Does the threat of retention motivate kids to work harder? Is the promotion policy indeed spurring students to higher academic achievement? Supporters of the board’s promotion policy say yes. To get a psychologist’s view, Catalyst contacted an expert in student motivation, Wendy Grolnick of Clark University in Worchester, Mass., which has a highly-regarded psychology department.

Grolnick stresses that she is not taking a stand for or against retaining students, since that is not her area of expertise.

Psychologists talk about two kinds of motivation, she explains. The first, extrinsic motivation, comes from desire for a reward or a fear of negative consequences.

The second, intrinsic motivation, comes from an engagement with the task itself. Students are intrinsically motivated, she says, when three basic needs are met:

They feel connected to other people—for example, when a teacher takes a personal interest in them.

They have a sense of autonomy, of being able to initiate action or make choices.

They feel competent. When schoolwork is too difficult, kids will devalue it, she says, “That’s just self-preservation.” Easy assignments aren’t the answer, either, she says. Rather, students feel most competent completing work that is “optimally challenging,” or just above their current ability, she explains. “We’re not motivated for things that are too hard or too easy.”

While both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation may produce short-term results, she says, research finds that intrinsically motivated students fair better in the long run. They report more engagement with school work and less anxiety, do better academically and are less likely to drop out.

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