In second grade, letter grades were something I only paid any attention to once a year and the end of the year ceremony when I got my report card. I was a B student. The teacher gave us each a cheesy picture of a bunch of kids playing on a playground and swing set under a big cartoon sun. We had just learned about flash floods with our science teacher – terrible surprising things that catch people off guard. The more I looked at that cheesy smilie face of a sun, the more I could picture the footage of flash floods, full of before and after shots. So soon the kids in the drawing were kayaking over to their neighbors’ houses, designing the new rules of an underwater playground, and going on daring expeditions to retrieve canned goods from their basements, swimming and kayaking around the house. If I had thought more about grades at the time I might have even put some of it on paper. But I doubt I would have crafted a story that excited me enough that I would actually remember it any other way. I don’t think I was as upset about turning in an almost empty page as I was that they hadn’t given me enough time to finish. I was kind of jealous of my friends who had written out their stories, but secretly I still thought my story was the best.
In high school on the other hand I designed for myself a desire for grades – I was not forced into one. After the third grade I wasn’t given grades – a smattering of tests in math and such, but never course grades – until I was in high school. In high school biology I found I wanted these tests. I love biology. But test for me allowed me to say I was finished with this module and it was time to move on. It gave me closure. Which is I think, the best and worst part about testing. Testing can lead to an “I’m finished” attitude. If you need to foster curiosity and motivation, this is the counterproductive. But testing was important for me, to solve the opposite problem. I would absorb everything in my biology text, memorize it, read it over and over, and the test was the thing that would convince me it was actually time to move on. It helped progress. It broke something big into manageable pieces. And – even though this is a two-sided coin – it gave me a sense of completion. I content that a sense of completion, and a deadline for completion, can be a really useful thing.
I think there can be a tradeoff between motivation and completion. I never struggled with motivation. I did struggle with completion. I think we need to recognize that being motivated to do something and being motivated to finish something are not the same thing.
So the question is, which is better? The sense of accomplishment at a completed module, and the work behind it? Or the sense of pride at a blank-page that was better than the rest?