Student motivation can be enhanced when the purpose of assessment is promoting student learning and this is clearly communicated to students by what teachers say and do (Harlen, 2006). This approach to assessment is associated with what the psychologist, Carol Dweck, (2000) calls an incremental view of ability or intelligence. An incremental view assumes that ability increases whenever an individual learns more. This means that effort is valued because effort leads to knowing more and therefore having more ability. Individuals with an incremental view also ask for help when needed and respond well to constructive feedback as the primary goal is increased learning and mastery. In contrast, a fixed view of ability assumes that some people have more ability than others and nothing much can be done to change that. Individuals with a fixed view of ability often view effort in opposition to ability (“Smart people don’t have to study”) and so do not try as hard, and are less likely to ask for help as that indicates that they are not smart. While there are individual differences in students’ beliefs about their views of intelligence, teachers’ beliefs and classroom practices influence students’ perceptions and behaviors.
Teachers with an incremental view of intelligence communicate to students that the goal of learning is mastering the material and figuring things out. Assessment is used by these teachers to understand what students know so they can decide whether to move to the next topic, re-teach the entire class, or provide remediation for a few students. Assessment also helps students’ understand their own learning and demonstrate their competence. Teachers with these views say things like, “We are going to practice over and over again. That’s how you get good. And you’re going to make mistakes. That’s how you learn.” (Patrick, Anderman, Ryan, Edelin, Midgley, 2001, p. 45).
In contrast, teachers with a fixed view of ability are more likely to believe that the goal of learning is doing well on tests especially outperforming others. These teachers are more likely to say things that imply fixed abilities e.g. “This test will determine what your math abilities are,” or stress the importance of interpersonal competition, “We will have speech competition and the top person will compete against all the other district schools and last year the winner got a big award and their photo in the paper.” When teachers stress interpersonal competition some students may be motivated but there can only a few winners so there are many more students who know they have no chance of winning. Another problem with interpersonal competition in assessment is that the focus can become winning rather than understanding the material.
Teachers who communicate to their students that ability is incremental and that the goal of assessment is promoting learning rather that ranking students, or awarding prizes to those who did very well, or catching those who did not pay attention, are likely to enhance students’ motivation.
The choice of assessment task also influences students’ motivation and confidence. First, assessments that have clear criteria that students understand and can meet rather than assessments that pit students against each other in interpersonal competition enhances motivation (Black, Harrison, Lee, Marshall, Wiliam, 2004). This is consistent with the point we made in the previous section about the importance of focusing on enhancing learning for all students rather than ranking students. Second, meaningful assessment tasks enhance student motivation. Students often want to know why they have to do something and teachers need to provide meaningful answers. For example, a teacher might say, “You need to be able to calculate the area of a rectangle because if you want new carpet you need to know how much carpet is needed and how much it would cost.” Well designed performance tasks are often more meaningful to students than selected response tests so students will work harder to prepare for them.
Third, providing choices of assessment tasks can enhance student sense of autonomy and motivation according to self determination theory. Kym, the sixth grade teacher whose story began this chapter, reports that giving students choices was very helpful. Another middle school social studies teacher Aaron, gives his students a choice of performance tasks at the end of the unit on the US Bill of Rights. Students have to demonstrate specified key ideas but can do that by making up a board game, presenting a brief play, composing a rap song etc. Aaron reports that students work much harder on this performance assessment which allows them to use their strengths than previously when he did not provide any choices and gave a more traditional assignment. Measurement experts caution that a danger of giving choices is that the assessment tasks are no longer equivalent and so the reliability of scoring is reduced so it is particularly important to use well designed scoring rubrics. Fourth, assessment tasks should be challenging but achievable with reasonable effort (Elliott, McGregor & Thrash, 2004). This is often hard for beginning teachers to do, who may give assessment tasks that are too easy or too hard, because they have to learn to match their assessment to the skills of their students.
Black, P., Harrison, C., Lee, C., Marshall, B. & Wiliam, D. (2004). Working inside the black box.: Assessment for learning in the classroom. Phi Delta Kappan, 86(1) 9–21.
Elliott, A., McGregor, H., & Thrash, T. (2004). The need for competence. In E. Deci & R. Ryan (Eds.), Handbook of self-determination research (pp. 361–388). Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press.
Dweck, C. S. (2000) Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality, and development. Philadelphia, PA: Psychology Press.
Harlen, W. The role of assessment in developing motivation for learning. In J. Gardner (Ed.). Assessment and learning (pp. 61–80). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.