George Lucas Educational Foundation

Comprehensive Assessment Research Review: Motivating Students

Helping students develop a growth mindset and nurturing grit are two important aspects of keeping students motivated to learn more and improve.

January 29, 2014 Updated March 1, 2015
Learn more about this school. Photo credit: Zachary Fink
Students at MC2 STEM must demonstrate mastery -- competency at 90 percent or better -- in order to receive credit. The school has multiple structures in place to help students meet the rigorous requirements, such as one-on-one time with teachers.

“For assessment to support learning, it must provide guidance about the next steps in instruction and must be provided in a way that encourages the learner to direct energy towards growth, rather than well-being.” (Wiliam, 2010)

How do we make sure students are motivated to learn? In addition to communicating high expectations, educators can help persuade learners to believe that they will attain a performance goal by teaching persistence, goal setting, if-then planning, study skills, and a growth mindset.

A student’s belief in his or her capability to succeed has been shown to predict academic achievement across grades and subjects as well as college majors and careers (Usher & Pajares, 2008). This belief in one’s capability to achieve a goal is thought to come from four sources, each of which can support assessment practices to strengthen a learner’s sense of capability to attain goals (Bandura, 1986, 1997, cited in Usher & Pajares, 2008):

  • Mastery experiences: prior experience in succeeding at the task or a similar one
  • Vicarious experiences: seeing or being aware of others (peers or adults) succeeding at the task or a similar one
  • Verbal and social persuasion: the extent to which people encourage one to believe that he or she will succeed
  • Emotional state: feelings that one experiences around the task domain, such as level of anxiety

The Importance of Experiencing Success

Experiencing success builds a learner’s sense of capability to achieve future success, which supports his or her academic achievement. For example, personal bests are goals that students can attain by performing as well or better than they did in a previous performance; they are seen as accessible by students and increase students’ sense of confidence that they can learn successfully (Liem, Ginns, Martin, Stone, & Herrett, 2012). If students put forth a great deal of effort and do not succeed at a task, it may lead them to believe they are unlikely to succeed at the task in the future, or if students only succeed when they receive help from others, they will have a weaker idea of their own capability of being successful in the future (Usher & Pajares, 2008).

By providing frequent feedback that supports self-directed experiences of academic success, educators can promote learners’ sense of capability in school and the likelihood of achieving future success.

One program that is known for successfully scaffolding self-directed mastery experiences is Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID). Intended to encourage C- and D-level students to attend college, AVID supports self-efficacy through its emphasis on writing, inquiry, collaboration, organization, and reading to learn (WICOR). In addition, seeing self-similar peers modeling strategies for overcoming challenges and achieving academic goals may deepen learners’ beliefs that they too can attain academic goals. According to evaluations comparing AVID students with classmates and with state averages, students in AVID outperformed others on standardized tests and high school attendance (Watt, Powell, & Mendiola, 2004).

Students also gain confidence in their capability to achieve a goal by watching others succeed at the goal, both in real life and through the media, particularly when the role models are adults who are self-similar or otherwise attractive to students (Bandura, 2004, cited in Usher & Pajares, 2008). For example, Project Exploration is a science education organization that strives to make science accessible to students from groups that are traditionally underrepresented in the sciences by providing personalized experiences with science and real scientists.

An independent, ten-year evaluation of Project Exploration found that 95 percent of youth participants graduated from high school or were on track to graduate, and 60 percent of those who enrolled in a four-year college had earned or were pursuing degrees related to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) (Chi, Snow, Goldstein, Lee, & Chung, 2010). Project Exploration articulates their model in their report STEM Pathways for Youth Development and in their overview video.

Intelligence Is Malleable

As students develop a sense of their performance and skill in relation to others around them, it is important to persuade these learners that anyone can be successful with sufficient effort, persistence, and effective strategies. Educators, parents, and peers are important sources of information that learners draw upon to form their beliefs about how good they are at a task and how likely they are to succeed. By setting challenging goals and holding high expectations for learners, educators, parents, and peers can bolster learners’ beliefs that they can accomplish such goals (Usher & Pajares, 2008). Mastery over challenging goals also plays an important role in persuading learners to believe that they can attain such goals (Bandura, 2004, cited in Usher & Pajares, 2008).

