Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Motivating kids in the mastery model

One of the big concerns over the mastery-based and no-zero models is that students will have no motivation to work diligently or hand in their work in a timely manner if there are no hard due dates or penalties, or if they can always resubmit their work.

I understand the concern. Student motivation (or lack thereof) is one of the biggest challenges of teaching. The question is, how do we motivate them? What can we do so that they will be self-motivated? I don't really think the threat of punishment (a zero or grade penalty) is a very good motivator. If Daniel Pink is right, we're all motivated by 3 things: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

So today, I started with a pep talk. I asked my students, "What are the two purposes of these assignments that I give you?"

One student answered, "To give us something to do."


Another student: "So that we learn?"

"Right," I said, "I want you to learn biology by doing these projects--and what's the second?"


Me: "I want you to learn to learn independently. I don't know if you've noticed, but you are doing a lot of independent learning in here. You learn by watching videos or reading or doing your projects--you are getting lots of practice at the learning process. In college you will have to do a lot of independent learning. In fact, no matter what you do in life, you'll need to learn. My goal is that you'll be ready for that."

Maybe I just imagined it, but I think some of them hit their work a bit harder today.

Though there were a few struggling to stay focused. They were having difficulties with the software they were using for one of the assignments, and it had become an excuse to chat.

I don't have hard deadlines, since I don't issue late penalties or zeros, so instead of threatening them with penalties, I simply said, "Maybe you should choose a different project option, because you are on Assignment #11 and we are staring #14. I don't want you to get bogged down here."

A few minutes later, I overheard one of them (the one who thought our assignments were just something to do) saying to another, "What assignment are you on, are you on 13?" Was that concern over falling behind? Sounded like it. Still not the best motivator, but I'm hopeful we're moving in the right direction.

There are still trouble spots, and they're different every day (sometimes I feel like I'm playing whack-a-mole), but I really believe that backing off deadlines and pressure actually leads to greater engagement. Maybe it opens a door to a new kind of "school": No, this isn't some sick game. No, it's not about hoop-jumping for penalties and rewards. It's about mastery, autonomy, and purpose.

And it's really not like whack-a-mole. It's more like making lots of adjustments to something that I hope will turn out really beautifully for all of us.

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