Using assessment as a stick is not a tool to motivate students

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Many years ago when I began learning my craft as a teacher, there were students that I struggled to motivate. Occasionally, I would use the assessment stick on particular students by saying, if you do not do this assessment task well, then you will put your chances of completing your High School Certificate at risk. Despite the threat of such a serious consequence, this statement, more often than not, did not change student behaviour in the slightest.

Essentially, if students are not engaged, then they are not engaged. Not amount of hitting them with the assessment stick will help. All this does is shift the responsibility of motivation solely to the student. As that teacher way back then, I was excusing myself from responsibility of the students not doing well, as it was their job to be motivated. I was, of course, providing them with lessons that they should be able to readily engage with and in turn succeed in their learning. At least, so I thought.

It did not, however, take me too long to understand that this approach was not going to work. Nor was giving them more assessments or homework, essentially raising the workload in an effort to get students to respond. What this type of approach did was punish students for my own failings as a teacher. I needed to revise my approach.

To start with I had to spend more time with my disinclined students finding out about them and their aspirations, what made them tick and what was it that they strive for. I wanted to know what they were good at. In some cases, students would say that they are good at nothing. It was my job to find something to ignite a passion and interest that school might just help in serving that interest and becoming a relevant part of that child’s life.

Next, time was spent on highlighting learning outcomes, being far more explicit with students about what it is they are required to do in order to achieve success. If students do not know and understand what the objective is and see its relevance, then why would you try? To please me their teacher? Certainly not. I had to spend time differentiating, scaffolding and breaking tasks into manageable chunks, so that students could experience success in learning in bite-size pieces, gaining in confidence as they learn, little by little. I realised that students would act out if they had a skill shortfall with what they were being required to do. I needed to teach them the skills of time management, goal setting and notetaking, among others. I needed to make these skills relevant to my lessons and the tasks that I was doing with the students.

Finally, I would look at how I could incorporate some choice to match their strengths and interests. Not too much choice, just enough so students still spend time with things that they do not like. Life cannot just be about a good things street with one-way traffic. There would be negotiation, compromises, trade-offs that would enable my students to have a greater say in their learning, so that it did not belong to their teacher. I had to make sure, however, that choices did not become carrots, as these only work in the short-term and we are looking to the long-term in our students becoming life-long learners.

The assessment stick was put away for good. The classes thrived on relationships between teacher and student, where students developed a sense of belonging that they were proud to be a part of in a way that was meaningful to them. This is what school should be about – a significant and relevant experience where students want to turn up everyday for a love of learning, not to be constantly be beating by a stick that is assessment.

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