Bird courses, as an example of extrinsic motivation

Many university students pick their elective courses based on how easy they are. Any time a course becomes significantly easier than the rest on campus, it starts to become known as a “bird course.” For example, in the university where I’m studying, some of the most well-known “bird courses” are “Natural Disasters” and “The Art of Listening.” These courses quickly become really popular, because hey, who wouldn’t want to raise their GPA?

But this, to me, is one of the effects of students being externally motivated – how they’re being motivated to act by grades, rather than by the course material itself. Consequently, thousands of students end up taking courses that aren’t very meaningful to them, and that aren’t in line with their life goals and interests. To put it bluntly, it wastes the students’ time and energy, as well as the schools’.

In order to behave in an intrinsically motivated fashion, a student has to work against the system, rather than with it. They have to reassure themselves that “even if I don’t do well, it’s OK, because I’m going to learn a lot of meaningful information.”

So how do we fix this?

This is much easier said than done. In an ideal world, we would give students credits for being more or less interested and/or personally invested in their courses. But then, there’d be nothing stopping students from claiming to be 100% intrinsically motivated 100% of the time. And we could resort to lie detector tests to sort that out, but of course, that’s just ridiculous and invasive!

Psychologists have actually found many, many ways to test someone’s level of intrinsic motivation on any given task. For instance, you can have a person perform an activity for a specific period of time. And then, once that time is up, you give the person “free time” to do whatever they please. The more the person continues to spend their time on the first activity, the more that person is said to be intrinsically motivated.

This could be successfully applied to a school setting, but definitely NOT if it affects students’ grades. Because the minute they perceive that this test will affect their grade, they will spend all of their “free time” doing their activity. So the problem is not being able to track intrinsic motivation. The problem is when we try to use intrinsic motivation as a diagnostic tool, in order to determine a person’s grade, or to reward or punish them in any, shape, or form. Because rewards and punishments are just that – extrinsic motivators!

“Making room” for intrinsic motivation

So the solution then is not to track intrinsic motivation, but to make room for it. To give students a space (and resources) where they can pursue their interests, without having to be obsessed about their transcript, their resume, or “what a future employer/school will think about this.”

And there are many ways to go about doing this. One of such solutions is actually one that’s already in place in some schools here in North America: pass/fail courses. Here, as long as a student passes the course, it will show up as a “pass” on their transcript. The specific grade they get in the course will not affect their GPA. This solution is easier to implement than some of the other ones I will present in the future, because it fits so nicely into the rest of the traditional (and completely outdated!) system. It doesn’t go far enough in my opinion, but it’s a start, and it’s headed in the right direction.

We need to expand the pass/fail system to high school and CEGEP levels, and properly explain it within the context of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to students. I have no idea why these concepts have been around for over 40 years, and yet the vast majority of students have never been taught them, even though (1) they spend over 4500 hours sitting in class – what, we never had the chance to tell them about this even once? (2) they spend over 4500 hours sitting in class – these concepts are so prevalent and relevant in their lives!!

Conclusions:

  1. “Bird courses” are a prime example of extrinsically motivated students.
  2. Intrinsic motivation can be measured, but not if the person knows that they will receive a reward and/or punishment as a result of the measurement’s outcome.
  3. Tracking students’ intrinsic motivation (in the “non-contingent” manner) will not decrease it, but nor will it increase it. In order to foster intrinsic motivation, you need to “make room” for it (in terms of space, time, and resources).
  4. One (but definitely not the only) way to “make room” for intrinsic motivation is to use and properly explain the pass/fail system.

What students and teachers are really thinking about

People often talk about what we learn in school, and offer suggestions on how to change or upgrade our schools’ curriculum. (I, for one, have several recommendations on this front. More on those in the future!) But I have yet to see someone outline a step-by-step process of schooling that students go through in our system. So here’s my first attempt at it.

Let’s look at the process of what goes on when a student writes an essay for school.

Note: I’m saying “essay” here, but you can replace this with “research paper,” “project,” “lab report,” or any other long piece of text that a student is asked to write.

  1. The teacher explains the instructions of the essay to the class.
  2. The student writes the essay.
  3. (optional) The student visits/emails/calls the teacher because they have questions about the essay.
  4. The teacher corrects the essay.
  5. The teacher hands the essay back to the student and the student reviews their essay.
  6. (optional) The teacher and student sometimes meet to discuss the essay.
  7. The essay is put away and rarely (if ever) looked at again. Either,

a) The student throws it away at the end of the school year.
b) The teacher stores it, and then shreds it after a few years.
c) The student stores it in their room, closet, or basement. They usually never look at it again, except on occasion, when they feel like reminiscing.

Alright, so what’s on their minds?

Let’s look at this process from the perspective of moment-by-moment consciousness. In other words, what are the students and teachers thinking about during each of these stages? What’s occupying their minds? What’s motivating them to act?

  1. The teacher explains the instructions of the essay to the class.
    They describes the main purposes of the essay, and how it fits into the curriculum, and this is great. But it doesn’t last very long. The discussion quickly segways into grading, rules, timing.
    Student questions revolve around grading:
    “How many pages long should it be?”, “Do we need a cover page?”, “What’s the late penalty?” etc.
  2. The student writes the essay.
    Their primary goal here is to get a good grade.
  3. (optional) The student visits/emails/calls the teacher because they have questions about the essay.
    Their questions usually revolve around optimizing their grade. Because, after all, the students who get the best grades are the ones who are able to “psych out” their teacher a bit.
  4. The teacher corrects the essay.
    While they’re reading, they’re mainly focusing on how well they hold up against the criteria that they previously established. (Granted, I’ve personally only ever had one experience with grading papers, but I can attest that was the #1 thing on my mind the entire time I was correcting.)
  5. The teacher hands the essay back to the student and the student reviews their essay.
    The student looks through the paper to make sure that they got a fair grade. They make sure the teacher added up the points correctly. Many of them only look at the questions/parts where they lost points. They don’t even care to look at what they did right, because hey, as long as you got the credit, what else matters??
  6. (optional) The teacher and student sometimes meet to discuss the essay.
    Most of the time, the student is here to contest the parts of the essay they think were wrongly graded as incorrect/poor.
  7. The essay is put away and rarely (if ever) looked at again.

Notice how at every step of the process, everyone’s main focus is on the grading of the essay. De jure, grades are supposed to be a means to an end, but de facto, the subject material is treated as the means, while the grades is treated like the end. As John Holt puts it, “We encourage [students] to feel that the end and aim of all they do in school is nothing more than to get a good mark on a test, or to impress someone with what they seem to know.”

Caveats

Now, admittedly the above analysis makes a lot of sweeping generalizations.

1. First of all, students actually do spend a lot of time thinking about the course material. It’s not like it’s being ignored or anything! And some of these essays, and teacher-student conversations can and do get very deep.

I would argue, however, that the breadth and depth of their contemplation is only as deep as the grading asks of them. Most students are very busy, and their grades in their other classes would suffer if they went deeper or more broad then what is required of them. This only gets worse in university, when students are pressured to read more and write more in a shorter amount of time. The pressure to do well also increases, as students are now working towards a GPA, and are facing tougher “competition” among their classmates. Then, there are even less opportunities for deeper thinking and creative insights.

Some schools pride themselves on how they set “high standards” for their students, by requiring them to do more, read more, and memorize more. But ironically, these “higher standards” often lead to lower quality education.

2. Second of all, there are also individual differences between students. Some will be more intrinsically motivated in each subject than others. And that’s to be accepted, understood, and even celebrated in my opinion. But that doesn’t take away from how, I believe, the dominant culture among students is to be grade-focused and extrinsically motivated.

3. The second diagram is called an “ideal” for a reason. Reaching this ideal is easier said than done, and it’s impractical for it to be reached 100% of the time. But that’s OK, and it doesn’t take away from us striving towards that ideal, letting students know about this ideal, and reminding students about this ideal when times get rough or boring.