What does student motivation to invest in the performance or enactment of knowledge really tell us about the knowledge or abilities students may ultimately possess?

As I read Mellinee Lesley’s article this week—“Exploring the Links between Critical Literacy and Developmental Reading,” in Teaching Developmental Reading: Historical, Theoretical, and Practical Background Readings (2003)—I found myself thinking a lot about the degree to which so many students adamantly insist that they have already learned the specific concepts that they feel they are being unjustly asked to “re-learn” or “master” in college within the context of remedial or basic skills course placements.

Early in her article, Lesley references an interesting dialogue between two students who are said to be coming to terms with, or beginning to reflect upon, their educational experiences (p.79). Intervening in this exchange, Lesley asks the students, “What happened in your earlier school experiences that led to your having to take a developmental studies course in reading? What were you not taught?” (emphasis added). Here I found myself agreeing with Lesley’s initial line of questioning, only to become surprised by the interpretation of the students’ words implied by Lesley’s second question. It seems as though approaching the issue of learning challenges differently—choosing to use different phrasing for inciting reflection about one’s abilities and challenges—might elicit different types of responses. For example, possibly framing the question as follows might enable students to more precisely express feelings associated with their levels of relative engagement (or lack their of), thus helping to make the connection between motivation and performance (as opposed to the more readily assumed connection between ability and performance) immediately apparent. Rather than insinuating that poor performance is based on lack of knowledge or skill, such a framing might suggest that poor performance is often based on lack of motivation or investment in the performance scenario itself.  Such a framing might also help students see that performances are always situated and conditional, thus prompting them to ask themselves, “What was it about past learning/reading/writing experiences, learning/assessment scenarios, etc. that potentially made it difficult for me to fully invest in demonstrating my knowledge and skills/what I had already learned?” To her credit, Lesley does employ this type of framing elsewhere, although she seems to privilege its use in the service of literacy narrative assignments.

I guess what I found myself wondering was, with the extent to which adult education remains predicated on the notion that adults thrive on self-efficacy and require self-directed motivation for learning, why are instructors like Lesley continuing to imply that many of the issues developmental students face are related to having been improperly prepared or not having been taught requisite skills, rather than attempting to illuminate the ways in which motivation and/or the circumstances under which students have somehow remained uninterested, unwilling, or unable to enact the knowledge or skills that they have learned and do possess have perhaps represented more significant barriers to their academic success than have real or imagined instructional deficits. I was pleased to see that Martha E. Casazza’s article, “Strengthening Practice with Theory” (also in Teaching Developmental Reading: Historical, Theoretical, and Practical Background Readings), seemed to begin to more thoroughly address student motivation and its relationship to varied ways of knowing, the demonstration of intelligence, and strategic learning.


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