Accreditation or Learning

I work in a university. Universities are in the business of teaching students (at least part-time). As a part of that teaching process, the learning that students undertake is evaluated, assessed, graded, and accredited. The purpose of this process is to provide a system whereby funders (parents and government), students, and consumers (workplace) can quickly evaluate the level of success attained by the person attending university.

Although the original purpose of the grading and accreditation was to provide an easily understood metric indicating the amount of learning that the student managed in university. Two fundamental problems have emerged from this simplified view of how the world works, 1) what are we measuring, and how do we measure it (the topic of a future post), and 2) how the focus of the student has shifted from learning to the metric (the grade, GPA, or degree).

One of the underlying principles in motivational psychology is the fundamental difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation (from a learning perspective) is the internally generated motivation that drives us to engage in learning and studying something out of our own, real interest. It is my grandson’s interest in dinosaurs, or my son-in-law’s interest in cars. My nephew’s interest in sporting statistics, or my friend’s fascination (or possibly obsession) with train engine names. These are interests that I don’t really understand, but drive the individuals to read, study, and understand information about their interest. My nephew has never been tested on his sporting stats knowledge, but I think he would pass a test with flying colours.

Extrinsic motivation is the motivation to do something because of some external driver. In the learning domain, it is learning something for some other reason that wanting to know it. Learning for a reward, or learning for grades, a degree, or a good GPA. It is not learning for the sake of learning, but learning to satisfy some other motivation.

The bedrock principle is that intrinsic motivation leads to real engagement, where as, extrinsic motivation does not. Extrinsic motivation leads to a level of engagement that will satisfy the extrinsic goal – which for some students means to pass, or just get a degree.

Our learning system has ended up producing many students who have real, intrinsic motivation, but not an internalised interest in learning a subject or simply acquiring knowledge, but an intrinsic motivation for acquiring grades. The learning becomes a side-effect of getting grades. The level of engagement is determined by the acceptable level of grades for the individual. Gaining the accreditation is the real goal.

And do we feed this? I would say that we do.

I read with interest Audrey Watters disappointment in the teachers and vendors at the ISTE convention playing for the gimmick in education. Something shiny and new that will catch the students attention for a few minutes (extrinsic motivation) and possibly get them to engage in learning (not likely). In Jones’ MUSIC model of student engagement, the ‘I’ stands for interest. He presents extrinsic motivation as situational interest, and intrinsic motivation as personal interest, and warns educators to be careful in their use of gimmicks (situational interest) to try to engage students. It doesn’t work unless the interest becomes personal (intrinsic). We had a discussion in our University LEG (Learning Enhancement Group) about the ‘I’ in Jones’ model, and I found it interesting that there was a discussion about the judicious use of gimmicks in teaching. The discussants were almost evenly split between those with a psychology background (hence, a level of psychological literacy) and those with different backgrounds. Those not from psychology were adamant that Jones was wrong to suggest that gimmicks don’t lead to student engagement in learning, while all those with a psychological background who kept pointing to the evidence that clearly states that the motivation has to be personal (intrinsic) or engagement doesn’t happen.

It was reported last week that students didn’t respond well (learning wise) to text messages sent to them with positive messages about education (extrinsic motivation). If we want to move our students from a focus on accreditation to a focus on learning, we need to find out how people learn. We need to move from the scholarship of teaching (with gimmicks and tricks) to the application of scholarship of learning.


2 thoughts on “Accreditation or Learning

  1. Hi there, I’ve recently come across Ryan and Deci’s Self-Determination Theory (SDT) of motivation which seperates extrinsic motivation into four constructs that have varying levels of control depending on their level of internalisation:
    1. External regulation – rewards and punishments – external perceived locus of causality (PLOC)
    2. Introjected regulation – social approval, ego involvement – somewhat extrenal PLOC
    3. Identified regulation – valuing the importance of the task – somewhat internal PLOC
    4. Integrated regulation – alignment with one’s identity – internal PLOC
    While they are all examples of extrinsic motivation as they involve engaging in a task that leads to a seperable outcome, 1 and 2 are externally controlling whereas 3 and 4 are more internalised but are controlled by the individual.
    I believe that students who fall into categories 3 and 4, while still being extrinsically motovated would be much more engaged than those from categories 1 and 2. The challenge is to find ways that encourage the internalisation of motivation in order to raise engagement.


  2. That is a big part of what I was getting at in the blog. The gimmicks remain shallow and external, while what is internalised is not an interest in the subject matter, or in learning. What moves from an external reward system to an internal motivation is getting grades. The students become obsessed with grades, with learning as a necessary hurdle to get what they want.

    There are ways to get the students excited and internally motivated to learn, but the HE system, as it has developed, is heavily loaded against them. And so it is grades.


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