08 July 2007

Like a Wheel Within a Wheel

I'm still working my way through a massive stack of research. It's my plan for the summer---getting my dissertation charted out. I know, it doesn't sound like as much fun as sitting on the beach somewhere drinking Mai Tais, but I can see the water from my windows while I sip iced tea. It's almost as good.

My doctoral study is starting to take more shape. In doing so, I'm seeing more and more how some of the larger theories can be honed down to one aspect for me to investigate. At this point, it looks like most of my work will be based on current motivational theory or "Achievement Goal Theory." The idea here is that students have one of two goal orientations: one toward mastery or one toward performance. Mastery goals are associated with more intrinsic forms of motivation. A kid with a mastery goal will value the learning happening in the classroom. A student with a performance goal will be more interested in comparing his/her grades or standing with others in the class. You might think of these as more normative goals vs. those which would be criterion-referenced (mastery). There are more positive outcomes associated with mastery goals, including developing a lifelong love of learning. (Please note that I'm greatly oversimplifying things here...it's likely going to take me 15 pages of writing to do the same thing for my dissertation.)

All of this Goal Theory is a small chunk of another---and grander idea, in my opinion---of "Powerful Learning Environments." This theory has emerged around constructivism, but is much more biologically based. (One could even go deeper here into "Cognitive Load Theory.") Here, we're looking at the qualities of classrooms which allow for the greatest amount of learning...everything from how many "chunks" of information are presented along with opportunities for rehearsal to how assignments and small groups are structured. Motivational goals for students are certainly part of this.

These things are leading to my main interest for investigation: the impact of standards-based grading practices on students. I have found several articles by this point which mention the need to specifically look at grading practices in order to inform each of the theories described above. Meanwhile, we in the schools tend to talk about changing communication tools in order to help parents and other teachers (a goal I definitely endorse), but we're not looking at the impact to our kids. I really think that grading is a place where motivation, achievement, classroom structure, and constructivism meet. So, this is where my doctoral study will sit. A circle in a spiral, indeed.

What all of this will look like in terms of my study is still a bit fuzzy in my mind at the moment. Initially, I had thought about looking at the grades 6 to 7 transition as students emerge from "mastery" oriented classrooms and move to "performance" ones. But now, I'm thinking that I might just focus on sixth grade students. This district is ripe for a stratified sample, as we will have elementary schools at years 0, 1, 2, and 3 in implementing standards-based grading/reporting. It's a perfect opportunity to look at motivation in adolescents in a somewhat "longitudinal" fashion.

So, it's back to the stack of folders for me. Time to dive back into the piles of research and build my case for doing a dissertation. Maybe the windmills of my mind will create perfect summer breeze to make me feel fine. :)


Hugh O'Donnell said...

I was so excited by your dissertation focus that I ran away and blogged without saying how cool I think your topic is.

Can't wait to learn more. :-)

The Science Goddess said...

I'm pretty excited, too! It will be good to share things along the way.