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Public Performance: Does it Motivate Students to Learn?

October 6, 2013

An interesting article appeared in the September issue of Phi Delta Kappan about the value of public performance in motivating students to pursue learning outside of school.  The article, Learn More Show What You Know,: Can the Prospect of Public Performance Motivate Student Learning  was written by David Bergin and colleagues from the University of Missouri.  They report on the results from a study conducted at a K-5, inner city urban school in Missouri about the “Above and Beyond” program, conceived to encourage students to go above and beyond the curriculum through engagement in self-guided, creative projects outside of school.  Project ideas were self-generated, implemented outside of school, and completed on a schedule the student created.  The unique piece of this program was that students were given space and time within the school day to perform or share their project with their peers and the school community. The school conceived of the above and beyond program to fulfill two important goals: (1) an avenue for expanding a student’s writing skills; and (2) an avenue for increasing student motivation so that they would take more ownership of their learning.  While participation in “Above and Beyond” was voluntary, by the program’s second year almost 70% of students participated in creating 783 projects.

In the design of the program, the school created a variety of ways in which students would receive feedback on their project work: (1) stickers in their passport for learning book; (2) one-on-one meetings with the principal to receive feedback; (3) photo display of their work around school; and (4) public performance of their project idea at school assemblies.  Since the public performance method of feedback took time, the school decided to pull back on its commitment to giving students time to perform their work during the third year of implementation.  As a result, the number of projects completed by students dropped from 783 to less than 50.  The point the authors make is that without the public performance component to the feedback, students’ motivation to design and implement a creative project idea dropped off considerably.  They make the case that research into motivation theory suggests that when people have the opportunity to share their ideas and work in a public arena, they are motivated to put their best foot forward.  The authors describe four specific aspects of public performance in the Above and Beyond program that contributed to positive student motivation.

  • students ability to choose to participate in Above and Beyond allows for autonomy
  • students ability to choose performance in an area that interests them.
  • students ability to choose the methods they use to share or perform their project work
  • students setting performance goals to prepare for sharing their work

Student opportunities for performance in traditional schools are generally limited to extra-curricular programs like sports, performing arts, and some club activities.  It is unusual for schools to think creatively about structuring time and space for students to share their achievement in the academic arena, especially in areas that tap into what interests students outside the standard curriculum.  The critical lessons learned in this Missouri school was that the public performance needed to be free from normal grading constraints, as well as competition which can be a barrier to students taking risks.

After reading this article, I come back to the value of project-based learning (PBL) as an instructional strategy that puts students at the center of the learning.  Designing a need to know or driving question that is relevant and of interest to students, giving them voice and choice in creating their project idea, and providing a public audience for students to share their work are hallmarks of well-designed PBL.  In addition, PBL can serve as an instructional strategy to integrate disciplines and assess students in authentic ways.  The PBL movement in schools is growing as we collect more information about its efficacy.  Look at the New Tech Network of 130+ schools and the research they provide for why this method works to engage students in their learning.  Also, look at the work being accomplished at High Tech High and Edvisions schools. There is compelling evidence that PBL puts students at the center of the learning and gives them the chance to perform in front of an authentic audience.

(See the Buck Institute for more information on research to support the use of PBL as an instructional strategy.)

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