teachers, increase intrinsic motivation? How do we make our students want to learn while the system is telling them they have to learn?