Learning vs Marks – What’s important to students?

This morning I read Seth Godin’s post ‘Doing what gets rewarded.’ In it, he writes “Until we change the rewards, we’re not going to change the behavior, because people always have a reason.”  This got me thinking about our schools and wondering what students see as rewards for doing work. It prompted me to send out the following tweet.
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I engaged in a short conversation with Mario Addesa about the topic and I realized that while we talk a lot about wanting our students to see learning as the goal and for them to develop an intrinsic motivation to learn, many of our students view us as little more than a credentialing body. For many of them, the goal and reward is to achieve as high a grade as possible. Why is it that so many kids have become focussed on marks and grades? The pressures of gaining acceptance to a post-secondary institution, pressure applied by their families and the influence of us, their teachers. Too often, the carrot we dangle in front of students for doing their work is the accumulation of marks and the possibility of achieving a high grade. In many ways, we contribute to the ‘task-completion orientation’ held by many students. If we really want students to believe that the reward for doing work is learning, we have to emphasize this in our practice.
This topic fits nicely with the conversations about formative assessment that I’ve recently participated in. On Wednesday night, Jan Chappuis facilitated a workshop centred on the importance of regular, descriptive feedback. Below is a storify of my tweets from the session.
Jan’s comments and the strategies she shared are crucial if we truly wish to shift our students from a ‘task-completion orientation’ to a ‘learning orientation.’
“Students with a learning goal approach to school focus their effort on improving their work and getting better. Their goal is to find out what they don’t know and master it. Students with this orientation believe that success means improving their level of competence and that their job in school is to develop new skills and master the intended learning. Their goals focus on continuous improvement; they are motivated by a desire to become competent and by evidence of increasing mastery.”  – Jan Chappuis
What we see from students who hold a learning orientation is an intrinsic motivation to learn. They view mistakes as learning opportunities and chances to grow rather than as evidence that defines themselves as failures. They demonstrate a commitment to hand work which arises from their belief that they have the ability to learn and master whatever they invest enough effort into.
As educators, we have the opportunity to influence our students’ orientation. By providing regular feedback that is descriptive, actionable and relates back to learning intentions that are clearly understood by students, we focus our students’ attention on learning. We must refrain from simply asking kids whether they have finished an assignment. Rather we should be asking them whether they have demonstrated a clear understanding of the learning intentions within their work. We have to avoid bribing them into working at a task by dangling the carrot of marks and instead talk to them about improving their work in order to progress towards mastery.
So coming back to Godin’s statement, if we really want to students approach their work with persistence and resiliency, we need to help them see that the ultimate reward for doing the work is LEARNING.

One thought on “Learning vs Marks – What’s important to students?

  1. Mario Addesa

    I agree with your post and again we are looking at a monumental shift in our practice. The pressure form government, boards, teachers and parents is to produce a product that gets good marks. Kids are still seen as products we can easily manipulate and extract a good mark from. I think kids feel that pressure and are eager to please.
    Unless we change that mind set and show society we are dealing with very complex individuals with specific needs we will not change this mark issue. We must also change our teaching practice and provide students with descriptive feedback and the opportunity to revisit and revise their work. The
    learning process when done well will lead to the marks but more importantly an understanding of what was learned and how to apply it.


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