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Is Motivation a Major Factor in Test Scores?

It's the beginning of the year and the conversations about testing envelope us. They never end. It's not that they get recycled as much as it is about understanding why we still seem to be consumed with testing. This may seem like a common sense moment to write about student motivation and testing. After all, I'm sure you are not at all surprised that students who do not do well on tests may be unmotivated to take the tests in the first place.

But it has major implications for how we should move forward...

In the Hidden Lives of Learners, the late Graham Nuthall wrote,

"Assessment of achievement has become a big thing in education. Governments around the world take part in large-scale international achievement testing in order to evaluate their schools. National and state governments have introduced compulsory testing of student achievement, mandating the collection of test scores for evaluating districts, schools, and teachers. In many countries, especially the United States, state-wide testing has become a major factor in the lives of teachers and students."

The book was written in 2006. Nuthall spent more than 40 years in education as a teacher and researcher, including a visiting professorships at Stanford. He didn't experience the magnitude that standardized testing has come to in our present system, because he passed away shortly before the book was published.

Later on in the book Nuthall wrote, "I am now convinced that tests that have little or no personal significance for students and do not measure what the students know, or can do. Instead, tests reflect students' motivation and test-taking skills."

Why was he so focused on testing and student motivation? For one, he was a researcher and that's what researchers do. Secondly, he was a teacher, and he wanted to figure out how to get students motivated. When referring to a time when he did some work with the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, Nuthall monitored a test given to secondary students. He wrote,

"As I watched the students, and the afternoon got warmer and warmer, I became aware that very few of the students were actually focusing on the questions. Some were quietly reading the test, skipping from item to item, but not writing on the answer sheet."

Nuthall went on to write,

"There were those students who cared a great deal about trying to get all the answers right, and there were those students who couldn't care less, no matter how much the teacher tried to motivate them. And then there were those who knew exactly what to do to get the right answers, and those who had little idea and who often just stared at the test."

The last paragraph is not a surprise to teachers and principals. Many will tell you that the same thing happens when they give the state test to students. Perhaps it's fear because they know that teachers worry about losing their job if their students do not perform well on the test. 

  • Do we want students to be motivated to take tests?
  • What tests should they be motivated to take?

Is it a matter of self-efficacy?

In a doctoral dissertation titled Meta-Analysis of the Relationship Between Collective Teacher Efficacy and Student Achievement, Rachel Jean Eels cites Bandura's (1997) definition of self-efficacy which "refers to beliefs in one's capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to produce given attainments."

Eels goes on to write,

Self-efficacy was presented as a common cognitive mechanism activated in both cognitive-based and performance-based modes of treatment. This common mechanism could account for learning and change that can happen even in the absence of successful performance, and also explain how mastery of a task is the most powerful way to effect psychological change. Either form of treatment, Bandura said, changes a person's self-efficacy, and, assuming that a person has the skills needed and the right incentives, "efficacy expectations are a major determinant of people's choice of activities, how much effort they will expend, and of how long they will sustain effort in dealing with stressful situations" (Bandura, 1977, p. 194).

Eels cites Bandura once again by writing,

Efficacy expectations can vary according to magnitude, generality and strength, and, instead of being considered a global personality trait, self-efficacy is specific to ability and situation (Bandura, 1977, 1986, 1997). This means that a person will feel differing levels of efficacy for different situations, and those efficacy beliefs can vary depending on the context and the goal. 

  • Will we ever get every student to feel motivated to take a test?
  • Is it due to how we, not only talk about teachers, but how we talk about education in general?
  • Is it possible that all of the interventions that come after a student fails a test are misguided because we really have to figure out whether their lack of motivation was due to not caring at all about taking a test rather than not knowing the information?

Nuthall went on to write that students are more motivated when tests are teacher-made. Perhaps it's due to the way the teacher talks about it, or the fact that the test is more aligned with what the students have been learning, rather than a surprise that they could not fully prepare for.

Clearly, even teacher-made tests have issues, and they aren't always a good indication of their learning.  But, to the point that Nuthall makes, what is a good indication of learning? How do we know? It certainly cannot be one moment in time. Even our best athletes have bad games or races. Does that mean they aren't good athletes?

In the End

We are stuck with tests. There are teachers who are trying to throw out grades, and others who are trying to provide feedback rather than numbers. But the reality is that in most schools around the world, testing is something that all students have to deal with on a weekly, monthly and yearly basis.

How do we create the perfect situation where the information they learned is engaging, the testing environment is conducive to doing their best, and they are motivated to truly show us what they know? If testing continues to be the mammoth topic that it is, we also have to make sure that we are offering a holistic approach to learning where we can maximize the input/output of all of our students.

Does it begin with how we talk about education? Turn on most television programs, where we are hit with countless Back-To-School ads, and every time school comes up it seems as if school is a horrible place to go. Shouldn't we do something about those ads too?

It seems like we're just not there yet. 

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