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Intrinsic Motivation vs. Standardized Tests

Valencia Clay

Middle Grades Humanities Teacher
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An illustration of a pencil filling in a multiple choice exam.

When the scores were revealed, the classroom of middle school literacy teachers was everything but hopeful. "Did they even try?" one teacher wondered about her students. The team was disappointed and defeated. After a year of following the curriculum to fidelity, according to the mock-state test data, our efforts meant nothing.

I sat in the meeting, half-listening, as I began to devise a plan. I had no choice but to help. When I was in school, I was just like my students -- totally unmotivated to take any standardized test, simply because I knew those tests were not going to affect my report cards. Therefore, why should I put any effort into them? I was the kid who fake-read the passages and picked the pattern of C,D,A,B,C,D,A,B to answers the multiple-choice questions. For eight years, I've watched my students attempt to do the same. This year was no different -- until hearing the teachers' displaced frustrations made me speak out. I needed them to recognize how these scores are not true indicators of what our kids can do. They can do better. All we have to do is teach them why they should do better. The why lies in activating their intrinsic motivation.

According to career analyst Daniel Pink, intrinsic motivation is driven by autonomy, mastery, and purpose. These same principals lend themselves directly to activating our students' internal drive. Here’s how:


Before we can begin tapping into any student's intrinsic values, we need to have a diagnostic that reveals all students' true feelings. In order to do that, students should be prompted to reflect on their personal feelings about standardized tests. I gave my students a simple reflection form in which I was able to gather the following:

Feelings about state test

  • Really irrelevant
  • Only used so the school can get money
  • To be honest, I don't care
  • We don't need it
  • Makes me nervous and self-conscious

Struggles with state test

  • Totally afraid
  • I don't take my time; I rush to get it over with
  • I zone out
  • I get distracted by the silence
  • I worry about running out of time

Motivation during the test

  • Getting it over with
  • Nothing, really
  • What my parents think
  • Getting my phone back

All of their thoughts, struggles, and motivations revealed to me that my hypothesis was correct. The low scores are a reflection of being uninspired, not unknowledgeable.

Autonomy and Self-Direction

As Daniel Pink put it, "One day of autonomy produces things that have never emerged." First, we have to teach our students how to label the behaviors that keep them from reaching their highest potential on exams. Here are some examples of the labels many of my students named as habits during exams:

  • Daydreaming
  • Sleeping
  • Running out of time
  • Second-guessing myself
  • Forgetting what I just read
  • Anxiety

After the students have shown awareness of their own behaviors by labeling, teachers should follow up by providing tools for self-generating their own solution plans. Here are some examples of many of my students' self-generated strategies that they will put in place in their everyday lives, even after this year's test:

  • Using a personal timer when reading independently to pace myself
  • Challenging myself to non-pleasure read for an extra 15 minutes a day
  • Meditating before I begin an assignment to strengthen my ability to focus
  • Setting personal time goals when reading during the test

The most important aspect of this work is communicating the notion of how individualized this process is for each student. All plans must be personalized to fit each student's struggle.

After creating solution plans, students have to begin actively monitoring their own progress. This can be done by engaging them in ongoing written reflections. These are small social-emotional tools that are a surefire way to increase the habits of scholarship in any unmotivated child.

Mastery and Self-Actualization

We have the responsibility to teach our children to stop waiting for someone else to acknowledge and validate them. Have students explore and answer questions like:

  • How do I recognize my own milestones?
  • How do I celebrate my own milestones?

Then, teach them how to compare themselves to themselves via:

  • Graphs
  • Personal trackers
  • Goal setting and reflecting
  • Self-commitment cards

The more a child feels like she achieving, the closer she'll get to mastering whatever she wants to achieve. Success breeds success!

Purpose and Self-Determination

Generally, our children don’t understand the true concepts of time, goals, and life beyond high school. But with clarity of intention and purpose, nothing can stand in the way of making a desired goal happen.

Like my students, I was never taught the true meaning of standardized tests. All I knew was that the SATs could get me into a "good college." This is the same message that many of our students get: "The state test will get you into a good college." For middle school students who think they have all the time in the world before they need to apply for college, this message means nothing. Teachers have to help students understand the fact that knowing your struggles and having strategies to combat them while taking tests is a life skill that may be applied to many areas outside of the classroom. Two obvious examples are driver's permit exams and jobs that require placement or certification tests (such as police officers and teachers).

Have students explore and answer questions like:

  • What does it mean to have a sense of my transcendent purpose?
  • How will achieving well on this exam impact me a year from now, five years from now, ten years from now?

My students and I created vision boards to remind us of our long-term motivation for doing well. We hung them on our bulletin board in the hallway, along with bar graphs that showed the scores from our first and second practice tests, and a list of strategies for alleviating our struggles.

As educators, it's crucial to remember that we're not preparing our students to be good test takers -- we're preparing them to tackle real-life tests that they'll face once they leave our classrooms. If we don't want them to give up on themselves when things get too tough in the future, we have to build their tenacity now. The foundation of such perseverance lies in intrinsic motivation.

Have your own tips for activating intrinsic motivation? Please leave them in the comments section below.

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Andrew Pass's picture
Andrew Pass
Developing Customized Educational Content

You've really tackled a challenging question in this article. How do you enable students to see that there is inherent value in exerting full effort on state mandated tests? I think the strategies you suggest could be very beneficial. If you develop skills to do well on these tests, you can apply these skills elsewhere in your life, as well.

One question that I have is how many teachers explain that one of the goals of the test is to determine how well the school system is teaching students? Students deserve the highest quality education and school systems, like other organizations and even people, are only able to make things better when they know what is not working well. I'm not sure that this explanation would motivate students to exert full effort. But, I do think that this could be another starting point.

Andrew Pass

Valencia Clay's picture
Valencia Clay
Middle Grades Humanities Teacher

Hi Andrew! Great question. This approach is one that should definitely be considered but with great caution on the exact messaging. If we convey the message that the scores of the tests depict the effectiveness of the school, we might be setting our students up to believe that the score is a true representation of how smart they are - this could backfire on their self esteem and may cause them to give up before they even get started. We as educators know, the state uses these tests to determine how effective a school is, but that has less to do with each individual student and more to do with the stakeholders of the school. Therefore, I believe that this approach will not be intrinsically motivating for our students - unless it is worded in the most appropriate way. How would you go about presenting this information to your students?

Judy Yero's picture
Judy Yero
Author of Teaching In MInd: How Teacher Thinking Shapes Education

Personally, I think the students are the ones who truly understand the fallacy of standardized tests and are giving them the short shift they deserve. Standardized test do not measure learning. Historically, they were developed as a way to separate the wheat from the chaff and decide which students deserved the most resources. They are a monument to fixed mindset. They are statistically invalid because they are based on invalid premises--one of which is that there is such as thing as an "average" person. Even if that person existed, there is a long-established statistical theory stating that one can predict the behavior of members of a group by comparing them to the "average" IF and ONLY IF 1.) all members of the group are identical; and 2.) all members of the group remain unchanged through time. Does that sound like human beings? The big question is why teachers still believe that standards and standardized testing are appropriate ways to facilitate learning. Please read The End of Average by Todd Rose to understand the dark history of the concept of the "average man," and the use of standards and standardized testing.

Valencia Clay's picture
Valencia Clay
Middle Grades Humanities Teacher

Hello, I have read "The End of Average" but he writes about how we inadvertently compare ourselves to others. I am writing about how our children must learn how to compare themselves to their own selves by activating their intrinsic motivation to do better than their personal best. I am actually doing exactly what Todd suggests in his book by asking all teachers to join me in opening students' eyes and letting them know that a test score does not reflect their true abilities as learners. I know the history of how tests are used to disproportionately measure and exclude students, particularly students in under-served areas. However, my essay is not about teaching the children the daunting history of these tests, my essay is about helping our students to achieve their very best. To answer your question of "why teachers still believe that standards and standardized testing are appropriate ways to facilitate learning", when the nation stops testing our children, we will stop using standards-based pedagogical methods. I, personally, do not teach-to-the test. That's not what this essay is encouraging. I am advocating for teachers to motivate their students to become highly skilled and aware of their personal needs, so they may do their very best on any given independent task (specifically speaking about high-stakes exams but these activities are not limited to such) because of the fact that they will be asked to partake in these types of tasks as they matriculate through high school, go into young adulthood as college students, and beyond. Let's remain logical, standardized tests are not going away any time soon. Yes, we can advocate and opt-out but what will that do for children in the long-run? It is our responsibility to prepare them, despite our biases or beliefs.

Judy Yero's picture
Judy Yero
Author of Teaching In MInd: How Teacher Thinking Shapes Education

Thanks, Valencia-

I certainly see your point and understand your goals. I suspect the main difference is that my ultimate goal is what you speak of when you say that "standardized tests are not going away any time soon." I choose to believe that we can change the system by educating parents and the rest of society to the way standards and standardized tests limit their children. I understand why you feel that you need to prepare them for "what is." But this is not a "bias or belief"--it's hard science! It's the kind of research that has been ignored by educational policy makers...people who then send their own children to private schools. Would it have been in the best interest of slaves to prepare them for the lives they were destined to live? Is it in the best interest of people of color to prepare them to accept the inequality and prejudice in today's society? Yes, they should be prepared...but I prefer to work to change the status quo rather than simply accepting it. I don't doubt for a minute that you are doing what you feel is best for your students, as are the majority of teachers. My own mission is to help return control of classrooms to the true experts--teachers like yourself who know their students and work to give them what they need rather than what some distant adult decided they must "know and be able to do."

Don Berg's picture
Don Berg
Author of and the book Attitude First.

Intrinsic motivation is defined as doing something for the enjoyment of it. The students under discussion will not be engaging in testing for the joy of it, ever. There is still hope because you can move them closer to the intrinsic side of the extrinsic motivation spectrum.

I am a psychologist who studies motivation in educational settings and I have a particular interest in intrinsic motivation. Use of the phrase "a surefire way to" is a clear indication that there is a misunderstanding of motivation in play. The central issue is that, as other aspects of the article seem to suggest, motivation is internally generated. NOTHING done outside of the child's mind can possibly be "a surefire way to" activate their motivation for a test, an academic habit, or anything else. A measure of humility on every teacher's part is a pre-requisite to truly address motivational issues. Recognizing that you cannot manipulate the motivation of another person is a good place to start. You can manipulate the situation you share with another person, but you cannot manipulate their motivation.

Daniel Pink was not really talking about shifting individual motivations for specific activities, he was talking about setting up institutional environments in which intrinsic motivation is supported. The dominant theory of motivation, Self-Determination Theory (SDT), posits that motivation is derived from the satisfaction of the primary human needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Pink translated competence into mastery but left out the relatedness bit because he was addressing institutional issues not individual ones. He borrowed the purpose bit from some other theoretical part of positive psychology. His work was great for getting the ideas out into the world but his work is a little misleading about how it all fits together.

The creators of SDT stated in an article in 2000 that intrinsic motivation is derived from the combination autonomy and competence. So, maybe Pink read that and then decided to fill in what he thought was a gap for institutional leaders by adding purpose. But Edward Deci and Richard Ryan also pointed out in that article that internalization, the process by which the external regulation of behavior becomes internally endorsed, is initially driven by relatedness. And what this article is about is internalization, not intrinsic motivation. Testing is a form of external regulation of the behavior of students. What is being described above are efforts to facilitate the internalization of an institutionally imposed external regulation of student's behavior. The efforts are designed to enable the students' to embrace the testing requirements as part of who they are as a member of the school community. By taking that identity seriously they will presumably learn valuable skills.

It is probably more rhetorically satisfying to champion the activation of intrinsic motivation, but it is not consistent with the scientific understanding of intrinsic motivation. If you want to truly champion intrinsic motivation in education then you will have to find ways of making the tests intriniscally enjoyable for the students. Good luck with that.

janegriffin's picture

What if the student-generated goals do not allow for mastery or even competent skill development? At what point does a teacher step in and challenge student expectations? I wonder what percentage of students are apathetic test takers - in your classroom and on average.

What were the results once you implemented your new approach? Did you notice any significant changes in scores?

Additionally, while this approach to standardized test addresses student motivation, it sidesteps a larger issue: our dependence on standardized tests. I feel we could continue to push to have our testing more closely reflect our students' abilities.

Jane Griffin
Seattle, WA

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