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Angelina or Brad? Thoughts on external motivators and the classroom.

Ok - which would motivate you more... A chance to win a date with Angelina Jolie or a chance to win a date with Brad Pitt?

Weird question, right?  I was watching a TV discussion about Hollywood's "most beautiful couple", and for some strange reason, I saw an educational corollary buried beneath it.  

Here's the point: If you would be motivated by a chance to win a date with Angelina Jolie, then a chance to win a date with Brad Pitt probably wouldn't do much for you.  And if you'd do anything for a date with Brad Pitt, you probably don't care too much about a chance to go out with Angelina Jolie.  This got me thinking about external motivators and how they're often used - or misused - by educators.  

External motivators don't cause people to be motivated if they don't already care about the external motivator.  External motivators don't create new motivation - they just reinforce motivators already in place.

The purpose of this post is not to encourage or discourage the use of external motivation.  The purpose is to challenge educators to look at such motivators with a dose of reality - not all motivators will work for all students and not all are appropriate to use in all situations.

As I have worked with teachers around the country on the topic of assessment and grading, it is rather easy to help people reach a level of cognitive agreement with the concept of making sure that a grade assigned to a student represents mastery.  But many teachers struggle with the fear that if they assign grades based on mastery they will lose the "carrot and stick" of rewarding with points or assigning low grades and zeroes.  I don't pretend to have the answer to every hypothetical or potential grading and assessment situation - and I definitely don't believe there is a one size fits all solution that works in every class with every student.  But I do know the following to be true:

  1. Students who routinely do not turn in work or make up missed assignments tend to not be motivated by the fear of the zero or the low grade - or they would have done the work in the first place.  I'm not suggesting that a zero or low grade couldn't be appropriate in certain situations, but we just shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking that this external motivator was ever working with these students to begin with.  To tell a routine "zero-getter" that he'll receive a zero if he doesn't turn in his work would be like telling me I'll lose out on a date with Brad Pitt if I don't do my work.  BTW - I didn't mention this earlier but I would be much more motivated by a chance to win a date with Angelina Jolie!
  2. Students who already care about their grades are the ones motivated by grades and earning points because they already care about those external motivators.  Over the years teachers have used grades as carrots and sticks with these students to encourage compliance.  However, these are the students who drive us crazy when they seem to only care about are earning points rather than learning content.  So using grades as the primary motivator to get these students to do work is a problem for another reason - it promotes the idea students have that points are more important than learning.
  3. When grades are used as inappropriate carrots and sticks - v. appropriate - then grades become falsified.  Rather than communicate mastery, they begin to represent how hard a student worked or how much they worked instead of what they learned.  This is unacceptable - unless your goal is for the grade to represent effort more than or as much as mastery.

It's really hard to blame teachers for using grades as carrots and sticks.  After all, it's been done this way forever.  We are all products of an educational system that operates as though everyone is motivated by the same external factors and that trains students to only work for external motivators.  Our teachers did this - our universities taught us to teach this way - our school divisions' grading systems are usually set up this way - it's just the way it's always been.

But that doesn't mean it has to stay this way.

While it's fine to come up with carrots and sticks that work in your classroom with individual students it's not fine to:

  1. Have a "bag of motivational tricks" so limited that we end up trying to use tricks we know won't work with certain students instead of searching for other ways to motivate, inspire, encourage, and successfully demand that students work.
  2. Foster the misguided idea that collecting points is more important than learning.
  3. Assign final grades that we know do not reflect content knowledge and skills gained as a result of our excellent teaching.

I really don't have specific answers to share - just some things to think about.  

If you think there might be a better way, then you can't keep doing what you've always done.  If you're wanna change, then you gotta change.  Don't expect to keep everything the same except for your allocation of points and then see a revolution in your classroom.  If you're looking for a place to begin, try exploring the concepts of Standards Based Learning.  I'd suggest taking a look at some of the resources on and following the Twitter Chat #SBLchat - Wednesdays at 9:00 pm EST.

I apologize if I've muddied the waters more than I've made them clearer, but sometimes answers aren't simple.  Asking questions, though, is essential.  Try asking yourself these:

  1. Do I try to use grades and/or points to motivate?
  2. Does it work the way I want it to?
  3. Does it lead to falsified grades (grades that don't represent mastery)?
  4. Would there be other external motivators I could use with my students besides grades and points?


If they don't want to hang out with Brad, see if they'd rather hang out with Angelina...

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Comment by stephen owen kitchen on April 9, 2014 at 7:51am

Very good points are made and so true that grades and points are not a motivator to studuents whose grades are not that important to them. Finding a motivation for some is very dificult and must be  individualized.  To some a date with Brad or Angelina would not be a movitator and as an educator you would need to seek other means of motivation. 

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