A Priming Experiment on the Effects of Letter Grades and Autonomy-support on Motivation


Here we used a survey-based priming experiment to explore the psychological effects of letter grades (ie. A, B, C to F) and autonomy-supportive teaching practices (eg. giving opportunities for choices, building trust between student and teacher). Much research in educational psychology has suggested that extrinsic motivators such as grades can “crowd-out” or thwart autonomous academic motivation and increase controlled academic motivation. In contrast, empirical research in Self-Determination Theory has suggested that autonomy-supportive teachers can enhance autonomous academic motivation and reduce controlled academic motivation. Thus we hypothesized that priming autonomy-support would reduce or buffer the adverse effect of grades on autonomous academic motivation. 392 participants at three universities were randomly sorted into three different study conditions (no-prime, grading prime, grading and autonomy-support prime). In the grading prime, students were asked questions about their grade point averages whereas in the autonomy-support prime students were asked items about autonomy-supportive teachers. Contrary to our predictions, priming students to think about grades had no effects on autonomous or controlled academic motivation. Furthermore, at one of the universities, priming students to think about autonomy-supportive teachers increased controlled academic motivation. The results of this study suggest that in at least one particular context, enhancing the salience of autonomy-supportive pedagogical techniques used by teachers can inadvertently create additional extrinsic social pressures on students. The results of this study point to the need to conduct more multi-institutional research on academic motivation to enhance understanding of the wide array of pedagogical factors that may affect academic motivation.

Author Information
Mai Yasue, Quest University Canada, Canada
I-Chant A. Chiang, Simon Fraser University, Canada
Kelsey Chamberlin, Independent Researcher, Canada

Paper Information
Conference: ACE2019
Stream: Higher education

This paper is part of the ACE2019 Conference Proceedings (View)
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Posted by James Alexander Gordon