Friday, 24 September 2010

Revolting Students and Unqualified Teachers

I notice that on the 27th and 28th of this month BBC2 will be airing a two-part documentary, presented by Dylan Wiliam (deputy director of the UK’s Institute of Education), about implementing formative assessment with a class in a Hertfordshire comprehensive. (Now available on iPlayer here). I’m very intrigued, especially by part two in which:

“There is a classroom revolt when the teachers remove grades from work. The idea is to make the students actually read the comments on their work in order to help them improve, but they are left confused and angry after becoming so used to the traditional grading system.”

It might be thought that this issue is unique to school kids, but not so. I have two colleagues studying, like me, for a post graduate HE teaching qualification. One is, what might be called in the nicest possible terms, “a bit of a swot”, and the other has been so inundated during the last year that very little time has been available for going the extra mile in studying. When they were both given marks for their first essay submission earlier this year it was immediately clear that the gap between them had suddenly become a gulf in terms of motivation. The change was most apparent in the over-worked colleague who immediately lost all interest in engaging in the course other than to aim for a bare pass. And this is from a dedicated, innovative and experienced teacher!

A few months ago I read an academic paper also by Dylan William entitled “The Half Second Delay: what follows?” (2006). In the paper William musters a variety of research to demonstrate that experts, in all fields - but most specifically in this case: teachers - employ a sophisticated range of unconscious scripts or “filters” which can only be acquired through experience rather than through instruction and teaching qualifications:

“The availability of these data requires a thorough grounding in experience, which it appears is extraordinarily difficult to acquire without prolonged immersion in the relevant settings. In the context of the research findings presented here the idea of intuition remains mysterious, but can be viewed as an exquisite and largely unconscious sensitivity to very small details.”

So, not only do grades demotivate intrinsically motivated students but they widen the achievement gap and tell us absolutely nothing about how “good” a teacher is.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Blowing the Whistle on Theory and Practice

It’s possible that I’m wrong, but I strongly suspect that we have a injustice (or perhaps it would be less inflammatory to describe it as an inconsistency) at work in the way that Art students are being assessed at universities in the UK. I realise that this is a significant claim with potentially serious ramifications so I offer this as an observation and discussion to be further examined, explained and hopefully resolved or proven to be unfounded.

All Fine Art degree courses employ an assessment process which evaluates each student’s final degree exhibition as well as their portfolio of coursework produced during their final year of study. In most cases the assessed material consists of a public exhibition as well as a portfolio submission of supporting work (sketchbooks, notebooks, drawings, supplementary images, maquettes etc). All such courses also assess an academic component in the form of an essay, dissertation, thesis, critical evaluation, or other form of written submission and this forms a fixed portion of the overall mark (usually between 12% and 25%).

Due to the specific nature of fine art courses, the differing staffing levels involved and the demands of assessing text in comparison with visual material, it has become established practice to assess this written component differently to the studio work. Inevitably these assessments have to utilise certain assessment methods which, in contrast to studio assessment, take comparatively little account of the preparatory work produced in order to arrive at the final submission. In other words, the assessment of this component doesn’t do what the practical “studio” component does: it doesn’t assess the process and the evidence of this process to the same degree. This privileging of ends over means; of outcome over endeavour is patently at odds with the approach to assessment involving studio work and sometimes leaves students with significant amounts of material unconsidered, unacknowledged and un-assessed. If we marked studio work in the same manner we’d simply assess the exhibition and nothing besides, and the marks that students received at the end of their course would often be significantly different: sometimes better, sometimes worse.

So what’s going on in this irregular approach to assessment and why is this important aspect of the student’s work not being sufficiently recognised? I would argue that this derives from longstanding differences of opinion - prejudices even - about what constitutes assessable material and in particular a privileging of academic practices over practical. In academic circles generally, essays are rarely, if ever, assessed in terms of the process that leads to them. Essays are seen as the culmination of the student’s endeavour and it is often believed that this is sufficient to provide a complete picture of the student’s achievement. In Fine Art, as I have described, we have a more process oriented approach to the assessment of studio work and it would be claimed that this is due to the practical nature of this discipline. But is this distinction between theory and practice really a fair and justified one?

Whether in practice or theory, the relationships between engagement, inspiration and outcome are remarkably similar. We all know that someone can work for years, pouring energy, research, thought and skill into their work only to arrive at a mediocre result, whilst someone else might produce something astonishing and truly insightful with only the barest application. Creativity, originality, innovation, insight and inspiration cannot be scripted, much as we might wish them to be. The landscape of discovery is notoriously treacherous with many complex and unfamiliar obstacles and few, if any, guarantees of success.

In academia, the formal organisation, structure and presentation of essays is carefully supported (usually) and administered in order to ensure that as much of the process is captured and incorporated into the final piece as possible. Bibliographies, references, footnotes etc are intended to give a comprehensive indication of the material gathered and assimilated in order to produce an essay, but do we really believe that this represents a foolproof method of demonstrating what has really been read and understood let alone conceptualised and applied? From all appearances it would certainly seem so. However, we could just as easily contend that a degree exhibition is the culmination of all that preceded it. However, few art school teachers would seriously assert this, because they’ve come to recognise the importance of examining the journey, not just the destination.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

The Fall from Grades

“What would it be like if one of today's art schools offered a single prize so lucrative and prominent that the winner would be virtually assured of making a living? The whole school, I think, would become obsessed with the prize, and suddenly the non-competitive atmosphere of post modern practice would evaporate.” -James Elkins

If you start typing the word “intrinsic” into Google you’re likely to see a drop-down list of suggestions appear. Second down the list will be “intrinsic motivation”. You can do exactly the same for the word “extrinsic” with the same result. These two forms of motivation have a huge role to play in education but almost everybody would hope that the principle motivator for anything students (or staff) do is intrinsic rather than extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is the desire to do something for its own sake whereas extrinsic motivation seeks approval - or the avoidance of disapproval - or other kinds of rewards (money, prizes accolades, praise etc) from external sources. It’s very well documented that intrinsically motivated people consistently perform better at creative and cognitively challenging tasks, are more persistent and generally enjoy what they do more than extrinsically motivated people.

Of course, it would be an oversimplification to say that people are either intrinsically or extrinsically motivated. Most individuals are intrinsically AND extrinsically motivated by different things to different degrees depending on a variety of factors. Nonetheless we all recognize that some things just motivate us whereas other things, you couldn’t even pay us to do.

There's a rather curious phenomenon which is closely related to these forms of motivation known as the “Overjustification Effect” where people who are intrinsically motivated lose interest in an activity if it becomes associated with rewards. Most particularly they lose the ability to sustain their motivation after rewards are removed. In other words, the introduction of rewards actually destroys peoples’ intrinsic motivation. It's speculated that rewards are closely associated with typical means of persuading people to do dreary work or carry out chores, and this begins to form negative perceptions around any related activity.

Surprise rewards, on the other hand, do have a vaguely positive influence on people's subsequent motivation but such rewards have to be both genuinely unexpected and justified. Rewarding someone for no clear reason or for something which they feel is undeserving can simply lead to confusion.

“These findings are consistent across a variety of subject populations, rewards, and tasks, with the most destructive effects occurring in activities that require creativity or higher-order thinking. That this effect is produced by the extrinsic motivators known as grades has been documented with students of different ages and from different cultures. Yet the findings are rarely cited by educators.” (Alfie Kohn 1994)

Teachers have to tread a very narrow line when it comes to motivation - between challenging and potentially demotivating students. They need to galvanise students’ motivation as a means of challenging them. Challenges are one of the primary means by which people learn and develop but without motivation on the part of students it's often impossible to present challenges meaningfully. One of a teacher's fundamental skills therefore is to accurately gauge the level at which a challenge can be pitched without dulling the pleasure of engagement. For this reason, encouragement is one of the most useful tools at their disposal, but it’s important that this encouragement isn’t some form of disguised praise or the offer of future reward but rather a genuine involvement in the student’s striving to improve what they do.

Generally speaking then, rewards are inadvisable (unless, of course, you want to manipulate someone, and don’t care about the longer term consequences). In ideal circumstances it’s preferable to create as many opportunities as possible for extrinsically motivated people to develop intrinsic motivation. Supporting autonomy, providing choice and alternative ways of achieving successful outcomes, making projects relevant, achievable and challenging and creating an environment which is enabling and supportive, all help people internalize their motivation. In other words anything that promotes, clarifies and makes something rewarding in itself, has the potential to transform an extrinsically motivated individual into an intrinsically motivated one.

Ultimately, it’s not important whether I, as a teacher, think that what a student has done is good or not. What’s important is whether they’ve achieved something which is valuable to their development and whether the goals they’re setting for themselves, and that are set for them, are relevant and challenging enough to maintain their interest and engagement. Everybody strives to improve what they do - we should be building on this desire, not stifling it. The aim of education should be to promote students' independence and self-efficacy as much as possible, not to cultivate self-doubt and dependence. Grades especially, are the last thing that we should be offering as a means of motivating students. Grades are little more than an addictive and pernicious drug peddled by schools and universities to maintain dependency and conformity to their antiquated systems of assessment. Grades are a drug students would do better without – literally.


I've also written on the problem of grading here.

ELKINS, J., 2001. Why Art Cannot be Taught. University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago.

DEAN, J., 2009. How Rewards Can Backfire and Reduce Motivation. [online]. Available from:

HATTIE, J. and TIMPERLEY, H., 2007. The Power of Feedback. [online]. Available from:

HITZ, R. and DRISCOLL, A., (undated). Praise in the Classroom. [online]. Available from:

KAPLAN, A. 2009. Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation. [online]. Available from:

KOHN, A. 1994. GRADING: The Issue Is Not How but Why. [online]. Available from:

KOHN, A., 1999. From Degrading to De-Grading. High School Magazine. [online] Available from: