Assessment, Motivation, and Learning for 21st Century Problems

Kohn (2011) begins his case against grades with a quote from a student. The quote pertains to a paper written, so I immediately wondered if this is applicable across disciplines and assignment types. Potentially a course of study with diverse assignments could be free of grades, but is that just electives or is it core requirements plus electives? Do the statistics professors feel the same about grades as the art history professors? Should they? Certainly there is also variation in student preferences, learning styles, and feedback needs. Claire may feel like the grade diminished her personal growth, but I don’t think that holds for all students.

Connecting Kohn (2011) to Pink (2009, 2010) and Lombardi (2008), one can see that assessments and motivation are tied together. This is less about the preferences of a student, and more about whether coursework and grading are preparing students for twenty-first century problems and a work world that requires interdisciplinary thinking and team work. Lombardi’s comparison of tradition and authentic assessments dovetails nicely with the ideas that Pink discusses. According to Lombardi, traditional assessments “[encourage] memorization”, for instance, and “targets simplistic skills” (2008). This can be likened to the MIT/Federal Reserve Bank study on motivation. Authentic assessments, by contrast, “[encourage] divergent thinking and “[prepare] students for ambiguities]” (Lombardi, 2008).

Applying the concepts raised in Lombardi’s (2008) paper with those raised in Pink’s TED talks (2009, 2010), the work world is also consumed by traditional assessments – or the analogy would be that workplaces focus on extrinsic motivators (substitute grades for monetary bonuses). Behavioral economists over the last decade would suggest that these bonuses are less useful for cognitive performance than the three legged stool of autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Going back to the questions raised in the first paragraph, it is conceivable that a self-directed course of study would be possible. This could be more akin to a ROWE model, or to a Google 20% model. Maybe it would vary by the discipline, but not necessarily. If students want to master the concepts from their coursework, can a more self-directed plan of study help with this? Is mastery even possible? I think of the inventors who toiled away for hundreds or thousands of hours to create or learn something to the point of having a command over it, which can’t be expected for students in a 16-week course. If however students plans of study reflected a four-year period, there might be ways to provide interim assessments while also looking more at the totality of work over time. Lastly, there is the concept of purpose. I recently came upon the story of a student who went into Business as an undergraduate because he needed to be able to support his family, even though his passion was social work. An external purpose could be as motivating as an internal purpose from becoming a nurse or civil engineer designing public infrastructure. Ultimately supporting students in finding meaning and purpose is essential to their continued success.

What Pink (2009, 2010) and Lombardi (2008) both touch on is the role of motivation and assessment in the right brain, problem-based nature of issues in the twenty-first century. Students can memorize theory and equations, but if a student can’t apply them outside of the classroom when a problem has multiple solutions, when solutions have different tradeoffs, and when multiple interests (landowners, governments, non-profit organizations, tribal entities, etc.) then the memorization mattered for at most sixteen weeks. Secondly, problems post college are often solved by interdisciplinary teams where listening, learning from one another, and negotiation skills are required. A more self-directed, multi-scale, and purpose-driven course of study seems more likely to teach these skills than would a more traditional program.

Lastly, taking a different view here for a moment, it seems that inherent in a method that deviates from grades is additional contact time with students for different types of assessments (input) and information sharing (output). If more time and resources – or different types of resources – are utilized in this framework, does that mean that less students will be admitted or that college will become even more unaffordable as the supply-demand calculus changes? It seems that we may be able to create a better, more informative, educational proposition, but I worry that we could do so at the expense of maintaining – and expanding – a diverse student body. Diversity, as McKinsey has argued, is also part work success (

6 thoughts on “Assessment, Motivation, and Learning for 21st Century Problems

  1. Thank you for your insightful writing. It is expected that students need more teachers as well as a good system to solve the Assessment, Motivation, and Learning problems you pointed out. Is it possible to promote an effective education system while maintaining the current school system?


    1. Seungbee, thank you for your comment. I wholeheartedly agree that more teachers are needed to better the system. And to your question about improving education while maintain what we have, I would say that those are almost mutually exclusive scenarios. Fundamentally improving the system will require significant change.


  2. Hi,

    Your remarks in the last paragraph has got me wondering. I have no doubt that in part more time and resources are needed to improve things. But on the other hand, I think reforming the assessment strategies could bring some efficiency that balances some of the costs. For example, not having to grade hundreds of papers all describing the same solutions to the same problems is a great morale boost ! I am hoping that that saved energy can be used in providing meaningful, helpful feedback to the students. There is also peer-assessment that opens up another mode of learning ( by critiquing other’s works ) and its cost is distributed so its not too much burdening. Anyway, Kudos to the keen eye on the practical implications.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Arash, thank you for your comment this week. I completely agree that there will be efficiencies from a changed system, which will balance some of the costs. Thinking about your point and the final paragraph of the blog, maybe one way to continue to support diverse student bodies is by putting that offset back into students that might otherwise not be able to afford the new paradigm or who need additional contact (Pink’s bottom performers).


  3. I really appreciate the way you’ve woven all of the readings into this reflection on the kinds of assessment that make the most sense for 21st-Century learners. And the questions you pose in the final paragraph, about where we’ll find the “extra time” to provide more interaction and formative feedback are key. I think part of the answer lies in rethinking what we value and how we measure quality. (I’m thinking about class sizes, the kind of technological infrastructure we’ve come to expect and rely on, and how we think about learning itself.)


  4. Amy, thank you for your feedback. You and Arash are in sync on finding and using the efficiencies gained from a renewed educational system. Your point about measuring quality, is critical. It’s not only students who we need to rethink quality measurement for, but professors and schools. If professors were rewarded for greater student improvement and deeper learning it would create space to try new things that would fundamentally benefit students. It also speaks to another blog this week (about how you get a job as a professor in the existing paradigm). Schools could also benefit from being able to communicate the quality, or value proposition, that their new approach to learning provides.


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