Shred Their Work: or Reflections on Student Motivation

Don’t care Sir : or the importance of feedback

Spend a few seconds pondering about this thought experiment:

You work as a resource creator in a school. This means that you create exciting new PowerPoint presentations every week that include challenging tasks, inspiring images for discussion and so on. You are very proud of your slides. At the end of the week you hand over your beautifully crafted presentations to your Line Manager who deletes them without even looking. This happens weekly but you get paid a handsome salary. How do you feel about this?

Let’s turn this story on its head and pose this scenario instead:

You are a student in a school. This means that you will create, produce and complete a series of tasks and activities. At the end of the week you have handed in more than five pieces of work. You feel very proud each time a piece of work is handed in to your teacher. Next lesson your work is returned to you. It does not contain any comments or feedback about your masterpiece. This happens in most lessons and you are forced to do this weekly. How do you feel about this?

Providing feedback is an essential ingredient to ensure that students’ motivation is maintained otherwise there’s little point in working hard and trying to achieve. Their intrinsic motivation is heightened each time they receive critical and positive comments in their work, more so than if we try to convince them that it’s important they work hard otherwise they won’t get a good job. It is the immediacy that is the crucial factor in them progressing and becoming more motivated.

Providing good feedback:

1. Refrain from commenting on all work as it might become repetitive and meaningless

2. Acknowledge that you have seen their day-to-day classwork with a tick or stamp

3. Select milestone tasks e.g. an end of unit task that you mark and provide detailed feedback using the power of Assessment for Learning (we wrote a lot about effective assessment ideas in our last book). If you haven’t decided on these milestones as a department then we encourage you to do so first.

4. Hand back work as quickly as possible so that students link the homework/assessment with your feedback.

5. Allow students time re-draft work or parts of work based on the feedback you provided them – this is a concrete way to make them see their own progression.

For more ideas about engaging and purposeful assessment see this extract from our book Exam Class Toolkit

Shred it : or why praise really matters

In the brilliant book The Upside of Irrationality , Dan Ariely and his team investigate the relationship between motivation and a person’s meaning to their work. In this experiment they created a sheet of paper with a random sequence of letters on them and asked particpants to find instances where a letter ‘S’ was followed by another letter ‘S’. They were told that each sheet contained 10 instances of consecutive ‘S:s’. Participants were to find all ten instances of the S:s to complete a sheet. They would be paid: 55 cents for sheet 1 , 50 cent for sheet 2 and so forth until they got to the 12th page where they would receive nothing.

Three conditions were examined:

1. The Acknowledged condition:

In this control group participants were asked to write their names on each sheet prior to starting the task. When a sheet had been completed it was handed over to the researcher who would examine it carefully, nod and show their appreciation of the participants work before adding it on top of a pile of paper.

2. The Ignored condition

This group would complete the same task as the previous group but were not asked to write their name on top of each sheet. When they handed over a completed sheet the researcher took it without saying thank you and without looking at the sheet before adding it to a stack of paper.

3. The Shredded Condition

Unlike the the other two conditions, this group would hand over their sheets but instead of placing it on top of a pile of paper, the researcher placed it in a shredder without even glancing at it.

The results were rather interesting. As you can imagine, the ‘Acknowledged’ condition completed more sheets of paper than the ‘Shredded’ condition after payment had ceased. In fact, 49% of participants from the former condition completed 10 or more sheets compared to 17% from the ‘Shredded’ condition. Interestingly, the average number of sheets produced by the ‘Shredded’ condition was virtually identical to that of the ‘Ignored’ condition where 18% managed to produce 10 sheets or more after payment had ceased. So there was no major difference between the group whose work was destroyed and the group that was ignored.

In a school context this is a no-brainer: if you want to lower motivation amongst students then either bin their work or don’t bother to look at it. On the other hand, if you wish to motivate them, give them praise and acknowledge when they have produced something good. But if you think about it, it’s more complex than that. If you provide students with thoughtful praise and feedback rather than simply giving them a grade, they are more likely to work harder because of the effect of meaning on their work. It becomes clear to them that their effort was worth it. As teachers many of us crave recognition for our work either from colleagues, Senior Leaders or from our students. This is the reason why being a teacher is a bit like a roller-coaster ride, there are constant ups and downs depending on the amount of praise we receive. Being a student is more difficult, going from lesson to lesson up to five hours a day, working, listening and contributing in different ways. Acknowledging what they have to say and what they produce will ensure they don’t feel like we’re shredding their work.

