Study Says Student Motivation Is Irrelevant To Learning – A Dangerous Proposition

As a student, I disliked school. I even detested it on occasion. And one of the things I hated was the preeminence of exams and scores. But I complied. I worked hard so I could get the marks I needed to move forward. School often felt like labor for good marks. Therefore, if someone had asked if I enjoyed school, my answer would have been an unequivocal “No”. And I’m sure the same was true for most high-achieving students I taught.

The reality is, most student learning is driven by marks, and not by the desire to learn. Students learn because they have to, not because they like it. The main motivation for learning is to get good scores. This is because scores are the only school outcome that matters. It’s unfortunate, but school isn’t designed to produce anything else that counts. Which is why, when it comes to school learning, the most frequently heard question is “What mark did you get?”

But the fact that scores dominate school culture is far from ideal. Shouldn’t student motivation come first? Until a short while ago, I’d thought the answer was obvious: Schools must strive to instil in students love for learning before anything else. No one would question this idea, I’d thought. In any case, no one would seriously contemplate the possibility that schools stop trying to motivate students. I didn’t think it would be possible for student engagement to become irrelevant, or worse. But the article “Does student motivation even matter?” gave me pause.

This article discusses a recently published study from the Brookings Institution, which looked at trends in student achievement data from many different countries over the past 15 years. And central to the article is the following finding: Student intrinsic motivation is irrelevant, and could even be detrimental to achievement. This result is described as “counterintuitive” and is said to “call into question many of the widely held tropes about what works in boosting student learning.” Citing an analysis of data collected by PISA/OECD between 2003 and 2012, which showed that “in numerous countries, as motivation went down, scores rose”, the article concludes that “lifting motivation actually may not be a worthwhile policy goal.” Hmm…This doesn’t make much sense. Could it be that the article misinterpreted the conclusion of the original study?

Here is a quote from the conclusion of the original report: “PISA provides, at best, weak evidence that raising student motivation is associated with achievement gains. Boosting motivation may even produce declines in achievement.” And a bit later: “Programs designed to boost student engagement—perhaps a worthy pursuit even if unrelated to achievement—should be evaluated for their effects in small scale experiments before being adopted broadly. The international evidence does not justify wide-scale concern over current levels of student engagement in the U.S. or support the hypothesis that boosting student engagement would raise student performance nationally.” (italics mine)

As it turns out, the article stayed true to the conclusion of the study, which is that intrinsic motivation is not important for achievement. Moreover, motivation may even be the enemy of student achievement, in which case we should consider reducing it. A really disturbing proposition!

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But let me try to explain the negative correlation between achievement and motivation first. And why I find this result concerning, but not counterintuitive.

Education systems world-wide put a lot of emphasis on standardized testing. The scores students get on standardized tests have a major impact on their lives. Doing well on tests and getting the right scores is the way to success  – And so, while in school, students’ main goal is to score well. As many view it, this is their “job”. But often times, striving to fulfil this “job” requires sacrificing one’s true self. Often times those high scores can only be achieved at the expense of one’s individual talents, curiosities, and interests. Students must grind their teeth and conform. They must keep going even when they don’t enjoy what they’re doing. They can’t afford to wander. Must keep their eyes on those scores – since their life depends on it. And who can do this the best? In my experience, it’s the students who can take the joy for learning out of the equation. Those who manage to block out their talents, curiosities, and interests, so they can concentrate on achieving high scores. In short, to perform well in this score-driven system, it’s best if one’s intrinsic motivation is either low or effectively blocked – Hence the negative correlation.

But what should we make of this result? Should we dampen our attempts at raising student engagement? Should we say that it’s fine to dislike school as long as you get good marks? That scores matter more than motivation? Although these are all dangerous propositions, sadly, they’re what the Brookings Institution report implies. The fact that excessive reliance on standardized testing, and particularly on PISA, has a profoundly negative impact on education worldwide was explained authoritatively in this open letter addressed to the director of OECD’s PISA last year. The letter ended with a forewarning:” OECD’s narrow focus on standardized testing risks turning learning into drudgery and killing the joy of learning.” Which, unfortunately, is already happening, as the recent Brookings report found. It looks like our score-obsessed school system is already killing the joy of learning in kids.

But motivation does matter! Indeed, it matters more than anything else. And we must see that, when it comes to schooling, it’s not motivation which has become irrelevant, but how we foster and assess learning. The way we teach and assess must be called into question. It’s school which needs to change.

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