Testing/Grading vs Motivation: A Variation on Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle for Academics

Testing/Grading vs Motivation: A Variation on Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle for Academics

Whenever there is a discussion of the performance of students, lack of motivation of students is the most frequent complaint of nearly all the teachers, whether in higher education institutions or in schools, whether today or 20 years ago. Performance of students and hence teachers therefore became my first priority when I started in academic administration nearly two decades ago.

Phase-1: Unstructured Interactions responsible for lack of quality

Coming from an IT background, my first decade in academic
administration (at IBA and at KIET) was spent in the design and development of processes and their
computerization that would provide academic
administrators with a foolproof system for monitoring, evaluation and management of academics. I initially looked at the problem of the motivation of students and faculty from the MIS point of view, which states that to solve an unstructured problem you need to first convert it into a structured problem by formally defining it as a process with well defined steps having formal inputs and outputs. Once the problem has been so structured it becomes amenable to computerization and hence management through information system based monitoring and decision making. My objective at that time was to convert the unstructured process of student-teacher interaction into a structured process that meticulously follows the lesson plans for each class session down to the topics level followed by repeated assessments/testing and entry of the grades.

Phase-2: Structure Interactions through MIS 

I invested thousands
of hours in working with a dedicated team of programmers to perfect a system
over a decade ago that allowed administration to monitor and evaluate the performance of the students and the teachers. I used to believe at that time that a teacher’s task was to teach and assess (test) the learning of the student. Quality of teaching would be reflected through a detailed specification of their lesson plans for each class session and a rigorous process of continuous assessment/testing of the performance of a student through out the semester and prompt grading, which in turn would help us track the performance of the teacher. For this, we built a system that could help record the grades of each assignment, of each quiz, of each hourly and of final exam in each class of every course offered in each semester of every program. The system allowed the teachers to record these grades and allowed the administrators to monitor the promptness and distribution of the grades according to the Bell Curve. Little did I know then that the use Bell Curve typically creates more problems than it solves.

Phase-3: Increase Rigor through Perpetual MIS Monitoring of Assessments

I used to proudly tell the newly admitted students (and their parents) during the orientation program held for every new
intake about the roller coaster ride that they should expect as students of my institute. By roller coaster ride, I meant that they would be subjected to a relentless series of assessments/tests through which every day and week of their stay at the institute would be monitored and graded. I had mandated
that each faculty member in each of his course should take at least one quiz or assignment or test every
week of the semester and promptly enter the grades in the system. Their target was set to 5 quizzes, 5 assignments, 3
hourly tests, 1 final exam, and at least 2-3 three project presentations in every taught course/semester which comes to about one such assessment/test every week (given 16-18 weeks/semester). Marks for all of these assessments/tests were to be promptly entered in the online MIS system and these grades were to be monitored by the program directors, and exceptions were to be justified in writing. If a student was enrolled
in five courses, I would thunderously declare in such orientation sessions, then the student
should expect on the average one assessment/test every working day of the semester! (i.e. 16 tests/course x 5 courses/semester divided by 16 weeks/semester x 5 days/week). I would then explain the concept of the CGPA as the collection of the marks in each such assessment/test for a course in a letter grade that gave grade points. Accumulation of grade points for all the courses done by the student using the specified formula gives CGPA which therefore accumulates into a single number that represents a running figure of every day spent in the institute! I had not come across then the literature related to the adverse side effects of
excessive testing and grading.

Phase-4: Increased Monitoring 
The more I increased the pressure for the adherence to the system, the more the results appeared to be disappointing. Around 2006, I started becoming aware that there was something amiss. On one hand this excessive testing meant constriction of the space available to the teacher for employing innovative techniques, and on the other hand it decreased the assimilation of knowledge of students. Excessive testing took away the precious time required by the students for the absorption and settling down of the newly received concepts and to make mental hyperlinks to concepts already stored in the mind. Furthermore, it convinced the students that scoring the grade was the only objective of their education for which it is often more important to exactly reproduce the material that is likely to come in exam, rather than to explore all the possible interactions and consequences of the new concepts. The passing of exam then becomes more an exercises in short-term memory retention than the building of conceptual frameworks for long term use. Hence, students refine and develop their short-term memorizing skills to an extent that they are able to cram the necessary information to pass just before the exam, and then they would clean the memory the moment the course was passed, as if there existed a memory refresh button in the mind that can clear the memory by pressing it, as we used to do with the calculators. If you want to verify this, just ask students a simple question related to a course passed by them a year or two ago and you would find that many of them would be sitting there haplessly, unable to recall the answer that they must have known and written to pass that course!

