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Students are demotivated by the structure and allocation of rewards.
The structure and allocation of rewards in a course can encourage or discourage effort in several important ways. First, students may lose motivation to work on particular tasks if they do not feel that there will be a payoff for their time and effort. For example, students may not keep up with the readings for a class if that knowledge is not needed to complete exams and assignments. Second, students may not do an assignment well if the time and effort required is incommensurate with the points they would earn. Third, students may lose motivation to work on specific elements of an assignment if their efforts in those areas are not rewarded (for example, if an instructor urges students to write original arguments, but bases grades primarily on organization and mechanics). In addition to the structure of rewards, the allocation of rewards can influence motivation. Indeed, students may not be motivated to strive for excellence if the instructor does not draw a sufficient distinction between excellent and poor performance. Furthermore, students’ motivation will likely suffer if they believe the grading criteria are unclear or inconsistently applied.
Not surprisingly, students will be more motivated to pay attention in lecture if they understand how it will help them on exams, to keep up with the readings if they know it will help them on papers, and to do optional problem sets if they know it will help them on a final project. Thus, it is critically important to ensure that the parts of your course are properly aligned so that the skills and knowledge students gain from low-stakes tasks (e.g., attending lectures, doing readings, or completing homework problems) are utilized and assessed elsewhere in the course, especially on high-stakes exams and assignments. Also, because students may not see alignment even where it exists, it is also important to show them how their work in one area of the course will help them in another—for example, how their final projects will require them to synthesize the perspectives in the course readings or how their exams will require a fluency with problem-solving that they will only get from doing their homework.
If the time and effort required for an assignment is incommensurate with its point value, students may not be motivated to expend the effort required. It is important to consider whether your grading structure rewards the work you want students to put into various assignments. This does not mean that all assignments must carry high point values to ensure that students work hard. For example, frequent low-stakes assignments, such as in-class quizzes or reflective writing assignments, can be very effective for motivating students to keep up with the readings and prepare for discussion. The goal is for the grading structure to reinforce a connection between effort and reward in order to motivate, rather than demotivate, student effort.
Sometimes instructors think they are motivating one kind of performance while actually rewarding another. For instance, if instructors urge students to be risk-takers, but penalize failure excessively, students will be more motivated to play it safe than to take risks. Similarly, if instructors claim to value teamwork and collaboration but do not assess these skills (instead grading only the group’s final project, which may have involved little teamwork), students may not be motivated to practice these skills. With this in mind, it is important to consider whether your grading system directs students’ efforts appropriately. For instance, if you want students to take risks, you may want to focus your grading less on the quality of the final product and more on the number and originality of ideas students generate. If it is important to you that students develop teamwork skills, you might want to assign a grade not only for the work students submit, but also for the group’s interactive process (e.g., the team’s ability to work collaboratively, communicate effectively, and address conflicts productively).
If all student work, regardless of quality, receives the same reward, there will be little incentive for students to excel. Imagine, for example, if an instructor responds just as positively to ill-informed answers as to informed answers. Over time, this failure to differentiate levels of performance may demotivate high performers (who do not feel that their extra effort is acknowledged) as well as low performers (who have little incentive to step up their game). Consequently, one important way to motivate students is to clearly articulate qualities of excellent performance, assess students’ performance according to these qualities, and provide feedback that will help students improve. Performance rubrics provide one tool for doing so. For example, a rubric for class participation might articulate the characteristics of meaningful and productive class participation (e.g., thoughtful, informed contributions that build on what others have said) so that the difference between high-quality and low-quality participation is clear. By articulating these distinctions and providing feedback to help students improve, instructors can enhance motivation as well as learning.
If students do not understand the instructor’s grading criteria or feedback or if they believe it is applied unfairly, inconsistently, or arbitrarily, it can severely impact motivation by reducing students’ sense of control over outcomes. This is especially true for negative feedback and bad grades, but it can also occur when students get good grades if they do not understand why their performance merited the grade received. Consequently, it is important for instructors to clearly explain their grading criteria so that students can see the difference between levels of performance, assess their strengths and weaknesses in relation to those criteria, target specific areas for improvement, and trace a clear path from effort to valued outcomes. Rubrics can be an especially helpful tool for communicating your grading criteria to students. They also help to ensure consistency across multiple graders, which contributes to the perception of fairness and thus enhances motivation.
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