Gove: Britain’s Testing Regime Drives Student Motivation

UK Secretary of Education Michael Gove defended his commitment to rigorous testing in British schools as stemming from the fact that good exam results provide motivation to students and encourage them to continue working hard at their studies. Speaking at the Independent Academies Association conference earlier this week, Gove said that testing satisfies the part of the human brain that is “hard-wired” to look for barriers to hurdle and challenges to overcome.

He quoted American researcher Daniel T Willingham when he said that succeeding in a task that requires application provides students with “a pleasurable rush,” thus priming them to aim further and strive harder.

Quoting from Mr Willingham’s book “Why Students Don’t Like School” Mr Gove says he agrees that students are motivated to learn if they enjoy “the pleasurable rush that comes from successful thought”.

Mr Gove is set to say this is what exam success provides: “There is no feeling of satisfaction as deep or sustained as knowing we have succeeded through hard work at a task which is the upper end, or just beyond, our normal or expected level of competence.

Exams also serve those who don’t do well by making it easier to lay out study plans. Underperforming on an exam allows students to focus on the areas in which they need the most work. Thus, by practicing more and working harder, they will be able to meet and exceed the scores put up by their peers.

This is also why, in order to provide this kind of motivation, the exams must be challenging. Gove said that easy tests will prove in the long run to be worse than no tests at all. An easy exam is, at best, a chore, and passing one provides students with no motivations; even good exam results won’t spur them to push themselves. Furthermore, easy exams won’t allow both students and teachers to identify the areas of struggle, and thus they can’t be used to help kids improve.

Mr Gove is also set to tell the London conference that “examinations are a key weapon of progressives everywhere”, claiming that external tests are fairer than teacher assessment: “I am, as it happens, a huge fan of teacher assessment, properly designed and administered but teacher assessment alone cannot bring the benefits proper external testing can secure.”

Mr Gove is also expected to argue that school league tables have helped to overcome prejudice against schools in disadvantaged areas.

After being appraised on Gove’s speech, the head of the National Union of Teachers Christine Blower dismissed his assertions, and said that the Minister is misguided in characterizing GCSEs as “easy.”