Mastery Learning as Intrinsic Motivation?


At the 2015 Educause Annual Meeting, the opening keynote speaker was Daniel Pink, who drew from several of his recent books, including Drive, which I blogged about here. Pink’s thesis is that success comes from three factors: mastery, autonomy & purpose. Pink summarized the research on how pay affects performance, observing that for tasks that have any cognitive dimension, once you reach a certain level of salary, pay for performance after that is counter productive. It actually lowers people’s productivity.

As I listened to Pink talk, I wondered if that could be applied to grades and learning.

There is a belief that grades motivate students in their courses: that the reward of a higher grade (or the fear of a lower grade) will bring forth more student effort. As an economist, the logic makes sense. But I wonder if there is any evidence about that, especially in light of the evidence that Pink cites. If we draw a parallel between Pink’s argument and education, perhaps that belief doesn’t hold up however much people believe it.


Consider mastery learning. Mastery learning is an approach where students study a topic until they learn enough to achieve mastery. Students work at their own pace, but they don’t move on to the next topic until they have learned the current one at a fairly high level of expertise. Additionally, the expectation is that students won’t necessarily achieve mastery on the first try. So failure is expected, but it’s not the end result, rather, it’s one step towards mastery. Kind of like real life, in my experience.

In a sense, mastery learning is a pass-fail system, but the passing level is higher than a typical C grade. Actually, mastery is a different, more subtle notion of learning than that assumed by a standard grading system. In my mind, mastery conveys an ability more than knowledge of some content. It’s the ability to use the content in an appropriate way. It’s the difference between hearing about something and actually practicing it—being able to do it. This is really what’s implicit in the seminar classes I teach, though sometimes it’s more successful than others.

What I tell my seminar students is: “This isn’t going to be a typical class. If you take this course seriously, if put in the effort to genuinely engage with the material and genuinely engage with the class, you will earn an acceptable grade.” But what’s an acceptable grade? The answer varies by student, but in my mind acceptable translates into a B or an A. For this to work, students have to trust that if they do their part, I will follow through. Some students find it very difficult to not know to the percent what their grade is at any point in time. I understand that, but that’s not what my seminars are about.

My thinking here is that a student’s preoccupation with grades actually gets in the way of the learning for all of reasons Pink’s discusses. Jesse Stommel made this point in a tweeted response to my previous post. In Pink’s language, mastery corresponds to that certain, acceptable level of compensation. Once that is (almost) guaranteed, once we have grades off the table, students can focus their attention on learning.

* Images courtesy of Denise Krebs & Celestine Turner via twitter

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Mastery Learning as Intrinsic Motivation?

  1. Laura Gibbs says:

    AGREE. Pink’s mantra of “mastery, autonomy, purpose” is one that resonates in all my work as an educator. Unfortunately, “getting grades” becomes the purpose of school as the students see it… which is a disaster. As teachers, we know we want students to learn (and, even more importantly, to learn how to learn), and we also know that grades are very poor measures of real learning (much less of long-term learning). But if literally the only thing we report about a student at the end of the semester is THE GRADE, of course the students think the grade is the purpose, and of course they also think an “A” means mastery.
    As for autonomy: there’s no room for it at all in a world of top-down grading.
    It’s very hard to get students to think beyond the grade, although I’m having at least some success with a “growth mindset” experiment I’ve been doing this semester, but even in that context, there are some students who want to measure their growth in terms of higher GPA. Argh! You can’t blame them: we are the ones who made them obsess about grades for 15+ years (I teach mostly college seniors). It’s not easy to undo the damage we have done.

  2. Steve says:

    Back in the 1990s as part of the “Calculus Reform” movement, one of the threads in that movement was to require passing five or six short “gateway quizzes” with 100% as the only acceptable passing grade, although students could re-take each quiz until they passed, the theory being that certain fundamental concepts had to be mastered in order to pass Calculus.

  3. Pingback: Mastery Learning & Personalized Digital Courseware | Pedablogy: Musings on the Art & Craft of Teaching

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *