Teaching Opinion

Performance Assessments Push Students to Work Harder

By John T. McCrann — October 15, 2015 4 min read
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“I don’t care about math,” a ninth grade student at my school wrote in her “math-o-graphy” on the first day of class. This kind of apathy is a problem for many students and perhaps an even greater problem in math classes.

As we move through October, my class has gone beyond our “honeymoon” period. The newness of the year and the intrigue about my teaching style are beginning to wear off and students are falling into old habits learned from other math classes (this is particularly concerning in cases like the student I quoted in the opening). I was thinking about the problem of apathy when I heard Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and economics speaking on the radio. What if the kind of work we assign causes students to not care about it?

Ariely has performed a number of studies which suggest that a person’s willingness to work hard at something is directly tied to how meaningful she/he perceives the task to be. Whether their work is putting together toys or creating PowerPoint presentations, Ariely has found that people are more motivated to work at tasks that matter (or at least that they think will matter). Additionally, his studies suggest that folks gain more satisfaction from a meaningful task.

In the radio program he criticized a CEO that canceled a project without giving the engineers who were working on it a chance to meaningfully share their work. The problem is not that the CEO had to cancel the project, it is that he did so without understanding that his employees needed to get some meaning out of the project:

“If you understood how important meaning is, then you would figure out that it’s actually important to spend some time, energy and effort in getting people to care more about what they’re doing.”

“Because it’s going to be on the test” is not a justification that creates a sense of meaning in my students; however, performance assessment gives my students a chance to do something that feels meaningful.

The tasks I use to assess students at the end of a unit are based in applications. My students are engaged in problems about determining where to locate a business for maximum profit or how to ship supplies to victims of a natural disaster in ways that they would not be if the math of these tasks was presented out of context. Lina Nilson, director of a center at Berkeley, wrote a nice piece last spring about how reframing the goals and contexts of engineering problems as ways to help other people can engage young women in learning math and science.

Additionally, the format of the tasks helps my students feel that the tasks are meaningful. In my classes, students write letters or plays, film videos, and create physical structures as part of different performance tasks. They recognize that these objects will be evaluated by me, and that they will also show them to other students and other members of our community. Several times during their career at our school students defend their work in front of peers, teachers, and outside evaluators (professionals from various academic disciplines). Students often present learning from their classes at our daily “morning meeting” in front of our entire school community.

Ariely asked the workers whose project was cancelled what the CEO could have done to increase their motivation in light of the cancelled project:

“And they came up with all kinds of ideas. They said the CEO could’ve asked them to present to the whole company about their journey over the last two years and why they decide to do. He could have asked them to think about which aspect of their technology could fit with other parts of the organization. He could’ve asked them to build some prototypes, some next-generation prototype, and see how they would work.”

Teachers, especially math teachers, need to ask an analogous question of their students. We understand what students need to know, we ought to partner with them in figuring out a reason why they should know it. This might be because they need to present it to a fellow student. Or it might be because the solution can help make the world a better place.

Human beings are rarely motivated to perform monotonous tasks. Too often, math assessments feel monotonous and disconnected from any meaningful purpose. Assessing math learning through performance assessment can compel students to find meaning in their work which will impel them do this work with greater motivation and passion.

Photo 1: US Government understood the importance of making meaning for workers during World War II, math teachers should invest in thinking about ways to help connect students to the meaning of their tasks.

“We Can Do It!” by J. Howard Miller, artist employed by Westinghouse, poster used by the War Production Co-ordinating Committee - From scan of copy belonging to the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, retrieved from the website of the Virginia Historical Society.. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:We_Can_Do_It!.jpg#/media/File:We_Can_Do_It!.jpg

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The opinions expressed in Prove It: Math and Education Policy are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.