GCSEs 2021: How do we keep students motivated?

The ongoing uncertainty around what exams will look like in 2021 gives teachers a chance to improve how they use intrinsic motivation in the classroom, argues Mark Enser
13th October 2020, 12:00pm

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GCSEs 2021: How do we keep students motivated?

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archive/gcses-2021-how-do-we-keep-students-motivated
How Teachers Can Use Motivation To Engage Pupils In Learning

"Why do we need to learn this?"

It seems unlikely that there is a single teacher who has not heard that question at some point over their career. Indeed, there can't be many who haven't heard it on a regular basis. Luckily, for secondary school teachers at least, we have an answer that seems to have been gifted to us on a silver platter.

"Because it is on the exam."

Boom! Game over. What more is there to say? If you want to do well in your exam and get the grade you need, you had better learn this thing. But, this year, with endless speculation over exams, this answer is sounding less and less convincing. 

Motivation for GCSEs and A levels 2021

Despite the announcement on Monday that exams would go ahead this year with a three-week delay, my pupils are still somewhat sceptical. They have seen the constant U-turns and last-minute changes of heart over the last few months. So can't they just hope for the best with a centre-assessed grade? Or maybe that mock they were coached for and supported through could be used? Or perhaps those calling for some kind of portfolio of evidence to be collected will have the ear of the minister and that pupil's pristine exercise book could be submitted as evidence of, if not learning, then at least neat presentation and compliance. 

No, "because it is on the exam" just won't wash this year. And that could be a problem. 

The trouble is, we rely a lot on extrinsic motivation in the classroom: "Learn this material and you will be rewarded with a grade 6; don't learn it and suffer the consequences."


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It is a rare pupil who genuinely craves the inherent worth of a grade 6 in a subject. It means very little to them. Whisper it quietly: it means very little to anyone beyond the ability to sort students into groups for the next step of education, employment or training. However, up until this year it did at least have the benefit of providing the motivation to learn. 

Without it, where do we turn? We need to turn to the only place we can when extrinsic motivation fails: to intrinsic motivation. This gives us an opportunity to look again at the subjects we teach and ask the question that really matters: why do we teach them? 

I don't teach geography so that X per cent of pupils can get a particular grade. I teach geography because of its power to transform the way that people see the world and the capabilities it gives them to live an informed life. That should always have been the answer to the question, "Why do we need to learn this?" But it was just too easy to fall back on the excuse of the demands of an exam specification. Don't blame me for this, blame them. Instead, let's celebrate the fact that our students get to learn these incredible things. 

This year, we need to be proud of our subjects and our curriculum and the worlds we are opening for students. We then need to communicate this pride to our students so that they, too, believe in the inherent worth of what they are learning. 

If we are going to move away from the extrinsic motivation of the fear of failure, we need to increase the intrinsic motivation that comes from success. We like doing things we are good at, so let's help students be good at what we want them to learn.

If we know students are going to struggle with something challenging, we shouldn't be surprised if they lack the motivation to continue. We need to support this struggle through scaffolding that allows them to succeed and to model the steps they need to take, breaking it down into manageable pieces. In the end, they can look back on what they have accomplished and we can celebrate it together, not with a grade but with a genuine enthusiasm for good work, done well. 

It really worries me when I hear of teachers saying they are still concerned that exams might not end up going ahead this year, as that will mean their classes will have no motivation to learn. Not because it points to a problem in their classroom but because it points to a problem in our education system.

It would seem that, without any consultation with the profession or wider society, we have made the purpose of education to be nothing more than a giant sorting hat. Perhaps something good can come of the inevitable confusion and chaos of the year ahead. Perhaps we can take back the purpose of education and with it provide a new motivation. 

Mark Enser is head of geography and research lead at Heathfield Community College. His latest book, Generative Learning in Action, is available now. He tweets @EnserMark

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