Motivated to learn

By Jaclyn Gambone

How to be intrinsically motivated in a letter grade world.

Where has intrinsic motivation gone? It’s not really gone, but grades might be fooling us.

In the fall of 2019, I conducted a pilot study with 64 face-to-face education students. Students participated in a value mining exercise to find their core values. Students shared these values with each other. Many students shared similar values, and many were impressed by the values of others. What is important to note is that even in a class filled with students, not one student scoffed at another student for their values. Even if the values were inherently different, there was a genuine level of respect and interest while sharing. We then had a class discussion about the importance of honoring our values and the values of one another.

Next, I shared my core value of intrinsic motivation. I explained that working at Anne Arundel Community College, in a graded institution, I wasn’t truly honoring that core value. I asked students how they felt about grades in general. Students spoke about the stress and anxiety caused by points and grades. Mindset often arose as students talked about how they are naturally motivated to learn but that the grades (especially receiving poor grades) turned their mindsets from growth to fixed. They found themselves focusing on the one missed point rather than what they were learning in the process.

After this powerful discussion, I gave students a grading option for the semester. Students had the choice whether they wanted to work toward the grade during the semester or be intrinsically motivated during the semester and the grade would be “out of the way.” All 64 students chose intrinsic motivation.

Only five students were unable to stay the path of intrinsic motivation. One student withdrew from the course for personal reasons, and the other four students admitted they learned they were not as intrinsically motivated as they initially assumed; I was also aware that they were not meeting course objectives as outlined in our agreement. Although those four students switched mid-semester to the letter grades, all four passed the course successfully, although guided by grades as opposed to intrinsic motivation.

By the end of the semester, some students admitted that they initially chose intrinsic motivation because they thought it would be easier. In the end, they said they worked harder in my class than in any of their other classes. Instead of getting a paper or test back, looking at the grade, and then putting it in a folder, they found themselves actually reviewing their work so they could see what they knew and where they still needed to grow. With their papers, students read the feedback and responded to a reflection sheet to improve their writing on the next assignment. Teaches grit, right?

The learning from this study was clear, engaging and powerful, as students were now attending class (on time) and learning because they wanted to, not because a grade was at stake. They now knew that they were intrinsically motivated and that could spill over into other areas of their lives.

Jaclyn Gambone

is an education professor at Anne Arundel Community College in Maryland.