I recommend, respectfully, that you don’t either.
My classes are chock-full of competitive students. Some are competitive with academics, and some are competitive regarding sports or extracurricular activities. Either way, grades determine their future. I also have students who really want an education, and I will address them in this essay, too.
For some, good grades fulfill a short term goal. These students are motivated to perform well because they want to do what they love doing. Good grades allow them that opportunity.
For others, good grades help them to fulfill a longer-term goal. These students are motivated to maintain a perfect score in a class. They take multiple weighted courses to gain a GPA advantage over everyone else.
“Will I be eligible to play this week?” asked a student who wanted to play in the “big game.”
“Will I get into that college I want to attend? Will I get a scholarship to go there? How can I ‘beat’ the others?” are the questions I imagine competitive high achievers asking.
The Problem with Extrinsic Motivation
Either way, the motivation is extrinsic, and that motivation tends to tower over any intrinsic motivation, casting its long shadow over any attempt to struggle with new information, make mistakes, and learn from them.
In my experience, extrinsic-motivation dominance leads to cheating. Students need a specific grade and are willing to go to great lengths to get it. That they have actually learned anything is irrelevant.
Extrinsic motivation’s dominance is evident in their work, as well. Some students are quite honest about it, which I respect. Still, the results of their efforts indicate there is one thing on their mind: Get the assignment done.
“What’s my grade if I don’t do that assignment that I haven’t done yet?”
– Question from a student who was asked about completing a missed assignment, followed by a shrug when I told her that she would still have a passing grade.
Yeah… that doesn’t work for me.
I show my students that it doesn’t work for me through their scores and responses to their (sometimes) infuriating questions. For example, I gave an assignment to a class to analyze a poem we had already probed thoroughly for meaning on one level. This time, I wanted them to identify and consider how the poet employed the literary devices in the poem as another way to interpret it. In other words, I was exposing them to interpretation from multiple entry points with several activities related to one poem.
A student dominated by extrinsic motivation asked me, “How many literary devices do we have to find?”
“Oh friend, you’re in AP® Lit. There’s no magical number! Find as many as you can. You’re not going to find this assignment on the Internet, either, by the way. You have to do this on your own, and you may struggle with it. If you don’t like that, perhaps you need to go into another class.”
— How I wanted to respond to this question at that moment. However, I took a deep breath.
“Find as many literary devices as you can. Demonstrate an understanding of the devices by finding them in this poem. We have already analyzed this poem for meaning thoroughly, so I want us to look at it differently to glean even more meaning from it. There’s no magical number. This is AP® Lit; there’s no absolutely correct answer for anything.”
— How I responded.
Again, I respect the honesty and appreciate the question, as I was given an opportunity to demonstrate why I teach. It’s still infuriating, but each time I try my best to show the students that I care more about their education than their GPA.
I live by a motto taught me by a sensei I used to train with: “The amateur practices until she gets it right. The professional practices until she can’t get it wrong.” I have modified that motto over the years to apply to particular situations.
For example, in this case, I am thinking, “The extrinsically-motivated student only works to the point in which the short-term goal is achieved. The intrinsically-motivated student recognizes how successfully completing one activity will help them achieve success with the next, thereby helping the student achieve their ultimate goal to become more educated.”
The Power of Intrinsic Motivation
That student who demonstrates intrinsic motivation, or a healthy balance of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, will show a deeper understanding of our collective goals. They are also going to score just as well as the student who is churning out assignment after assignment and obviously gleaning nothing from it, even if their responses aren’t as polished as the student dominated by extrinsic motivation. They may even score higher! Why? Because I see the effort they are making. After a couple of weeks, I can tell which camp they are in.
“Hey, I actually like reading good literature, but I’m not that good at analyzing it. Still, I’m going to try because I want to get as much from a text as I can.”
“I will do better over time because I understand that we are here to learn, not to be perfect all the time.”
– What I imagine intrinsically-motivated students are thinking.
The intrinsically-motivated, or balanced, student may make more “mistakes” but demonstrates a willingness to learn from them. This student understands an important purpose of education — namely, to improve oneself — and that mistakes are an opportunity to improve.
The extrinsically-motivated student understands how to play school. It’s a grade game, and they are playing it, even if they have to cheat. They aren’t learning much, I’m afraid. They are also in for a rude awakening when they get to college. It’s my mission to help them understand that.
You see, my classes are not only about literature; they are designed to teach life skills the students can adopt and take with them. I demonstrate what I value: hard work, developing routines, critical thinking, metacognition, and active listening. I model those behaviors for the students explicitly. At times, I tell stories to explain why I feel the way I do.
I’ve told my students about teachers who gave up on me. I struggle with math, you see. My fifth-grade teacher actually told me it was a waste of her time trying to help me anymore. My geometry teacher told me the same thing. It was not until I was in trigonometry that I had a math teacher who did not give up on me. I earned a B+ in that class, and she wrote in my yearbook that I would make a great math teacher.
“I’m sorry, what?” I asked, pointing to what she wrote. She explained to me that since I’ve experienced the struggle and come out the other side, I could help my students through to the other side too.
I struggled with chemistry, as well. In that case, my teacher did not give up on me either. She and I ate lunch together for months until I understood what was going on in class. In the end, I earned an A+ in that class.
“I will never give up on you,” I’ve told my students. If that means not playing the grade game and not playing school, so be it.