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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

How to motivate students

Motivation matters, write Adam Tyner and Michael Petrilli in Education Next. They believe that external motivators, including cash incentives, “can encourage middle-school and high-school students to work harder and learn more.”

Many believe “extrinsic” motivators, such as incentives,  “decrease student effort by eroding students’ intrinsic desire to learn,” they write. In a 1993 book Punished by Rewards, Alfie Kohn and others promoted this idea.

But inspiring students to want to learn for its own sake is very hard, write Tyner and Petrilli. There’s evidence that external accountability can motivate students.

Exit exams are effective in countries where the standards are high, they write. Here, states are dropping exit exams but some now require end-of-course exams (EOCs) in core subjects with results linked to graduation or posted on students’ transcripts. The tests are created and graded by outsiders — not the classroom teacher.

Achievers work to pass Advanced Placement exams, which again are graded externally.

Yet even with the expansion of the AP program in recent years, only about a third of American students take at least one exam, and less than a quarter pass at least one test with a score of three or higher. The promise of high-quality EOCs is to extend the benefits of external assessment, and its virtuous cycle, to many more teenagers.

Good students in low-performing schools need ways to signal their achievement, Tyner and Petrilli write. Watering down academic signals “through grade inflation, abolishing external exams, and lowering standards” hurts disadvantaged students.

While cash incentives have a mixed record, combining teacher support with financial rewards can increase college readiness and attendance, concludes research by Kirabo Jackson.

Some “reforms” discourage student effort, they write.

The most concerning trend is the push to reduce teachers’ authority to assign low grades for poor performance or late assignments. A number of districts nationwide have adopted “no zeroes” policies, banning grades lower than a 50 or 60 on any given assignment or exam, under the rationale that such low grades could make it mathematically impossible for students to recover. Several districts have also implemented “mandatory retake” policies, requiring that teachers allow students to retake exams or redo assignments if they receive a low grade the first time.

Students learn they can ignore homework assignments, procrastinate and skate by. Thanks to “credit recovery,” students can blow off a semester’s worth of classes and earn credit anyhow.

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