Icebergs and achievement

Reading a PhD thesis today that discusses, amongst many other things, the effects of different kinds of motivation on achievement, I was struck once again by the great weaknesses of many of our traditional methods of measuring achievement. The study finds that intrinsic forms of motivation do not have a great effect on grades when compared with extrinsic forms: people who have high extrinsic motivation and/or the extrinsic end of intrinsic motivation can, as long as they also have a fair degree of intrinsic motivation, achieve the ‘same’ results as those who are more purely intrinsically motivated.

What interests me, and what we seldom measure, is what else those with higher levels of intrinsic motivation achieve. Those for whom learning is relevant, rewarding, connected and meaningful in itself would, I would hypothesise, achieve far greater long-term benefits from the process that are not usually measured in grades. The greater sense of competence that they experience would encourage them to continue confidently learning after the course of study is over. The relatedness that they feel with others would encourage them to continue to engage and extend their learning networks. And their sense of autonomy would give far greater ownership of the knowledge: they would be far more likely to build strong connections that reinforce and extend existing knowledge. None of these things are measured in most traditional institutional approaches to assessment, with their focus on content and subject-specific competences and goals.

I’m not suggesting that content and competences are unimportant – far from it. Such details are what give visible shape and form to the bigger picture, the paints that we use to create it. Without something to make it from, there would be no bigger picture. Also, I would like my doctor to know about medicine when she is treating me. But that’s just the starting point. While the ability to pass a few exams in a short space of time might be an indicator of minimal competence, I would infinitely prefer to be treated by someone who has enthusiastically continued to learn, who understands how to apply and build on her knowledge creatively and insightfully as a continuous process, who sees the connections between the many different subjects she has studied and who contributes actively in learning communities of other doctors.

The stuff we learn about is shifting and changing and, in many fields, not that important. I was once able to pass exams in writing COBOL. I could not do so now and there would be no point in me doing so as it has been close to irrelevant in any context that interests me for about 20 years. In fact, I do very little actual programming nowadays of any sort.  I suspect that my teachers mostly believed that they were teaching me to program in COBOL as that’s what they examined me on, but that’s by far the least important part of what I really learned. My continuing ability to think like a programmer and to engage in an ongoing dialogue with others in the profession remains a truly valuable skill. I understand the world in different ways, know why some of those computer things behave the way they do, can abstract concrete systems and concretise abstract systems, can dream bigger because I know what is possible and maybe can dream smaller in some ways because I also think, maybe erroneously, that I know what is impossible. I know the ways that the apparently autistic programmer mind works and can see the beauty and value in that as well as work round some of its limitations. I can express myself in dynamic systems. I can see the simplicity in some superficially complex things, and complexities in the superficially simple. I can reframe knowledge I already possessed in different ways, creating new knowledge, new perspectives. I can see possibilities that I could not see before and they continue to grow as I learn more. My boundaries changed and continue to change as a result of what I learned. Because I learned things that were never assessed in exams I am a more creative, more articulate, more informed person than I would have otherwise been, a better problem-solver and a deeper thinker. And that’s what I really learned, not how to program in COBOL.

A successful education is one that changes the way you think. It is no surprise that extrinsic motivation can (at least with a bit of intrinsic motivation to complement it) produce good ‘achievement’ because the measurement of that achievement concentrates on the visible tip of the iceberg, not the big and mostly hidden mass underneath.

There are some obvious and well-documented things we might (and sometimes do) do to redress this, including:

  • portfolios of evidence, especailly across courses and disciplines
  • reflective commentaries
  • flexible and broad learning outcomes/expected competencies (e.g. ‘should be able to constructively participate in discussions with professional peers at dinner parties and conferences’)
  • delayed submissions and statements of relevance long after the period of instruction
  • disaggregation of instruction and assessment (e.g. Athabasca University’s challenge exam process or PLAR/APEL processes)
  • freedom to negotiate the type and content of assessment
  • constructive alignment of assessment and learning activities
  • authentic assessment of real-world competences

And plenty more. It’s not that we can’t assess achievement more authentically and richly, as long as we have an awareness of the need, the flexibility and the will to do so.

There are some risks of course. It would be almost as bad if all that our assessments showed were the levels of motivation of our students, their ability to bluff, or their enthusiasm for a particular subject. Given our dual and often conflicting roles as judges as well as educators, we have to be able to assess competence, and that includes the stuff we already do look at as well as the rest of the iceberg. We also have to find ways of avoiding cheating in the system when we are the arbiters of quality in learning but, on the bright side, these sorts of approach render that much more difficult and unlikely: when we take a more holistic approach to assessing achievement then we cannot help but be strongly aware of the human at its centre, rather than the abstract chunk of disembodied skill or information they present us with.

The things that change us, really change us, are the rest of the icebergs below the waterline of formal education that matter most. A sea-change is needed in how we consider achievement, not just in isolated pockets of northern lakes ruled by pedagogues and eduphiles, but across the whole educational ocean.


I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor and Associate Dean, Learning & Assessment, at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology, and I teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems. I am a proud Canadian, though I was born in the UK. I am married, with two grown-up children, and three growing-up grandchildren. We all live in beautiful Vancouver.

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