Monday, April 30, 2012

What motivates your students?

Recently, a short conversation with a Grade 12 student reminded me of the role of intrinsic motivation in learning.

Hers's how our conversation went:

Student: How was your day today Mr. Akune?
Me: Very good thanks. How about yours?
Student: Great! I went to Ms. Lewis' French 11 class during my study block today!
Me: French 11? During your study block?
Student: Yes, I enjoy learning French and Ms. Lewis is super cool.  I wanted to go. It was my choice! It's feels way different than when you 'have' to go to a class because someone else tells you to.
Me: That's pretty neat that you would do that during your study block. (Jokingly) Did Ms. Lewis assign you homework also?
Student: Actually she did! I don't 'have' to do it but I want to anyways. Being there made me realize how much I've learned in the past year. It's good practice and will help me improve.
Me: Really?
Student: Yeah, I like it. You know, I enjoy doing the work when I get to choose what I'm learning instead of being told what to learn. (Laughing) It's similar to cleaning my room. When my mother tells me to clean it I'm not so happy to do so, but when I decide on my own, I'm perfectly fine doing it.

In one of his webinars, author Daniel Pink (@Danielpink) described three factors that he believes are critical to enduring human motivation in the workplace. Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose.

Pink's ideas can be applied to student learning as well. For starters, he suggests that the key to engagement is providing autonomy over task, time, team and technique. This can sound challenging to offer within the structured curricula and schedules that seem to control the school day. So, what can we do?
  • Expose students to real-world challenges/problems and offer them the opportunity to solve the problem(s) they are most passionate about. Even within structured curricula, teach students to assess their own learning and allow them to choose the areas they wish to expand, deepen or strengthen their learning in.
  • Embrace the fact that no two students are alike and different students require different amounts of time to master their learning of different topics. As educators, this means constantly assessing student learning, building in flexible timelines and adjusting the pace and course of instruction to best meet the needs of individual students.
  • Encourage students to help each other. Be flexible and consider student input when grouping students together. Students are more likely to be engaged when they choose and are compatible with the people they are working with.
  • Differentiate! Allow students to choose how they demonstrate their learning. Don't force students to use a certain technique and consequently limit their ability to fully demonstrate their learning.
Pink says the "single biggest motivator for people is making progress in meaningful work." The emphasis needs to shift from point gathering to learning! In classes characterized by an 'if you do...then you will receive...' environment, marks are used as a carrot.  This kind of environment may ensure the completion of simple, routine tasks, but will not stimulate the creative, deep thinking we wish to see from our students. Students may work to gather points but only until the point at which they have gathered enough.  Marks provide only temporary and extrinsic motivation.

On the other hand, feedback lets students know they are making progress and how they can continue to improve their learning. Feedback capitalizes on people's "inherent desire to get better at stuff."  Since students by nature want to get better, when we show them how they can improve, why wouldn't they try? When offered in the absence of a mark, feedback evokes the intrinsic motivation necessary to sustain prolonged learning.

Pink suggests we ask the question, "Why are they doing the work?" Students must see a purpose, a 'real' reason for learning, a reason far superior to 'point gathering'. When students seek solutions to real-world problems, promote self-chosen initiatives and direct their own inquiries, intrinsic motivation drives their commitment.

So ask yourself...

What is your goal for your students?
Engagement or compliance?

What motivates your students? 
Learning or marks?

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Why don't students read my comments?

Let's be honest, we've all been there! Out of frustration, we've all asked, "Why don't students bother to read the comments we take so much time to write on the assignments we've just marked? 

There are a range of factors that may impact whether students read all of the comments made about their work, but I believe three factors play a big role.

1. Student view the mark as more important.
2. The feedback isn't timely.
3. Students see no opportunity to demonstrate improvement.

I'll go back in time to when I was in high school and learning how to drive. As a student driver I was offered lots of feedback on how I was progressing and what I could do to improve. Much like any teenager, I was highly motivated to learn and knew that it was important to do so in order to pass my road test.  The feedback was descriptive, specific, immediate and all along remained very supportive. Not once was I graded while I was learning and in no way was the feedback provided in a way that seemed judgmental. I always knew the feedback was designed to help me improve and I also knew I had opportunities to demonstrate my improvements. Because the feedback was so immediate, I did everything I could to apply the feedback and make the necessary improvements.

Eventually, the day of my road test came up on the calendar. To the best of my ability, I followed all of the evaluator's instructions and executed what was asked of me. When I finished my road test, I anxiously awaited the decision of the evaluator. When he told me the result (and yes, I did pass!) I remember feeling ecstatic yet relieved. I know the evaluator offered a number of comments about my driving, however, as much as I am ashamed to admit it, at that moment I didn't really listen too closely to his comments. Why not? For starters, my focus on the result overshadowed all of his comments. Second, because the evaluator's comments came at the conclusion of my road test, they weren't as helpful as they could have been if he provided them throughout the test. Third, I knew that my road test was complete and I wouldn't have to, nor would I be afforded the opportunity to demonstrate improvements based on his suggestions.

So, let's bring this back to our students who seemingly can't be bothered to read our comments. The problem probably doesn't lie in our comments themselves. In fact, on their own our comments would probably be very helpful and offer great suggestions for improvement. The problem likely lies in the fact that the work was 'marked'! The mark signifies that a judgment was made about their work and overshadows the importance of the feedback. How can we blame students for focussing on the 'mark' rather than the comments when we have made a judgment about their work? 

Assigning a mark also indicates a certain degree of finality. If students believe they no longer have an opportunity to demonstrate improvement, what incentive and motivation do they have to read the comments?   Our students viewed all the valuable comments we've taken the time to write as little more than a justification for the mark we assigned.  Why do we too often wait until the end of an assignment to provide the suggestions that students could use to improve their work?
So, what is the purpose of feedback?
Feedback should tell students what and how they can improve in their learning. It must be formative. The types of feedback offered by a teacher will differ based on the subject and learning task it pertains to. It might consist of suggestions on how to improve a draft of a written submission, point out how to correct a mathematical process, how to place one's fingers in order to play a note more clearly, etc.

And what can we do to increase the effectiveness of our feedback?
In order for students to act on our feedback, it must be timely. Feedback, being formative in nature, must be consistently provided during the process of learning so that students can incorporate the suggestions into their work and into their ongoing practice. Regardless of the type of feedback, what's crucial is that students be provided the opportunity to apply the feedback to their work.  This means that a mark should not accompany feedback. Feedback must precede the mark. This tells students that the feedback is designed to help them improve their work before a judgment is made. Students should not be penalized in the gradebook for errors they make while learning. We must provide opportunities for practice without penalty!