Pupils to ‘defend their A’: How behavioural insights can help teachers motivate their class

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14 March 2014

With the fear of the cane or other punishments now rightly a thing of the past - how can teachers best motivate and encourage their students to do well? A new study from the RSA on motivation in the classroom has recommended some surprising yet simple low-cost measures that could be introduced by any school to boost young people’s expectations, resilience and enjoyment.

Published today by the RSA’s Social Brain Centre, Everyone Starts with an A suggested that teachers could tap in to the strength of ‘loss aversion’ by exploring the effectiveness of having everyone in their class start the year with an A grade, which in order to keep, they must continuously improve their performance.

The report said that our natural tendency to be more motivated to avoid losing something (in this case a top mark) than we are to acquire a similar gain means that restructuring how incentives are framed could improve test scores and effort levels in the classroom.

The report recommended techniques that teachers might use to question their own ‘cognitive biases’ or assumptions about the ability of certain pupils. The report suggested that teachers should do more to challenge stereotypes – through helping pupils adopt a ‘growth mind-set’ and praising their effort rather than their ability.

Published in Germany in partnership with the Vodafone Foundation, the wide-ranging report concluded that using such techniques would help reduce the gap in performance between pupils from rich and poor backgrounds. The RSA’s findings divided into three categories:

  • Mind-sets and attitude towards student’s mental abilities and intelligence: The report concluded that academic ability is not a fixed personal characteristic, but can be increased through practice and diligence. The report said that teachers should focus on developing a ‘growth mindset’ in order to break through stereotypes (held by both pupils themselves and teachers) and subsequent expectations about ability and performance. Researchers recommended that pupils are praised for effort instead of ability. The report also suggested giving a ‘not yet’ grade instead of a ‘fail’ and positioning wrong answers as an opportunity to learn more and enjoy the natural learning journey.
  • Cognitive biases: Whilst most of us like to think that we make rational, calculated, carefully weighted judgments and decisions, in reality, we are susceptible to biases in our thinking. Teacher’s first impressions of pupils in the first days or weeks of the academic year may have undue weight on their continuing evaluation of them throughout the year, and pupil’s may behave and perform in response to how they see themselves in the teacher’s eyes. The report recommended that educators engage in ‘perspective-taking’ (role-playing) exercises and discuss the relevance of such biases on a regular basis to promote learning reflexivity. They also suggested structuring incentives around ‘loss aversion’ with having an entire class defend an A grade.
  • Surroundings (environment influences): Subtle and no-so-subtle cues in our surroundings can affect pupils’ effort levels, aggression and test scores, the report said. The evidence in this area is significant and given the relative ease of the interventions they’re worth exploring. Changes to pupil’s environment could include priming students with exposure to words associated with intelligence, including priming with the letter ‘A’ on top of a quiz. The report concluded that views of nature of ‘green space’ can reduce mental fatigue and reduce aggression. Poorly maintained school buildings and classrooms (cues of poverty) were also found to have increased students impulsivity and short term thinking (over long term gain).


Commenting on the report, RSA Senior Researcher for the Social Brain Centre Nathalie Spencer, said:

“We hope that our recommendations start a discussion amongst teachers about how they might apply behavioural insights  in the classroom. From improving effort and enjoyment levels of underperforming pupils, to understanding educators’ assessment of pupils and the very nature of education reform itself, the application of behavioural insight to education practice may help the system to reduce the gap in attainment between rich and poor.”

RSA Associate Director of Education, Louise Bamfield said:

“We’re not saying that these measures represent a silver bullet or that they will magically fix all the problems teachers face on a day to day basis. What they do provide, however, is more than a ‘nice to have’ optional bag of tricks. The ideas in this report include simple, low cost interventions that when added together could have a significant impact on the relationship between teachers and learners. Behavioural insight alone is certainly not sufficient to cure educational disadvantage, but it may be a necessary component of a larger whole.”

Notes to editors

  1. For more information contact RSA Head of Media Luke Robinson on 020 7451 6893 or 07799 737 970 or luke.robinson@rsa.org.uk

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