Excessive emphasis on grading results in making pursuit of knowledge secondary, while working for grades gains primacy. One day when I was in my full drive during a lecture and I was thinking that today I had delivered one of my finest motivational lecture and a riveting performance and was expecting a thunderous applause from the students as I finished the lecture at the point of climax. However, to my utter disappointment I saw a student raising his hand and asking whether this lecture would come in exam! That was the day (somewhere around 2006) when it struck me that there was something seriously wrong in the approach that I was pursuing.

I often used to have discussions and debates with teachers coming from the other institutions who would point out that they had only one mid term and a final and found the students there to be more motivated and committed with the habit of working late at night on projects. I initially thought that this discussion is a protest against the extra work being imposed on them for conducting the assessments/tests and then entering the grades every week, which translates into a lot of work that they wanted to avoid. But, gradually it started to dawn on me that the more we increased the pressure on students for grades and on teachers for weekly assessments/tests (of one kind or other) the more the motivation of students started to decrease. It appears that primacy of grading had eliminated the reading culture. Students have stopped reading even the text books in most of the courses, not to talk about supplementary texts, and had resorted to only going through the power point slides used by the teachers or the lecture notes. Many students often do not even buy the books; they may only borrow them temporarily before the exams, if they felt a need for them, which was seldom. Their primary effort concentrated on acquiring the lecture slides from the teacher or getting the lecture notes from some of the more meticulous students. Actually, I learned that there is specific name for students who are prolific notes takers  in some institutions such as the UET Lahore, where they are known as Thetas. These Thetas would take down notes which would then become available at the photocopier for a fee. Students typically just prepare from these class notes and are prone to put a lot of pressure on teachers if they questions are set in the paper from outside the discussion that happened in the class.

I had launched a major project for automating the acquisition of knowledge through a learning management system that relied on an acyclic directed graph representation of knowledge, often called a  a hierarchical taxonomy. The system would enable a student to move up the hierarchy automatically as he continues to master the lower levels using questions designed using Bloom’s taxonomy. And, then on one fateful day I came across “Insult to Intelligence”, a phenomenal book by Frank Smith that changed my paradigm. It produced a complete transformation of my conceptual framework of academics within its first fifty pages. The challenge was so revolutionary and pertinent that it suddenly connected all the dots together that were troubling me for several years. I terminated all my on-going projects and revised whatever I had been doing. I sent an early morning sms to all in my contact list mentioning that: “Today I read a book that decimated my long held beliefs about the curriculum and how it needs to be taught within its first few pages. The foundation of the structure that I had built painstakingly over my entire career has come crashing down.” I also shut down a project that I had been running for several years in which several final year students worked on their final projects year after year to incrementally build the system. I completely revised my belief in Bloom’s taxonomy and focused my energies on diligently trying to implement what Randy Pausch presented in his historic Last Lecture.

Given such observations and the tremendous shortcomings that I had noticed in my previous approach, I turned all my theories upside down around 2007-08 as explained in detail in an another post Why Project Based Learning: An Experiential Learning Case Study. The difficulty that I faced in trying to reverse the momentum of the systems that I had myself implemented and which had become ingrained in the normal running of the academics of the institute is another story. The system that I had designed was so formally entrenched that it took me several years to shift its focus to this new direction. This change management would be described in a separate post.

Uncertainity of knowing your position
and motivation at the same time

By then I had become convinced about the need in Academics for a variant of  Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle governs the inability to measure precisely the position and momentum of an electron simultaneously, and states that the more precisely we try to measure the position, the momentum would become indeterminate, and the more precisely we try to measure the momentum, the position would become indeterminate. We can get one but not both defined precisely together, even in theory.

My variation on the Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle for Academics states that it is not possible to determine accurately the assessment level of a student and simultaneously increase his motivation. The more accurately we try to determine his assessment level, the lesser will be his motivation. The more we try to motivate the student towards his goal, the lesser would be the accuracy of assessment level. [I would like to be a bit pretentious in calling this Hyder’s Uncertainty Principle for Academics]: 

α   x     µ   =  ɧ

This says that product of α and µ is constant (ɧ), where α is external assessment and µ is intrinsic motivation and ɧ is some constant. It states that “external” assessment/testing works against the “intrinsic” motivation and the two could not be increased simultaneously. The more we would increase one, the other would decrease so that the product of the two to remain constant. 

Use of external awards are as much a de-motivator as humiliation, failing, and physical punishments as highlighted so wonderfully well by Alfie Kohn in his book “Punished by Rewards“, and must be read to understand the real significance of “intrinsic” nature of motivation that fights against the “extrinsic” tools of assessments, such as tests, rewards (stars, grades, recognition), and punishments (failing, humiliation, labeling). 

See Also:


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