My View:  Can tests motivate students? It depends on the test - and the student
May 24th, 2012
06:16 AM ET

My View: Can tests motivate students? It depends on the test - and the student

By Alexandra Usher and Nancy Kober, Special to CNNCourtesy CEP/Nancy KoberCourtesy CEP/Alexandra Usher

Editor’s note: Alexandra Usher is a senior research assistant at the Center on Education Policy at The George Washington University's Graduate School of Education and Human Development. Nancy Kober is a consultant to the Center. They co-authored the report, “Student Motivation—An Overlooked Piece of School Reform."

(CNN) - We’re taking many steps as a nation to boost student achievement. We’re raising academic standards, revising curricula, revamping low-performing schools and improving teaching and school leadership.

These are all critical elements of school reform, but what often gets the most attention are the tests we’ve put in place to make judgments about schools, teachers, principals and students. These tests are intended to measure how well students are learning and teachers are teaching. They are also supposed to motivate students to study harder.

Student motivation is an important ingredient in school reform, and one that is often overlooked in policy debates. Even with strong accountability, a well-designed curriculum and good teaching, it is difficult to raise achievement for students who lack motivation. But are tests really good motivators?

To draw greater attention to the role of student motivation, the Center on Education Policy has released a series of papers summarizing findings from studies by psychologists, sociologists and other experts. One of these papers looks at research on tests as motivational tools for students - and the findings suggest we have too much faith that all tests will motivate all students.

The same student might be motivated to different degrees depending on the test, the stakes attached to test results, the subject matter and many other factors. The term “high-stakes” testing often brings to mind the standardized state tests used for accountability. But teacher-designed classroom tests may be more effective at motivating students than state tests if the classroom tests have a direct effect on students’ grades.

Even among standardized tests, the stakes and the level of motivation vary. State tests that are used to determine graduation status and grade promotion matter greatly to students and can be motivators for many students. State tests that don’t count toward graduation but are used for school and district accountability can be somewhat motivating for students because they have consequences for educators, who pass along this pressure to students. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is used to track nationwide trends in achievement, has virtually no consequences for individual students or teachers and is often considered a “low-stakes” test.

Psychologist Carol Dweck points out that if the goal of education is to produce creative and innovative learners, then the tests typically used for accountability may work against this goal by signaling to students that intelligence is fixed and unchangeable rather than something that can grow with effort.

Similarly, tests that emphasize reaching a specific performance benchmark can undermine motivation by invoking anxiety, frustration and fear of failure in students who feel that meeting the benchmark is beyond their abilities, according to research by Kennon Sheldon and Bruce Biddle.

Moreover, several studies have noted that some of the practices used to prepare students for high-stakes assessments - such as excessively drilling students or eliminating interesting topics and activities to make more time to teach tested material - can decrease students’ interest and motivation.

In other words, despite the best of intentions, some types of tests can stifle motivation for some students.

Yet many students are motivated to work harder by the consequences attached to high-stakes tests. When faced with a test to determine grade promotion, the majority of students in Chicago responded by paying more attention to class work and increasing their efforts, according to a study by Melissa Roderick and Mimi Engel. The concern, however, is what to do for students who respond to testing by becoming resentful and losing confidence.

In general, the studies we reviewed suggest that assessments that reward growth, effort, and strategizing have a stronger motivational effect than those that emphasize competition or reward a fixed level of performance.

More frequent assessments with goals that start easy and gradually increase in difficulty can build students’ academic competence and sense of control, as can opportunities for students to demonstrate their knowledge with performance tasks or low-stakes tests before taking an assessment that counts. Students also need to understand what steps they must take to succeed on a test and must have sufficient opportunity to prepare for it.

Finally, like any motivational tool, assessments have the strongest power to motivate when their goals are not too difficult or too easy and when they align with students’ own personal interests and goals.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Alexandra Usher and Nancy Kober.

Posted by
Filed under: Testing • Voices
soundoff (25 Responses)
  1. Anti Sarah

    If you could, step into a classroom on a state's standardized testing days and you would see a third who were already going to excell because they value education, a third who will try because they don't want to wind up like the third that draws pictures instead of writing an essay or choose all B answers just to get it done.

    June 5, 2012 at 7:20 am |
    • Luna Lovegood


      June 6, 2012 at 9:55 am |
  2. 2teachers4kids

    It continues to amaze me, the parallel universe, we as educators find our selves living in these days. Alice in Wonderland, Dr. Seuss, the myths of old, Harry Potter, and now, Percy Jackson and the Olympians. It is a great thing that brain research is now showing the value of reading fiction, maybe some of our political and business leaders should take note because their decisions, policies, and actions seem to be clearly reflected in the literature of today. I hope you enjoy the latest installment (of the new reality soap opera Our Lives playing in schools across the nation) from Rick Riordan’s Book Four of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, The Battle of the Labyrinth, pp. 180-186. It seemed fitting after the last post! visit us for this installment and other discussions of current trends:

    June 3, 2012 at 7:15 am |
  3. Lucille Kyle

    I think tests can sometimes stimualte students to be in a better position, but most times it rathers irritates students more. Especially, if you have ever visited Korea and seen the kids there, you could probably conclude that studying might not be all for the best.
    I mean, I live there, so I know how we study to get good grades, but seriously studetns study more than 16 hours everyday, and if you're 19, you practically have no time to eat or sleep, cuz you need to prepare for the college entering exam. ;(
    So, to conclude, just enough tests could motivate students, but it gets serious when things get overboard.

    May 28, 2012 at 7:03 pm |
  4. mark

    In Georgia, the End of course Test is worth20% of the students final grade. Many know that they can fail the test, but still pass the course. The student's refer to this as Christmas Treeing the test. Some do not show up for the test, therefore fail, but if they scored high enough on their course work, they can still pass the class. Whose fault is that? Blame the teachers!!! what about the parents motivating them? Mr Rommey informed me in an interview, that it was the teachers fault the parents are divorced.

    Georgia is running into a problem of motivating people to become teachers and keep the ones who are in the system, good or bad. Until this country views teachers with respect and not a whipping post, the system will continue to fail. Race to Retirement or Race to a New Career is replacing Race to the Top.

    May 28, 2012 at 11:42 am |
  5. designtheworldaroundyou

    extrinsic motivation is successful for tasks with low cognitive demand, but if we want kids to be critically thinking and other high cognitive demand tasks, such extrinsic sticks and carrots will only shut down their performance overall. Check out the talk by Daniel Pink, who makes the case eloquently:

    May 25, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
  6. Leila

    " teacher-designed classroom tests may be more effective at motivating students than state tests if the classroom tests have a direct effect on students’ grades."

    This article is right on target! The states really need to pull back the pendulum and allow it to fall right in the middle. I have been teaching for 21 years and I have seen education swing from one extreme to the other when it comes to "how best to teach". I began my career when the emphasis was on "whole language" learning. What a debacle. Now we are drilling our kids to death and teacher's have to stop what they are doing to administer mandated district benchmarks. My district treats these tests as the Holy Grail! The fact is the tests are written by local teachers who, although are very professional and highly educated, are incapable of creating a test that is credible or valid. My colleagues and I find NUMEROUS mistakes in logic, sequence, spelling, typos, etc. on the benchmarks. How am I supposed to motivate my students to take a test that is clearly flawed?? Even my students point out the errors. Benchmark for success??? No.

    May 25, 2012 at 10:27 am |
    • Leila

      OOPS!!! I made my OWN typo!! Now isn't that calling the kettle black? I meant to say its teachers, NOT it's teachers!!!! Close one!!!

      May 25, 2012 at 10:29 am |
  7. m.s. russo

    There are millions of words about motivating people...too bad the research doesn't focus on how people choose to motivate themselves. Motivation is a response to the environment and personal priorities existing in each person's personal "universe". Psychology and Education tend to fragment and atomize the questions because research methodology demands a control and a single variable change or it's a statistical analysis of what people say (which is in response to a one-time environment and its proprieties). The produced 'analytics' (analyses) can only address the population that they record and may change significantly under differing contexts (situations and challenges) . Fact is, motivation is the result of the process of goal setting and the joy of reaching that goal. US education is about preparing workers to grow an economy, not personal satisfaction. Note the word worker and NOT player. When learning is personally enjoyable, it's the best play ever – however there is a set curriculum for indoctrination and preparation of our youth. It's the Economy, Dear, that matters, not the individual. What have you earned as returns for the top 1% today?

    May 25, 2012 at 8:42 am |
  8. The_Mick

    "We’re taking many steps as a nation to boost student achievement." BULL! We're taking many steps to dumb-down academic and vocational achievement. Instead of people outside of the system, USA Today should, in February, randomly pick 100 teachers who are going to retire that year (others will be too worried about repercussions if they complain) and get them to say what they know to be true.

    It was decided, for example, that special ed. students need to be able to pass algebra and "elements of geometry." But there's been less and less money provided for education. Consequently the STANDARDS for passing the courses and most other key course have been lowered. This is backed up by a student done by USA Today.

    For example, when I co-wrote the physics semester exams for my county's 12 high schools, we were pressured to take calculations out the exams. We successfully resisted because the board made the mistake of assignment competent teachers who wouldn't tolerate seeing the county's kids being cheated of a real college prep. course. But the board's rep said, "That's ok, you guys are all within several years of retirement." Meaning, of course, that eventually teachers without the credentials to resist pressure will do the rewrites.
    Here's an example of what they wanted changed: Where we have students calculating the focal length (f) of a lens based on the distance of an object (do) from it and the distance at which the image (di) of that object focused. The formula is 1/f = 1/do + 1/di. Plus there are related calculations to determine the magnification involved. The board wanted all that replaced with: "A convex lens tends to magnify. A concave lens tends to reduce." – selected from a multiple choice question.

    That is VERY representative of the direction American education has taken in the 2000's. I retired in 2006 and am still in touch with active teachers laboring under the curse of No Child Left Behind. For me and vast majority of teacher who've seen what it's done to our kids, it makes our blood boil to see people who aren't actually teaching kids claim "We’re taking many steps as a nation to boost student achievement." Fire them and get REAL educators on the job.

    May 25, 2012 at 7:50 am |
    • The_Mick

      Oh, sorry, I forgot to mention vo-tech. I was paid by my county's school system during the summer to spend time with businesses to evaluate how well we were preparing students for the workplace. I spent time with a sundeck construction company, United Airlines at BWI Airport, a large automotive repair shop, restaurants, printing companies, etc. There are skills required in construction and automotive repair that pay, with overtime, up to $100,000 per year for guys within a few years of graduating from highschool. But our schools are no longer allowed to let enough kids get through the vo-tech programs to fulfill the need. The " boost student achievement" the ladies in the article talk about are in the realm of "if two parallel lines are crossed by a transversal, alternate interior angles are equal," not about what kind of primer is needed on a car body or how to get the right consistency in mortar for laying bricks. That no longer counts and high schools who teach it are liable to be labeled "at risk" and endure tens of thousands in costs to determine where they "went wrong."

      But not everyone is meant for college, yet No Child wants kids who aren't doing well in college prep courses to take EXTRA courses to catch up in them. That means kids have limited time they can spend at the ever-shrinking vo-tech centers. The automotive repair companies I dealt with in the summer were begging the school system to increase the number of qualified mechanics being produced: they could not find them. But the school systems can't risk being placed "at risk," so the kid who's not great in math and english ends up taking two courses in each one and little of nothing in automotive repair, masonry, carpentry, hair styling, etc. that he or she is good at.

      May 25, 2012 at 8:03 am |
    • The_Mick

      P.S. I should have said in my first post "CNN should..." instead of "USA Today should..." I was thinking USA Today because it's the one media company that's printed a number of complaining articles like, which includes: ""They lower the bar [educational standard] and design tests that are highly sensitive to slight gains for low-achieving students,"

      May 25, 2012 at 8:11 am |
  9. Ryan

    Why is it in any article about education, the "experts" have no in classroom experience? Don't you think to be an expert in the field of education you should have at least taught a classroom full of kids at once in your life? If the experts cited in this article have that experience, it should be noted (ex. taught 25 years of English in public schools) something like that. Too often I see people claiming they know everything about teaching and kids when they have never even been in the classroom.

    May 25, 2012 at 6:17 am |
    • kara

      well said.

      May 25, 2012 at 7:43 am |
    • chefdugan

      Testing the kids is locking the barn door after the horse has fled. It's the teachers who should be tested, not the students. Colleges of educatioin have allowed semi-literate people to graduate for decades. You want to cure the problem hire only graduates with degrees in their educational field not education degrees. As a former college president I have witnessed the atrocious products coming out of our public schools. If you belong to a union you are NOT a professional!

      May 25, 2012 at 9:00 am |
  10. 2teachers4kids

    There is so much to say about this topic. Please visit us at
    It is a place for educators to enter the discussion about educational reform. It's time we engaged teachers, parents, and administrators and quieted the politicians and CEOs (that are making huge profits on this investment).

