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What happens to student motivation if exams get cancelled?

What happens to student motivation if exams get cancelled?

Last week, the Welsh government announced that, amidst the Covid-19 crisis, they will be cancelling all GCSE and A Level exams due to take place in 2021. Instead, they will award grades based on classroom assessments. This follows the decision that Scotland made back in October, to replace their equivalent of GCSEs with coursework and teacher assessments.

Many of the public are wondering whether English education will follow suit. Usually, all students’ work through the GCSE and A Level years is geared towards exams, which provide a clear goal to focus on. So, what will keep students motivated in their absence?

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Are Exams actually Motivating?

Quite interestingly (and perhaps counter-intuitively), evidence suggests that exams aren’t quite the great motivator for students we hope they will be. One study demonstrated this by having students do a task which involved learning conversational Chinese. The researchers gave different groups of students different reasons why they should do this: some were told that they’d be tested on the material, and others that it would be useful for them later on in their career.

What did the researchers find? When students were told that learning Chinese would be useful for them, they put more effort into the task, and perceived that it was of higher personal value to them, compared to students who were told they would be tested. These findings suggest that what motivates students to learn isn’t needing to know information for a test or exam - it’s knowing that learning now will help them to reach their goals in the future and satisfy their sense of purpose.

However, there’s no doubt that some students might still feel a bit of a lost cause if and when their exams are cancelled. Suddenly, what they’ve been working on for months, if not years, will have gone away.

Some students will simply be relieved, thinking they won’t have to work as hard. Others may feel frustrated that their grade will be based on something which they might feel they have less control over. This can be de-motivating, likely to make some students feel helpless and less inclined to try.

Either way, how can we maintain student motivation without exams, and show them there is still a point in education and promoting their learning?


Maintaining Motivation If Exams Are Cancelled

Explain the rationale

Research suggests that students are more motivated for and interested in learning, when they have a rationale for that learning, that explains how it will help them in the future. In other words, a reason that appeals to their intrinsic motivation.

In typical circumstances, motivation to learn for exams isn’t because students actually want to do the exam (not for most students anyway). Instead, it comes from the impact students know this will have on their future. Remind students why their learning is still valuable to them, even in the absence of exams. To do this, schools can get students to think about their sense of purpose, and how studying now will help them to achieve their goals.

Schools could also provide rewards or recognition to students who are keeping up their learning. However, too much reward can damage intrinsic motivation, so this needs to be minimal recognition, that complements the focus on developing students’ learning and abilities.

Use clearly defined, regular goals

To help keep students on track with their learning, schools can encourage them to set goals that break down the process. This gives them a short-term aim to focus on, keeping them motivated and working towards something, even without exams as the end result. Our goal-setting worksheets can help, encouraging students to reflect on how they are getting on, and how their short term goals are helping them to reach larger achievements.

The power of wise feedback

Use wise feedback to keep students motivated during this time. This involves emphasising high standards and expectations for students, alongside the belief that they are capable of meeting these standards. Research suggests that giving students wise feedback leads to them producing higher quality work and getting better grades. Wise feedback demonstrates to students that, even without exams, they still have expectations to live up to, and this should keep them motivated.

Develop competence; confidence and motivation will follow

Teachers can help students improve how quickly they learn by getting students to engage in retrieval practice, which is any learning activity that forces you to generate an answer to a question. For example: multiple choice quizzes, past papers, answering spoken questions, testing yourself with flashcards… and many more.

Research suggests that retrieval practice is more effective than other revision techniques for students’ memory. Improving how quickly students learn in this way will boost their confidence in their abilities, and make them motivated to continue this quick learning. Furthermore, students actually report finding revision via retrieval practice more interesting. Of course, students can be motivated to learn even when revision isn’t as stimulating, if there is a good enough reason to learn. But if they can also find an interest in it, this will certainly help boost motivation levels.


Final Thoughts

Many students now face a year without exams. You might think they’d be jumping for joy, but some students will struggle to motivate themselves. All that hard work, and nothing to show for it - or so they think.

Schools and teachers can play a key role this year by showing students that this isn’t the case. The most important thing to do is to remind students why their learning matters, even without exams, and how it will impact the rest of their lives positively. It’s all about remembering the bigger picture.

For some tips to give to your students, you can read our blog on '10 ways to boost motivation’.

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