Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Assessment -v- Motivation

When I was at school I seemed to do a lot of assessments and exams.  Back in primary school there was the 11+ exam to pass, which determined which secondary school students would go to.  After that in secondary school it seemed we had tests of one sort almost every week.  Then there were the O' and A' levels to pass before going to university and taking final exams for my BA.  I don't think at any point during this part of my education I ever experienced continual assessment that counted towards my grades, everything was determined by how I did on the day of the exam - and I never had any feedback from these exams either (just pass or fail) which could help me know how to do better next time.  While I was a good student and did study for the exams, I wouldn't have said I was truly motivated by this form of assessment.  I studied because I wanted to pass, because I needed to pass to move onto the next stage of education, not because I was motivated by a love of learning or even of the subject itself.

I was one of the lucky ones.  At the age of 11 I passed the 11+ and went onto grammar school.  90% of my classmates in primary school did not pass and went to secondary modern.  At this age I had already learned how to memorise what was necessary for me to pass and to regurgitate it during the exams.  I was confident in my ability to do this and this probably gave me the confidence to take new risks and tackle subjects that were not so easy.  I believed that if I tried, I would succeed.  Other family members were not so fortunate.  Their experience of tests and exams were negative.  For various reasons which included poor health and undiagnosed learning difficulties, they did not see themselves as so capable.  Poor results in tests did not spur them on - they lost confidence and gave up trying and settled for a different goal.

As a teacher I have struggled with this experience - how to give an assessment that motivates all students, not one that rewards some and punishes others.  How to foster cooperation and collaboration among my students, rather than competition.  How to give all students the message that they will succeed if they keep on trying.  I think in order to do that teachers and students have to look on assessment in a different way.

What we need to do is to have students learn how to learn so that when they are assessed they use the experience to understand how to do better the next time.  When I was an MYP teacher this was covered in Approaches to Learning, which is one of the areas of interaction.  AtL encourages students to ask

  • How do I learn best?
  • How do I know?
  • How do I communicate my understanding?

If a student knows that the purpose of assessment is to get better over time, the assessment itself can be very motivating - it gives the student the information he or she needs in order to do better next time, and seeing this progression over time students become more motivated, more persistent and more confident in their abilities.  This is one reason why I have always loved building portfolios with students - so that they can see and reflect on their own improvement.  I have seen these portfolios used very successfully by students at their student-led conferences - they are proud to show their work to their parents and take on more responsibility for their learning.  The MYP states:
Recognizing and helping students develop the range of their capacities, positive attitudes and effective habits of mind is the shared responsibility of teachers, and is at the core of all curriculum development and delivery.

Photo Credit:  Kevin in real life by Kevin Chang 


  1. Another post that clearly shows why working in the PYP (and MYP, and probably DP) is such a pleasure. When I compare my "learning facilitation" (or "teaching") to how I was taught, I don't know where to start.

    This year I am keeping much better track (in my opinion) on my students' learning, but I see the need to involve them more. I am trying to involve the portfolio a lot.

  2. I too feel like one of the lucky ones, great post again

  3. This is the experience of far too many kids. Passed along in school between tests, memorization, failures and rewards. I felt like a lucky one too. I figured out how to play the system and did well. Assessment that doesn't include feedback and lend itself directly toward furthering learning isn't worthwhile assessment.

  4. As a business English teacher in France (11 years) I accept that students have many professional and domestic priorities over and above those of learning english. So, I now adopt the practice, taken from giving telephone lessons, of sending post-lesson feedbacks. These include tailor-made exercises or links to useful sites. Yes, this is a little 'spoon-feeding', but when students appreciate the work you put into helping them, they respond more positively and with increased motivation.