Grades, Motivation, and Student Self-Worth

How important is self-esteem, or self-worth, in competitive educational environments? Does a student’s self-worth affect his or her motivation and grades?

In her article, “Why Grading on the Curve Hurts,” Kit Richart equates competitive classrooms to a game of musical chairs, in which early on, the slowest students lose their place in the game. “For one person to win, another must lose.” Likewise, Dr. Marty Covington, a Psychology professor at UC Berkeley, insists that “under competitive goals, individuals are likely only to continue striving only for as long as they remain successful. No one wants to continue if the result is shame and self-recrimination.

It makes sense that students who are rewarded by the system, who have learned how to become successful, will thrive. Students who do tend to be successful in school are, according to the research of Shirley Brice Heath, are the children of “mainstream” and “school-oriented” families, in contrast to other learners who have had less exposure to school literacy practices. Because these children are already familiar with “schooled” learning, they process information in a successful way, according to their teachers and the educational institutions of which they are a part. Students whose backgrounds include oral traditions rather than an emphasis on reading and writing do not have such exposure, and therefore may not appear to be “successul” learners. In accordance with Heath’s study, the authors of the article for this week, “Variability in Reading Comprehension” quote James Gee on the cultural and historical situatedness of students: “An awareness of how members of particulardiscourse communities construct their identities as readers (through their waysof behaving, interacting, valuing, thinking, believing, speaking, reading, and writing) is one important step in understanding variability in readers.

As in the earlier grades, certain students arrive at the university fully prepared for the academic work that will be required of them. Many others will be required to take developmental courses in order to read and write at the college level. “Developmental” being a more PC word than “Remedial,” perhaps these students don’t feel as stigmatized as they once were. However, they are still starting out on a lower rung than other freshman, and they must complete more course hours in English in order to graduate.

The question of student motivation at the college level harks back to Heath’s study of elementary school children, because as students learn to see themselves as naturally, or intellectually, deficient, it will not seem as if other avenues of learning exist. Grades reinforce this perception, and competitive classrooms discourage some students as much as they encourage others. Grades fail to take into account students’ backgrounds, and often they do not reflect creativity; in fact, in some cases students are graded poorly for disagreeing with (or merely diverging from) the teacher’s point of view.

Students who come to college unprepared will have more trouble adapting to academic life, and teachers will continue to express frustration with them. They will lack the self-monitoring skills they need to fully comprehend what they are reading. As Jodi Holschuh and Lori Aultman point out in Chapter 6 (Comprehension Development) of the Handbook, “In an environment where 85% of all learning comes from independent reading, college students who are not metacognitively aware will probably experience academic problems.

The traditional practice of giving letter grades, it seems, is not effective or motivating for all students. In fact, it singles certain of them out for failure. What I want to know is: are there grading systems that serve students who do not arrive at school ready to acclimate to an academic environment? Because grading is an institutional necessity, and as an instructor I will not be able to avoid giving grades, I want to figure out how grades/types of assessment can be motivating, and not just to students who are best prepared for learning.

As I read about different types of assessment, I keep coming across the famous/infamous Portfolio. According to Jere E. Brophy, “The portfolio approach reflects several motivational principles by focusing attention on quality standards rather than just grades or scores, incorporating assessment data as informative feedback, encouraging students to become reflective about their work and oriented toward improvement over time (Motivating Students to Learn 62.)

If portfolio grading is such a great method, why are so many teachers in the Comp program against using it? Why do no current GTAs seem to use it? I’ve heard it is more work for the teacher, but what are some other arguments against it? Everything I’ve read seems to reinforce its awesome effects.

More on motivating methods of assessment to come….


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