Marks and Motivation

I know that Daniel Pink’s book Drive has made the rounds in educational circles, but I was watching a Ted Talk recently, and was really struck by the research that contradicts how we try to motivate students in school.  Somehow we think that students will want to do good work because they can earn good marks. But the research Daniel Pink has studied would suggest otherwise. Apparently, extrinsic rewards, such as money (and marks) can actually hinder performance. It doesn’t all the time, and it depends on the task. If it’s something that’s linear, routine, and structured, in other words tasks that don’t require much thinking and can be done on auto-pilot, then yes, we’re likely to work harder to earn more. But if it’s something that requires lateral thinking, creativity, and is non-routine, then extrinsic incentives get in the way. In fact (get this), the greater the incentive, the worse the performance.

Why does it work this way? I think about when I’m trying to do something that requires me to  solve a tough problem or come up with something new, and if I’m required to compete against other people, or worry about the clock, or the reward, it seems like my adrenal glands take over and shut down my frontal lobe. I’m worried more about losing, or not getting the job done, rather than relaxing, taking my time, and allowing the creative juices to flow. But if I’m working in a risk-free, collaborative environment, I seem to be much more productive. I don’t focus on whether or not I’m going to get rewarded; I just focus on the good work I want to do.

And so it works with students. Students are more able to do good thinking if they’re able to work without having to worry about how they’ll show against other students, or whether or not they’re going to get good marks. The research has shown time and time again that students, particularly students who struggle, will make greater gains when they receive descriptive feedback about their work that shows them how to do better, and does not include a mark. We still have to evaluate, but not in those critical, early, risk-taking stages.

So, what does motivate us? According to Pink: Autonomy (the urge to direct our own lives), Mastery (the desire to do something well) and Purpose (the desire to do something that matters). So, next time a student isn’t cooperating, perhaps we should consider which one of these isn’t being fulfilled. Telling them that they’re not going to have a decent job in a few years probably isn’t going to help. Finding out how to help them do well at something they feel good about doing,  might.

    • Randy
    • March 11th, 2012

    Pink’s comments are in line with much of the research into 21st century learners and his thoughts regarding motivation are linked to other “big” thinkers ideas on engagement. These authors would suggest that two other concepts, in addition to motivation are involved. Self efficacy (NOT self esteem) or perhaps more aptly perceived self efficacy (PSE) is a big reason students engage (or not) in the first place and as you say, telling them about their future job prospects does little to improve PSE either. Second, and perhaps quite different from the first two, is trust. More and more students have to trust that the person helping them learn is legitimate and invested in their learning. If they feel that the involvement is superficial, or worse, deceitful, then they will not only disengage but likely look for ways to re-route or sabotage the attempt at instruction. This all sounds very purposeful but in truth I think it is more instiinctual and part of the hard-wiring of the 21st century learner. Authors referred to here are Bandura and Tschannen-Moran.

    • Thank you, Randy. Very well put. I always appreciate the research background you bring. Absolutely, students need to see that the feedback they receive is genuinely going to help them learn better, and that there is purpose to the work they do.

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