    May 24, 2012 at 10:30 pm |
  11. cc

    Standardized testing motivates the teachers-it's basically meaningless to most students. You're right on target about the students needing to be motivated but there's no set way to do that. One thing that usually does work though is having a motivated teacher. The teacher (who actually interacts with the students) can find ways to motivate them, if they're allowed (and motivated) to do so. So standardized testing motivates the teachers-what motivates the administrators to allow the teachers to actually find ways to motivate the students? Just 'teaching' won't do that. For most students it takes involvement-sometimes role playing, sometimes hands-on activities, sometimes open discussion. One thing that generally does work is teachers taking the students seriously-I had one that shot down every single opinion I uttered. Needless to say it didn't take very long to 'uninvolve' me in that class.

    May 24, 2012 at 7:54 pm |
  12. Concerned Mom

    I have two children who have learning problems. One has an Auditory Processing Disorder. My child works extremely hard for good grades. It takes twice as long to read something and comprehend as other students. Any noise in the classroom disrupts my child being about to process what's being taught. My child works very hard and doesn't test well on standardize tests. The teachers' put so much stress on them to do well and use practice tests as grades. By the time the testing period is here, my child is extremely stressed and worries constantly about the score that will be received. If score is too low, the child might be put in a lab for reading instead of an elective of choice. In certain grades, the test has to be passed with a certain score or will have to repeat that grade no matter what GPA is. This is wrong especially with a child that doesn't miss school and works very hard to maintain good grades. Too much stress is placed on these kids to excel on standardize tests. I have had teachers say that they have to teach in a way they don't like in order to have the kids learn the information on the standardize tests. Children should be taught to learn relevant material – not taught to pass a standardized test.

    May 24, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
  13. Fed Up

    Testing students is now big business. Schools are rewarded state and federal funding based solely on scores and improvement achievements, and they will do most anything to get their money (well, taxpayer money.) Testing is used for college entrance, and that has become a complete joke, since the "minority factor" (yes, it's actually called this) will allow students who do poorly to claim that they were unfairly subjected to difficult questions and that their "culture" does not allow them to have the same knowledge base. In other words, we know that minority kids are far less intelligent, but we have to be politically correct. This dumbing-down allows for these scores to be "averaged out" and the schools can take the better scores in order to get their funding. Test companies are seeing a huge boom so everyone is happy – except for the taxpayer that gets the shaft as usual. My money is being spent to graduate (that is, if they do) students who can barely construct a sentence in correct grammar or complete a fifth grade math problem.

    May 24, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
  14. David Hume Enthusiast

    This is hilarious and sad. As if a study needed to be done to show that students care about tests which have consequences for them and don't care about tests which have no consequences. Everyone knows this a priori.

    May 24, 2012 at 10:59 am |
    • jim

      That's the best kind of study.....all funding and no work!

      May 24, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
    • sqeptiq

      Also, the consequences have to be relatively close to the student instead of some far off place. An example: Kids playing a sport with grade consequence for participation do quite well during the season but not so well when the season ends.

      May 24, 2012 at 9:27 pm |
  15. Justin W. Marquis

    The problem with tests is that there are other, better options for determining student progress and achievement. There is no other type of "research" that relies on a single measure to determine the effectiveness of an intervention. Tests might be one viable leg of an approach to triangulating student success (though I doubt that) but it cannot be the only method. When you add to this the ways that test are actually used, this problem becomes even more evident. Using high-stakes testing to then extrapolate to teacher, administrator and school effectiveness is simply absurd. Finally, testing stresses students, causes learned helplessness, constricts the curriculum, and curtails innovative thinking by teachers and subsequently, their students. Let's imagine a future that is free of testing and the political baggage that it carries, as I have done in this article – – @drjwmarquis

    May 24, 2012 at 10:45 am |
  16. Janet Abercrombie

    When discussing tests, it is necessary to differentiate between norm-referenced tests and criterion-referenced tests. Norm-referenced tests put students on a bell curve, normin them against others in their age and population group. More or less, half will be below the 50th percentile and half will be above. What's the motivation for a low student who knows he/she will always be low in comparison to peers.

    Criterion-reference tests assess students against specific academic standards that should be part of the curriculum. Criterion-reference tests could, theoretically, have a motivation factor – but the standardized criterion-referenced tests have such a lag between effort and reward that any motivation would be negligible.

    Students are motivated by assessments (which may be different from tests), where they use knowledge and skills in tasks that have perceived value. The reward must either be intrinsic, or have great extrinsic value. Good luck with that :).

    Janet |

    May 24, 2012 at 6:55 am |