Lighting the Flame

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Motivation research suggests that students work best when the drive comes from within.

Rochester, N.Y.

Two students attend the same school. One never asks for help, and he puts in just enough effort to earn a passing grade. The other pesters the teacher with questions, breathes life into classroom discussions, and turns in top-notch work on time.

Why are some students more motivated to learn than others? Psychologists have spent nearly three decades trying to answer that question. But now, just as researchers are beginning to think they know some of the reasons, they are running up against an unlikely obstacle: the school reform movement.

Motivation experts say many elements of the current push to hold schools and students to higher academic standards work against the very classroom conditions that research has shown can spark the desire to learn. Studies have shown, for example, that students become enthusiastic about learning when they feel the subject is relevant to their lives, when they can do real and challenging work, when they have some control over what they do, when they feel connected to their schools, and when they do not feel compelled to compete against classmates for A's and high scores.

But the standards movement often means that teachers and students have less say over what gets taught. And in practice, the focus on accountability can put more emphasis on high test scores than on learning for personal betterment.

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic

"Every time I hear some politician in the news talking about higher standards, I wince because what they're talking about is more testing," says Richard M. Ryan, a psychology professor at the University of Rochester. "It takes away teacher enthusiasm, and kids are more turned off than ever."

To understand what Mr. Ryan and other researchers are talking about, it helps to know that psychologists have defined two types of learning motivations: extrinsic motivation, spurred by the offer of a reward or the threat of a punishment; and intrinsic motivation, when the desire to learn grows out of a genuine interest in mastering a skill or concept.

Researchers say the problem with rewards and punishments--and accountability efforts often fall into that category--is that they can snuff out students' inner drive to learn. By using extrinsic motivation techniques, teachers can get students to perform well enough--just as graduate students can get white rats to run through a maze for a bit of alfalfa cake.

The drawback comes when the reward, whether it's grades or alfalfa cakes, becomes more important than the learning. Think of the student who forgoes a tough high school physics class in order to preserve a perfect grade point average, or the 3rd grader who looks for the shortest, easiest books to read for a school contest that awards prizes to the students who read the most books.

Longitudinal studies have shown that students' enthusiasm for learning dips slightly once they hit 4th grade, which is when they first begin to compare their classroom performance against that of other students.

"If you ask two kindergartners who's smarter, they don't understand the inverse relationship between effort and outcome," Mr. Ryan says. "They'll say, 'We both got A's so we're both smart,' even though one student may have worked 10 hours."

The drop-off in motivation is, of course, not automatic. Praise, grades, gold stars, and recognition still spur some children to excel. But more than one longitudinal study has identified clear trends in the development of children's motivation.

By middle school, when grades become more important and schools begin to separate some students into honors classes, motivation plummets. In schools and classrooms that rank or compare students in very public ways, children avoid asking teachers for help or brag that they put off studying for tests until the last minute.

"Middle school kids will purposely withdraw effort so that they can say that's the reason they didn't do well," says Carol Midgley, a research scientist in the Combined Program in Education and Psychology at the University of Michigan. Since 1993, she has been tracking 1,000 students as they move from elementary to middle to high school. "If you withdraw effort, if you don't ask for help when you need it, if you don't take on a challenge, of course, that's going to undermine performance," she says.

In one 1998 study, Eric M. Anderman and colleagues from the University of Kentucky even found that cheating was more common among middle school science students who perceived that the focus in their classrooms was primarily on grades.

Inner Drive

But perhaps the most important lesson to emerge from research, psychologists say, is that students may actually learn better when the impetus comes from within.

Mr. Ryan and his colleague Wendy Grolnick tested that idea in the late 1980s with 91 5th graders in upstate New York. Some of the students were given a reading assignment and were told that they would be asked some questions about the materials later on. The purpose of the questions, the researchers told the students, was just to see what children can learn.

Researchers gave a second group of students the same material and told them they would be graded on what they remembered from the reading. The remaining children were simply told that they would be asked questions after their readings.

Students in the first two groups excelled at recalling facts from the reading material, the researchers found. But the 5th graders in the third group--the one that took the most casual approach to learning--and those who were told they would not be graded did better in the long run.

They showed more interest in the subject and grasped more of the concepts discussed in the material. A week later, they forgot less of what they had read than the students who felt pressured to perform.

"It's very different when kids do something because they have to do it and when kids are doing something because they want to do it," says Windsor Asamoah-Wade, a teacher at the School Without Walls, a public alternative high school here in Rochester.

His school is a place that, in the eyes of some motivation researchers, is doing everything right. Students do not receive traditional letter grades. Instead, their report cards inform parents whether their children are working independently, assuming responsibility for their work, or asking essential questions.

Rather than take tests, students might, for example, make a film documentary, build a kayak, or engage in a mock import-export business with a class in Russia via the Internet to demonstrate what they have learned. Students also take 2«-hour interdisciplinary classes four days a week in which they and their teachers determine together what the curriculum will be for the year. And in true democratic fashion, all 200 students have a say in how the school is run.

"When you're at a normal school you think, 'If I'm doing enough to pass, I don't need to learn anymore,' " says Kelly Asprooth-Jackson, a senior at School Without Walls. "Here, you feel freer to continue learning even when it's something you're not getting credit for."

'Natural Approach'

Even with all that freedom, the school still manages to send 80 percent of its graduating seniors to traditional colleges and universities. The New York state board of regents named it an outstanding alternative school, and the school district recently expanded and renovated the building, taking care to include special lockers where students can store their projects and portfolios.

But many of the school's educators fear their success may soon end because of a new state rule requiring all students to pass the state's tough regents' exams--or some other equally rigorous, independently administered tests--in order to graduate. The requirement, which will be fully phased in by 2002, stems from an effort by the regents to hold all students to high academic standards.

"For a lot of people, standardized regents' courses are like a steady stream of information flying three feet overhead, and they have to try to grab as much as they can," says Andy Nagel, who teaches science at School Without Walls.

The fear is that, even with a school day that is longer than most, teaching to the regents' exams will leave no time for the practices that educators at the school believe spark students' desire to learn. "I'm sure we will see that the intrinsic joy that comes from a very natural approach to learning, rather than a top-down prescription approach, will be lost because of the political needs of accountability," says Daniel L. Drmacich, the school's principal.

To New York school officials, however, all students means all students.

"If what they're arguing is that in their educational experiences students are getting the language skills or the math skills that the standards call for, then the only time that is required is the time to sit down and take the test," says Roseanne DeFabio, the state's assistant commissioner for curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

New York state is not alone in its efforts to make schools more accountable for student performance. Eighteen other states also require students to pass statewide tests to graduate from high school. Sixteen states have the power to close, take over, or overhaul schools whose students chronically fail such tests; 14 states offer monetary rewards to schools in exchange for high or improving test scores. (Quality Counts '99, Jan. 11, 1999.) And experts say those numbers may be on the rise.

But holding schools accountable for what students learn and spurring motivation aren't necessarily conflicting goals, say policymakers and even some motivation researchers. Indeed, a tenet of the standards movement is that once standards are set, schools have much leeway in how best to teach to them.

Views of Intelligence

Standardized tests may be fine as long as they don't give students the message that the tests somehow measure their intelligence, says Carol Dweck, a Columbia University psychologist and a pioneer in the field of motivation research.

Because whether or not students embrace or shy away from an academic challenge, Ms. Dweck contends, has everything to do with how they view intelligence.

"Some kids think of intelligence as a fixed trait. As a result, they become very invested in looking smart and not looking dumb, and they organize their goals around this," she says. On the other hand, students who view academic achievement as a product of hard work are less likely to hold themselves back. And students can be taught one view or the other.

"If you want to have high standards, fine, but focus on the process or effort to reach the standards," Ms. Dweck says. "Don't judge a child as smart or dumb based on whether they reach the standards at a given moment."

Disputed Findings

Still other researchers--albeit a minority--contend that the concern over the use of rewards and punishments may be overblown. In a 1994 meta-analysis, Judy Cameron and David Pierce, both researchers at the University of Alberta in Canada, reviewed hundreds of studies on motivation. They concluded that rewards were harmful only when they were not linked to a student's performance. "In other words, when someone says, 'If you do this, I'll give you this,' and no one says what the criteria is," says Ms. Cameron, an associate professor of educational psychology.

One example: the school reading contest in which students are rewarded for the number of books read.

"We're not arguing that rewards cannot be used in a negative way, but they can also be used in a positive way," Mr. Pierce, a social psychologist, says. Judging from the widespread use of honor rolls, grades, praise, and free time in schools nationwide, many practicing teachers would agree.

But the Canadian researchers' findings are being hotly disputed in professional journals now. In the end, the researchers may find, different strategies motivate different students.

An estimated one-quarter of the students who pass through the School Without Walls, for example, never graduate from the school. They often choose instead to return to a traditional high school program.

What they tell Principal Drmacich in their exit interviews is that they are tired of having to make their own decisions and of having to undertake long, involved projects. They would rather turn to the back of the chapter in their textbooks and answer the questions that are already laid out for them.

"Some kids prefer to be directed, prefer to have adults in control," Mr. Drmacich says. "It's tough [to be] fighting, in some cases, nine years of acculturation. Some kids come here and they just think we're crazy."

For Mr. Asprooth-Jackson, on the other hand, the approach worked. For his senior project, he is creating and field-testing a role-playing game much like Dungeons and Dragons. Part of the project involves writing a 100-page paper that lays out his imaginary civilization.

"More schools should be like we are," he says. "But all schools shouldn't be like this."

Vol. 18, Issue 22, Pages 24-26

Published in Print: February 10, 1999, as Lighting the Flame
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