The belief that all learners can get better at learning with effort, persistence, and the right strategies begins with cultivating a growth mindset. Students are more likely to avoid challenging tasks when they believe that intelligence is fixed, or something they are born with and cannot change, while students who hold a growth mindset, and believe that intelligence is malleable, are likely to be more successful (Dweck, 2006). Educators can help learners to develop a growth mindset by communicating these fundamentals of the growth mindset to them (Dweck, 2006):

  • Praise effort and process to communicate that intelligence is developed through effort, for example, “Great effort” or “There were many hard things, and you worked your way through them!” Conversely, praising talent and ability as in the following examples makes kids vulnerable to a fixed mindset: “You got an A without even trying -- you are really good at math” or “You did that so quickly and easily -- that’s impressive.”
  • Add the word yet to emphasize that learning happens over time. When students say, “I’m not good at X” or “I tried X, but it did not work,” add the word yet and help students to find new learning strategies to help them make progress.
  • Encourage challenges and frame mistakes as opportunities for development. When students complete a task quickly and easily, Dweck suggests saying something like, “I guess that was too easy. I apologize for wasting your time.” Another response could be, “Let’s do something you can really learn from” (2006). In addition, by reframing mistakes as opportunities for learning and for discovering specific ways to target efforts, teachers can help to reduce the fear some students have of making mistakes in front of others. Encouraging the sharing of misconceptions benefits all students and accelerates the learning process.

Emphasizing Sustained Effort and Focus

By emphasizing the importance of “working strenuously toward challenges, and maintaining effort and interest over years, despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress,” educators can help to encourage the habits of sustained effort and focus that increase the likelihood of achieving goals (Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, & Kelly, 2007). Grit is a noncognitive trait that indicates perseverance and passion for long-term goals (Duckworth et al., 2007). Grit can be measured using a short survey, and it is a more accurate predictor of success than IQ or talent (Duckworth & Quinn, 2009). Across six studies, grittier adolescents earned higher grade point averages than their peers, grittier West Point cadets were more likely to stay after the first summer, grittier spelling bee participants outlasted less tenacious competitors, and grittier adults had higher levels of education and made fewer career changes than less gritty peers (Duckworth & Quinn, 2009).

While having grit increases the likelihood of achieving academic goals, how to develop it is less clear. According to one meta-analysis of strategies to promote goal striving and goal achievement, articulating “implementation intentions” that spell out “the when, where, and how of goal striving” supports goal achievement (Gollwitzer & Sheeran, 2006).

In one experiment, students expressed how important a goal was to them (“How important is it to you to complete all 10 practice tests in the PSAT workbook?”). They then spent time writing about both positive outcomes and possible obstacles that may interfere with goal attainment. The experimental group wrote about how they would overcome these obstacles and even when and where they would complete the goal. The students who articulated the specifics of how they would overcome obstacles to their goal were more successful in attaining the goal (they completed more practice questions) than students in the control condition, which involved writing about an inspiring person or event (Duckworth, Grant, Loew, Oettingen, & Gollwitzer, 2011).

Creating a Safe Environment for Assessment

Feedback from a trusted source is taken more seriously compared with other feedback (Shute, 2008). However, assessment can still create levels of anxiety that undermine performance, leading to unsuccessful experiences and avoidance of assessments or school altogether. One source of anxiety for students has to do with negative cultural stereotypes, which can be made salient to the learner when a negative cultural stereotype about one’s group applies to the testing situation (Steele & Aronson, 1995).

Importantly, learners do not need to believe a negative cultural stereotype for that stereotype to undermine their performance. It is the belief that others may judge one’s performance and believe the negative cultural stereotype that creates the anxiety that can undermine performance and lower a learner’s sense of efficacy.

There are several ways to reduce this stereotype threat and to create identity safety in classrooms:

  • Move standard demographic questions about gender, race, and ethnicity to the end of tests (Danaher & Crandall, 2008).
  • To affirm identity, have students write a brief essay about the values that are important to them and why (Cohen, Garcia, Apfel, & Master, 2006).
  • Provide access to role models who demonstrate proficiency in a domain for which the stereotype applies, through literature or in person, to falsify the stereotype (Marx, Stapel, & Muller, 2005).
  • Communicate high standards while assuring students that their capability to meet those standards is assumed, rather than questioned (Cohen, Steele, & Ross, 1999).

Continue to the next section of the Comprehensive Assessment Research Review, Avoiding Pitfalls.

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