Improving Student Motivation in High Stakes Environments

Over a period of 5 years, from 2000 to 2005, the US slipped from being ranked 18th in the world in math to being 40th and from 15th to 24th in reading. While many reasons have been proposed for this decline in education, like increasing diversity and rising poverty levels, one factor that has gained increasing attention is standardized testing

Standardized testing by itself is a useful tool to see how schools are performing. However, when standardized testing becomes an accountability tool — where schools, teachers or students are rewarded or penalized based on test outcomes — tests become high-stakes and carry the potential for damage. Standardized testing had been in use in the US for many decades but starting with the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, testing became much more high stakes which then changed teaching patterns in classrooms. 

Reduction of Intrinsic Motivation

The main problem with high stakes testing is that it incentivizes all players — schools, teachers and students — in ways that don’t help in deeper learning. Instead of tapping teachers’ and students’ intrinsic motivation, it imposes strong extrinsic motivators on them. 

With school funding tied to test scores on limited subjects, time spent on teaching other subjects declined. An analysis on schools and districts found that 70% of school districts reported a focus on reading and mathematics that reduced instructional time for other subjects. 

The motivation effect extends to students as well. Teachers inadvertently pass on extrinsic motivators in the forms of excessive focus on scores or grades to students, instead of having more discussions in the classroom. As more instruction time is spent on preparing for tests, students have less time to be curious and connect their learning to the real world. As a result, students start losing interest in learning itself and no longer find schooling meaningful. 

This is especially harmful for student creativity, which relies on a well-rounded education. Creativity comes from having knowledge in several areas and being able to find connections between domains. When instruction and exploration time in other subjects like science, social studies, arts and music, are cut down the overall creativity of a child reduces. This is one reason that creativity scores of students have declined significantly over the last few decades. 

Strategies to increase motivation and learning outcomes

When high stakes testing is part of the educational culture, are there some ways to limit the harmful aspects and still achieve good learning outcomes? 

In one study conducted at Chicago Public Schools (CPS), researchers tracked low-achieving students from five elementary schools in a high stakes environment. CPS implemented a policy to end social promotion where students would be held back in the current grade if they failed to achieve a minimum score on standardized tests in reading and mathematics. The researchers found that there was a significant difference in outcomes between schools with the top performing school having 4x lower retention rate than the worst performing school. 

The top performing school employed strategies that better supported students in achieving their goals.

  • Positive, goal-focused environment: Teachers created a more positive and supportive environment for students, where students felt that the teachers personally cared for their success. The teachers frequently brought up the student goals, determined ways for them to achieve them and praised the effort students were making. All of these strategies created an environment where students’ social connection motivated them to exert more effort. As one student expressed, “She says we better try. She plays around saying she doesn’t want to see us again next year, that it’s time for us to leave… she’s usually clowning around but she’s telling the truth…She cares about all the children… She shows us by teaching us more stuff and giving us examples of the test.
  • Shared expectations: Teachers in the high performing school created a sense of responsibility for the whole group. They nurtured an environment where not just the teacher-student relationship mattered but also the peer interactions. When students perceive that their peers are on their side and want them to succeed, their motivation increases. 
  • Support outside of regular school hours: The CPS effort also provided other avenues of support including after-school programs and summer school. These extra avenues gave students a significant boost in academic support. A majority of the students who increased their effort levels participated in after-school programs or tutoring that extended the in-class instruction. They were able to get more work done by themselves and did more homework than students who only attended regular school. 

These factors helped increase social and intrinsic motivation among students, providing a counterbalance to high-stakes extrinsic motivation. As the researchers note, “Thus, the social context of learning—how teachers, parents, and peers interact with students in relation to the policy—may be the most important factor in determining how students respond to the incentive.

Conclusion

The standardized testing environment that is now an integral part of the US educational system will not change overnight. While there are advantages to measuring student performance, tying those results to incentives for schools or teachers creates harmful effects that lower intrinsic motivation and learning outcomes. Despite that, there are strategies schools and educators can use to build a more caring and supportive environment in their classrooms to help students achieve their learning goals. 

