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GORDON ELDRIDGE: LESSONS IN LEARNING

How Do Grades Impact Intrinsic Motivation?

By Gordon Eldridge, TIE Columnist
08-Oct-15


We would probably all acknowledge that consistently receiving low grades could lower intrinsic motivation to continue persevering with similar tasks, but do high grades increase motivation?

One argument is that receiving high grades can satisfy our need for feeling competent and that this can in turn increase subsequent intrinsic motivation to continue pursuing an initially interesting task.

The opposite side of the debate would argue that even receiving high grades may decrease intrinsic motivation due to the perceived external pressure for reward eroding our need for autonomy. Caroline Pulfrey and Fabrizio Butera from the University of Lausanne, together with Céline Darnon from Clermont University conducted a series of two experiments designed to test the mediating role perceived task autonomy might play on the impact of grades on student motivation.

Across the two experiments 209 students in seventh to ninth grade in public secondary schools in Switzerland performed a language task where they were given anagrams of varying length to solve. The experiment comprised three conditions:

(a) a standard-grade condition, where the grading system applied was harsher, resulting in generally lower grades,

(b) a high-grade condition, where a more lenient grading system was applied, resulting in generally higher grades for the same level of performance, and

(c) a no-grade condition where students received no grade at all.

These three conditions provided the researchers with two contrasts. In the reward contrast, students’ self-reported level of interest in the task and students’ motivation to continue pursuing similar tasks were compared in the standard-grade vs the high-grade conditions. In the autonomy contrast these factors were compared in the graded vs non-graded conditions. Students’ level of motivation to continue pursuing similar tasks was measured by a survey asking them to indicate whether they would like to receive similar tasks to do on their own after the experiment and how many they would like to receive. A measure of perceived task autonomy was also carried out to allow the researchers to examine the extent to which perceived task autonomy mediated the results relating to both task interest and to motivation to continue pursuing the task.

What were the results of the studies?

• Students in the high-grade condition reported higher levels of task interest than students in the standard-grade condition

• Students in the no-grade condition reported higher levels of task interest than students in the standard-grade condition

• Students in the high-grade condition expressed more continuing motivation for the task than students in the standard-grade condition

• Students in the no-grade condition expressed more continuing motivation for the task than those in the standard-grad condition.

When the mediating variable of perceived task autonomy was taken into account, it was revealed that task performance as indicated by a grade did indeed explain increased interest in the task, but did not predict continuing motivation for the task. On the other hand, higher levels of perceived task autonomy in the no-grade condition explained not only increased interest in the task, but also increased motivation to continue with similar tasks.
What might this mean for our classrooms?

These results align with Butler’s (1988) research, which found that while high grades can temporarily increase interest in a particular task, once the students do not expect to be graded on similar tasks in the future, this interest may decline. Pulfrey, Darnon and Butera’s research explains at least one potential reason for this. It seems that external rewards in the form of grades may lessen perceptions of task autonomy and in so doing reduce a student’s motivation to pursue similar tasks in the future. While we may all work in contexts where not grading at all is not a possibility, it certainly makes sense for us both to minimize grades wherever possible and to find whatever ways we can to increase the sense of task autonomy in our students.

References:

Schmitz, M., & K. Winskel. 2008. “Towards effective partnerships in a collaborative problem-solving task.” British Journal of Educational Psychology 78, 581–596.

Abrami, P. et al. 2015. “Strategies for Teaching Students to Think Critically: A Meta-Analysis.” Review of Educational Research. Vol 85, No. 2, pp. 275–314.

Paul, R. et al. 1997. “Study of 38 Public and 28 Private Universities to Determine Faculty Emphasis on Critical Thinking on Instruction.” Quoted in: Abrami et al.




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Comments

10/21/2020 - Cole
Hey, yeah, um, those references at the end don't seem to be mentioned AT ALL in the actual writing, and the studies mentioned in the actual writing don't appear in the references section. For example, where is the source concerning the study done by Pulfrey, Butera, and Darnon? I don't see any reference to them in the included references.

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