IKEA School: or getting students involved

If you open a jar of pre-made of pesto and add that to pasta, how far would you feel pride over your creation? Not much we could assume. How about if you blend together some fresh basil leaves, olive oil, garlic, pine nuts, a dash of chili-powder and then add that over a bowl of fresh pasta? The feeling is probably rather different. You might even insist on finding out what other people around the dinner table think of your culinary skills? The difference between the two scenarios is simple: you were not involved in the former whereas you were in the latter. On a similar note, if you’ve ever constructed furniture from IKEA perhaps you would agree that you felt rather chuffed with yourself both after completing the piece of furniture and a long time afterwards (maybe each time you look at it?). This is the ‘IKEA effect’, if you get something for free you may not enjoy it as much as if you had been involved in its creation. So in this respect, effort creates long-term satisfaction and motivation. The question is of course, how much effort do students have to consume before they take pride in their work if the IKEA effect is to be true?

Johannes taught a top-set Year 9 about why some events are more significant than others throughout history. Their final piece of work involved creating a memorial of a person or event they regarded as ‘significant’ that they had studied over the past year. As part of the work they have to consider the following criteria:

  • convince fellow classmates why your event should be labelled ‘significant’
  • construct your memorial (model, text or more abstract e.g. ‘a day’)
  • present your creation to the class

The outcome of this project was interesting. Although this class by nature was hard-working and dedicated students in general, something changed during the span of this extended task. As part of the activity they had to construct their memorial by first producing a draft which their teachers reviewed, complete the memorial, write a script as well as prepare some form of presentation. Those segments of the task were straight forward and students were used to working in that way. The change came when they were informed that there would be an exhibition where they would present their work to passing visitors and that these ‘visitors’ would grade their work based on agreed historical criteria of ‘significance’. The impact on meaning of their work and therefore on motivation showed a marked difference from that moment on. They had, in many respects, built a piece of work from scratch and after much research on the subject. Now, faced with yet another challenge they were to meet their peers who would evaluate this construction. The pressure was on.

The final exhibition was a real success. Students spent the best part of a lesson to prepare and then exhibited their work the following day. Each student had a small area where they would display their piece, many used computers as they had created movies, 3D Models, presentations and so on. Visitors started walking around the various displays filling in their evaluation sheets, asking questions or generally commenting on the work on display. When the first group of visitors had finished, the class swapped so exhibitors became visitors. All students had also been given a sweet which they would give the memorial they felt signified the most significant event/person. At the end of the task we got the class together and talked about their experience. They commented that they:

– were very nervous about being critiqued by their peers
– needed longer to create their piece of significance next time
– felt proud over their own but also classmates’ efforts
– enjoyed thinking about everything they’ve studied
– had been challenged to think

From a teacher’s perspective learning happened on different levels. In terms of skills students moved up Bloom’s Taxonomy and tackled the difficult skills of both evaluation and synthesis when they used their understanding of the whole of year 9 history, planned and constructed their ‘memorials’ as well as critiqued others’ work. Students really worked hard at trying to convince each other that their memorial was the most accomplished one. But perhaps most importantly, students wanted to do well and they were motivated by the opportunity to show off their work to classmates. Although the challenge of public speaking could have added negative stimulus in terms of social pressure but because they talked to individual ‘or pairs of visitors’ this never occurred.

When the class took an end of year survey several weeks later about their views on the subject as a whole the vast majority commented that the memorial task and others similar to it were the highlight of the year.

There are other ways where we can involve students more actively in their learning so that their effort creates long-term satisfaction and motivation – the IKEA effect – for example:

1. Students get involved in the production of resources

2. Involve the class in deciding on the layout of the VLE or Department website

3. Why not get students involved in teaching mini lessons? We wrote about getting students involved in teaching lessons in one of our books.

Using the power of Student Voice and consider how you can plan lessons with more active involvement from your class are important components in increasing motivation amongst students. We don’t have to go to the extent of shredding students’ work to demotivate them and decrease learning, ignoring to use purposeful praise and meaningful feedback will have the same effect.

[relatedPosts title=”Related Posts: ” num_to_display=”4″]

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Published by

Johannes Ahrenfelt

Johannes Ahrenfelt has previously worked as County Advisor for Learning & Teaching with ICT, Head of Department and University Lecturer. He has taught for 10+ years in schools around Norfolk, UK, and is currently leading an inspirational team in Norwich as Head of Faculty. Johannes shares his passion for pedagogy on his blog, social media and when delivering training in the UK and abroad. He has also published several books worldwide, one of which has been translated into Mandarin and Malayan.

8 thoughts on “Shred Their Work: or Reflections on Student Motivation”

  1. Brilliant blog post and I love the start of it. In times of pressure I have been guilty of not giving the appropriate feedback but will strive to keep up the momentum next term. :)

  2. Thank you for reading our blog and for kind comments about the post Nick.

    I’m sure you’re not alone in finding time to provide purposeful feedback when reports are due, exams are looming and parents eve’s are in full swing, not to mention after school meetings, clubs and let’s not forget that thing called full-time teaching ; ) . We all know that feedback helps. Simple as that. However, it’s about finding methods and strategies where we’re able to provide succinct and purposeful comments so that student move forward and without us having to spend hours doing it. I solved the problem for us by selecting key pieces (milestones) for each year group that we all delivered, AFL:d (or APP:d) and fed back as well as marked together. This was not especially time consuming and worked well, particularly for GCSE groups. How have you organised this as a Department or school?

    Johannes

  3. Love the post, especially the ‘IKEA’ effect and as a trainee teacher has already made me think as to involving them with their final product display.

    I did though try something out the other day with my class….though reading all the info on motivation that is abound I’m not sure if it was intrinsic or extrinsic….or maybe a bit of both….what do you think?

    The idea was that they all had to come up with a list of words (characteristics) to describe something they had seen on a trip. To motivate them I told them that I would (if good enough/applicable) select a word from each of them and write it on a ‘coat’ (an old lab coat) so that the words could be collected for all to see (possibly extrinsic?). In addition I told them the coat was for my other classes to ‘use’ to help give them ideas/as a source of creativity (intrinsic).

    Thanks again!

  4. Hi Gaz,

    Glad you found the post interesting and thank you for commenting : ) .

    Motivation is a fascinating topic, don’t you agree? Think about it, when do people work the best: when they’ve been offered stacks of cash (extrinsic) or when they do something worthwhile and something they can see the benefits from (intrinsic)? The answer is pretty straight-forward. This is why many writers on the subject argue that we must be careful about the sort of rewards we offer.

    Your example is very interesting, what was the outcome of the activity? The extrinsic motivation here is a good one as it will showcase pupils work to members of their peers – did that lead to better quality work? If their work was driven by enjoyment and/or genuine interest (intrinsic) then the final piece may be of even better standard. It seems to me, and I’m no expert, that informing them to show off their work to another class is also extrinsic as it’s a form of reward. On the other hand, if that part of the activity was explained to them after the task then their motivation may have influenced the quality of work in other parts of the lesson (intrinsic). What do you think?

    Have you come across Dan Pink’s book ‘Drive’ on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation http://goo.gl/1Ofa . Dan Ariely’s The Upside of Irrationality http://goo.gl/rfFF is also a great read although Ariely does cover lots of different topics, some of which may not be of interest.

    Best wishes,

    Johannes

  5. Thanks for the links/ideas…..and may have to give some more thought as to the extrinsic/intrinsic outcome! My line of thinking, and as you mention in your ‘intrinsic’ definition, was that it might have been “something they can see the benefit from” – though not immediate or possibly at all (?) with regards to the other classes and may be seen as altruistic? However, its good to get another viewpoint and I can see now how it may be seen as a reward also.

    The outcome was positive in that all participated and differentiated the student selection/order to provide their word to ensure all could contribute. As to the quality I am still to evaluate this by comparing to a similar earlier task though at first glance looks like an improvement for those who previously struggled.

    The feedback received via a questionnaire the next day indicated that all wanted to ensure that they came up with a word to appear on the coat though some were not bothered about the notion of helping out the other classes.

    Thanks again,

    G

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *