Lisa Rivero M.A.

Creative Synthesis

Education Reform, One Assignment at a Time

What college seniors teach me about learning, grades, and motivation.

Posted Apr 28, 2012

A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education begins as follows:

"Among the problems on college campuses today are that students study for exams and faculty encourage them to do so."

The author, sociology professor David Jaffee, argues that "final exams do not advance student learning" and that "covering" material "is not the same as learning it":

"On the one hand, we tell students to value learning for learning's sake; on the other, we tell students they'd better know this or that, or they'd better take notes, or they'd better read the book, because it will be on the next exam; if they don't do these things, they will pay a price in academic failure."

student asleep on books
Like many other college teachers, I am gearing up for the push toward finals week of the spring term. My current group of creative thinking students is beginning to get that "I slept for four hours" look around their eyes, dragging their heavy backpacks and 20-ounce caffeinated beverages into class with equally heavy spirits.

However, this particular group of students has also taught me something important about learning and grades and intrinsic motivation. Half of the students are graduating seniors, and many of those seniors are in the somewhat rare and enviable position these days of either having already secured post-graduation employment or choosing among multiple offers. Yes, I teach at a school that does an exceptional job of placing its graduates in the workforce, but my point is something different. These students, most of them, at least, no longer need to worry much about what grade they get in this course, an elective for most of them, as long as they pass satisfactorily.

Many people might assume that these engineering students, very soon to be making starting salaries higher than I currently earn after two decades of work, would have little motivation to attend class, whether in body or mind, or to put their all into their coursework. My experience, however, has been just the opposite. As Dan Pink explains in Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, removing the incentive and punishment of grades has freed many (not all, but many) of the students to go beyond what I otherwise would expect in terms of critical thinking, creative insight, and synthesis. In an assignment that asked them to write a creative profile of a friend or family member, for example, the students used what we have discussed in class to explore their own thoughts on the role of technology in creative ways to communicate, the difficulty and time-commitment of getting to know a complex personality, and the inherent challenges to the commitment to pursue a creative life, all topics that we had not yet discussed in detail, that they were not required to "cover."

Barbara Clark, author of the widely used gifted education textbook Growing Up Gifted, reminds us that “under the threat of grades, bright students balk at venturing into the unknown or trying any area in which they are not sure they will succeed.” The resulting perfectionism and risk-aversion, far from lessening in college, can cause university students to focus on grades to the exclusion of deep, personal, creative learning. As a homeschooling parent, I saw first-hand that not only can learning occur in the absence of grades, but grade-free learning can occur at deeper and more meaningful levels. Of course, doing away with grades completely is not always practical, and the grade debate is complex, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't make changes when and where we can.

Jaffee urges college educators to use the flexibility they have to begin to change how we think of and use final exams. I don't have the option to omit the final exam from my course, nor am I completely free from requirements meant to ensure departmental consistency and institutional accreditation, but I do have more leeway than many high school teachers, especially teachers of AP courses, as to what form that exam will take and what it will assess. What is the best way for my students to spend the last days of the course, and how can I facilitate their ending their college careers with a bang of inspiration that they can carry into their jobs and families and personal lives, rather than with a whimper of all-night memorization?

They are about to find out.

To learn more about Dan Pink's work on motivation, watch his Ted Talk and RSA Animate video.

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