This article first appeared on edCircuit

How Play Helps Creativity and Learning

Some of the most groundbreaking innovations didn’t get their start from a serious effort to solve a problem but from much more frivolous, playful ideas. After the first music boxes were invented, people got interested in making programmable music boxes that could play different music when the cylinder was replaced. But this basic idea – that the behaviour of a machine could be changed – became the catalyst for more serious inventions like the programmable Jacquard loom and the general purpose computer. 

Most people tend to dismiss play as childish and silly. However, a playful approach to problem solving can bring out fresh, creative ideas that may not have surfaced otherwise. Not all environments encourage play, though. 

Mitchel Resnick, Professor and Director of the Lifelong Kindergarten group at MIT, uses the metaphor of playpen vs playground to differentiate the different kinds of play they support. A playpen is a restrictive environment where children have limited opportunities to explore, whereas a playground promotes open exploration, problem solving and creativity.

So how does one create a healthy playground? Here are a few ways to promote play in student work.

Tinkering

Environments that support guided and open exploration have been found to be more effective in student learning. To allow for more tinkering, allocate time during projects for students to explore different ideas or directions to pursue, even if most of them don’t lead to any success. Similarly, allocate time for students to iterate after they have chosen an idea and started developing it more. Asking students to explain the thinking behind their ideas also helps them discover shortcomings that they can improve as they iterate. The focus during tinkering is not to judge ideas, but simply to understand and help students elaborate the idea in as much depth as possible. 

Social Interaction

Most play has a social element that allows ideas to be exchanged freely. Creating a space and time where students can explore others’ work and bounce ideas off of each other also helps in improving creativity and learning. The best ideas in a group setting tend to filter to the top and get incorporated by different teams. While this may feel like “cheating”, it’s how most innovation works in real life – by merging bits and pieces from others into your own unique creation. 

One way to increase healthy social interactions, is to teach students how to critique others’ ideas and allow them to suggest constructive improvements to other projects. When done well, this builds both social cohesiveness as well as critical thinking. 

Intrinsic Motivation

Creativity flourishes in environments that foster intrinsic motivation and suffers under extrinsic motivation. When students are intrinsically motivated they are more likely to explore and take risks. A focus on grades or scores can push students from intrinsic motivation to extrinsic motivation. Instead of external grades that evaluate project work, use self-evaluation forms so students can assess for themselves what aspect of their project could stand to improve. 

Play can be a powerful way to bring out student creativity and enhance learning. By creating a low stress environment where students can freely explore their own ideas and share with others, some of the beneficial aspects of play can be incorporated into student project work. 

Designing Products to Build Intrinsic Motivation

In a recent study researchers wanted to explore the relationship between rewards and motivation in the context of education. In order to understand the impact of gamified elements on student motivation and learning, they designed a long-term study for students enrolled in a semester long course. Students were divided into two groups – a gamified group that used a reward system aligned with the learning goals, and the control group that received the same instruction but without any gamified elements. They looked at student grades at the end of the course along with student surveys, and confirmed what some educators had always suspected.

The researchers found that the non-gamified group not only did better at the end of the semester exam, they also reported higher levels of motivation and satisfaction at the end of the class! As the researchers explain, “The results suggest that at best, our combination of leaderboards, badges, and competition mechanics do not improve educational outcomes and at worst can harm motivation, satisfaction, and empowerment. Further, in decreasing intrinsic motivation, it can affect students’ final exam scores.

While typical gaming elements like points and badges can lead to increased engagement in the short term, it is now believed that the initial appeal is due to a novelty effect, and that engagement and motivation decline as the novelty wears off. And this effect is more pronounced for younger age groups, where novelty and interest declines faster.

Educational products routinely employ rewards like badges and scores to get initial interest and traction among users, however, as research is now pointing out, these elements have negative long term consequences as they promote extrinsic motivation instead of building intrinsic motivation among students.

So,  how can we design educational products that focus on building students’ intrinsic motivation?

Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, professors of Psychology, have studied motivation for several decades and developed the Self Determination Theory (SDT) of motivation. According to their theory, three innate psychological needs play a role in motivation – competence, autonomy and relatedness. The main premise behind their theory is that humans have an inherent tendency to learn, have agency in their development and connect to others. Their theory has been widely used in many contexts, including gamification.

Based on the underlying theory of self determination, here are some high level product approaches that can be used in lieu of rewards to build the right kind of motivation:

Exploration

Creating a playful environment that leads to self-directed exploration ties to the underlying need for autonomy and competence. Games or products should allow for the freedom to fail, by allowing users to recover from mistakes without penalty. Games should also provide a freedom of choice, where users can decide what they want to work on or what skill to develop.

Feedback

In a classroom, feedback can be slow and constrained as teachers can only provide feedback one at a time. Games where feedback can be immediate can have a positive impact on the need for competency. Feedback messages that are actionable (guide the student in the right direction) and focus on growth mindset have been found to be effective.

Collaboration

A typical classroom environment fosters competition among students instead of collaboration, which in turn reduces intrinsic motivation. Elements like leaderboards have the same effect due to social comparison. A better way would be to design products that allow meaningful collaboration among students, and tap into the need for relatedness. Social cues that signal working together have been found to boost intrinsic motivation.  

 

Intrinsic motivation has been found to link positively to learning outcomes as well as personal wellbeing. Introducing the right kind of gamified elements into product elements can boost intrinsic motivation among students, but it involves walking away from more traditional elements in games like badges and points.

Effective Feedback for a Growth Mindset

Suppose your child comes to you disappointed after receiving a B- on a math test that he worked really hard preparing for. What would you say to him?

If you already know about growth mindset, you know saying something along the lines of, “It’s OK, maybe you are just not a math person” isn’t the smartest thing. You should be focusing on the effort he put in instead of his inherent ability.

How about – “Great effort! I am sure you’ll do better next time”? Would that work better?

Not really.

In general, focusing on effort as opposed to ability increases intrinsic motivation over the long term. However, in certain situations, focusing on effort can actually make things worse. When the work results in a failure, focusing on effort solely can still leave the child feeling inept. Or if effort is overemphasized for relatively easy tasks, children may infer that as a sign of their low ability.

Growth mindset and intrinsic motivation go hand in hand. Children with a growth mindset are more likely to regulate their behavior for intrinsic reasons (e.g. I enjoy doing this activity) whereas children with a fixed mindset are more likely to regulate their behavior for extrinsic reasons (e.g. I want my parents to think I am a good student).

Having a growth mindset is clearly superior to a fixed mindset, since growth mindset enhances intrinsic motivation which in the long term improves perseverance and resilience against failure. But how do you inculcate a growth mindset in your child? If you as a parent model a growth mindset would that rub off on your child?

Carol Dweck, Professor at Stanford, and the originator of the mindset theory of intelligence, found that there is no link between parents’ mind-sets and their children’s. Parents’ own mindsets aren’t generally not visible to their children because they don’t necessarily manifest in parental practices. For instance, parents can have a growth mind-set but still praise their child’s talent, leading their child to develop a fixed mindset. 

However, one factor that does influence children’s mindset is not their parents’  intelligence mindset but their parent’s failure mindset. As Carol Dweck explains, “parents can view failure as either enhancing or debilitating, that this belief manifests itself in their reactions to their children’s setbacks, and that it influences their children’s intelligence mind-sets.

So how can you handle a  failure situation more effectively?

When faced with a setback, a better approach is to frame the feedback in a more broader process-oriented feedback that includes thoughtful analysis of strategies and new approaches to explore. Think of the effort-oriented feedback as a subset of the larger process-oriented feedback. 

So, instead of simply saying “Good effort!”, use Prof Dweck’s recommendation and try this – “The point isn’t to get it all right away. The point is to grow your understanding step by step. What can you try next?” And follow this up with a discussion of what strategy did not work and what strategies might be worth trying the next time.