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Learning Discourses and the Discourses of Learning

CHAPTER 12

LEARNER MOTIVATION AND ENGAGEMENT IN A PEDAGOGIC AND ASSESSMENT TASK

INSIGHTS FROM ACTIVITY THEORY

This paper examines engagement in an extended pedagogic task, which also functioned as an assessment task, from the perspective of the motives and goals of participants. The focus of the paper is on the relationship between motive and activity, using a framework derived from activity theory. The analysis demonstrates the usefulness of activity theory for extending our understanding in areas of SLA relating to motivation, and to task engagement, particularly in relation to complex pedagogic and assessment tasks.

RESEARCH ON LEARNERS, TASKS AND ACTIVITIES

Tasks have been a major focus for SLA research, language course design and assessment (e.g. Crookes and Gass 1993; Bygate et al. 2001; Candlin and Murphy 1987). They have been seen as a major means by which teachers and assessors can elicit language use by learners, in order for them to acquire, practice or display for assessment target language use. In much of the work on tasks there has been an implicit or explicit assumption that tasks will influence engagement and performance in predictable and controllable ways. Researchers have thus been concerned to tease out the cognitive dimensions of tasks (such as task difficulty) as well as their interactive dimensions, and how these might affect opportunities for learning and for engaging and displaying competence (e.g. Swain and Lapkin 2001; Bachman 2002; Ellis 2005; Skehan 1996; Skehan 1998).

However, SLA researchers, assessment experts and language educators have increasingly questioned simplistic assumptions about the nature of tasks and their relationship to the engagement of abilities, discourse and to learning outcomes. As Duff (this volume) notes, we can no longer assume that tasks are transparent, stable and uniform. Twenty years ago, Breen noted the need to distinguish between the task designed by the teacher which he called the ‘task-as-work-plan’, and the task enacted by the student – the ‘task-in-process’. He argued that in fact ‘any learning outcome is the result of fairly unpredictable interaction between the learner, the task, and the task situation’ (Breen 1987), suggesting that the outcome will be significantly shaped by a range of factors, including the learners’ own perceptions of what they and others should contribute, their view of the nature and demands of the task itself, and their personal definitions of the task situation.

Researchers interested in discourse variation attributable to task type have found that the subject’s perspective on the task (for example, its goals, procedures and significance) is an important factor, which cannot be accounted for by an analysis of features of the task in isolation (Duff 1993; Murphy 1993). Another observation is that there is often a mismatch between learner and teacher perceptions and intentions in relation to tasks (Kumaravadivelu 1991).

Some of the most interesting work examining the ‘task-in-process’ and some of the factors that influence that process, has been carried out by those working from an Activity Theory perspective, who note the need to distinguish between the task (blueprint provided by the teacher or researcher) and the activity (the behaviour produced when the task is actually performed) (Coughlan and Duff 1994). In the last decade, a number of studies have highlighted the fact that many individual and social factors contribute to the way in which a task is performed as an activity (e.g. Donato 2000; Parks 2000; Roebuck 2000). Activity theory provides a framework for examining these factors and the processes involved. Activities are seen to take place within ‘activity systems’, defined in terms of subjects acting on objects according to socially and subjectively influenced motives, mediated by various physical and symbolic artifacts, and the communities, rules and divisions of labor in which they are embedded. (See Lantolf and Thorne (2006) for a comprehensive discussion of the origins and development of Activity theory, and in particular its application to second language learning.)

Thorne, in a recent paper, refers to the activity as the ‘countertask’ – emphasising that the student’s activity responds to the unilaterally imposed task of the teacher (Thorne 2005). In fact, although this view captures well the multi-lateral construction of the activity, it is an oversimplification to think in terms of only one task and one countertask. In this chapter I want to suggest that sometimes the task proposed by the teacher implies several overlapping activities, which may or may not be compatible with each other. Students accept, reject or add to these possibilities as they redefine the activity in accordance with their own goals and abilities and with other elements of the activity system at a given time, including other individuals with whom they interact in performing the activity.

The process by which individuals orient to a task and perceive or engage with it as an activity is referred to in this chapter as ‘framing’. This term has been used extensively in the social sciences and humanities (MacLachlan and Reid 1994) and in linguistics has been used to refer to the processes by which people use scripts or set expectations of how particular types of interactions typically unfold in order to generate and interpret discourse (Goffman 1974). I view framing as an interactive process that involves not only recognition and adoption of socially meaningful categories, but also allows for idiosyncratic adjustment to suit individual circumstances and motivations. Like the frame on a video camera, framing may be adjusted moment by moment as an event unfolds, and involves active selection of a different ‘focus’ at different points in time. In addition, multiple frames may operate together or in competition with each other, as in Tannen’s work on competing frames in a medical consultation (Tannen and Wallat 1993).

In order to provide useful information to task designers, teachers and assessors, we need to understand why a given task is framed or instantiated in a certain way, although it would be dangerous to expect, given the complexity of human behaviour and the contexts in which it occurs, that we could ever control or anticipate task instantiation completely. In this chapter I want to demonstrate the usefulness for understanding the ‘task-in-process’ of examining the ways in which it relates to socially defined and recognised activities, and the motives that both initiate and govern them.

MOTIVES, GOALS AND ACTIVITIES

Before turning to the specific notion of ‘motive’ employed within activity theory, it is useful to reflect on the broader concept of ‘motivation’ which has long been recognised as an important factor in language learning. ‘Motivation’ is a confusing term, encompassing several senses, including both beliefs and desires and amount of effort. Much research has traditionally focused on why learners are interested in learning a language in general (e.g. intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation), but the term also relates to how strong is the desire to learn or the effort which it evokes. Recent work on motivation recognises that it is complex and multi-dimensional, and changes over time (see for example Dörnyei and Schmidt 2001). There is also a deepening understanding of how different social environments affect both motivation itself, and the relationship of particular motivations to achievement and to particular language use activities (Dörnyei 1990; Ushioda 2003).

In the broader educational literature such issues have been more extensively explored. For example, Pintrich and Schrauben (1992) suggest a social cognitive model utilising three general components of students’ motivational beliefs – expectancy (can I do this task?), value (why am I doing this task?) and affect (how does this task and my performance make me feel?). Theoretical models are also proposed by Tittle (1994) and Brookhart (1997). However, in the applied linguistics literature, motivation is often still viewed as a relatively stable psychological trait or state. In addition, task and situation-specific (in other words, activity-specific) motives and goals are often inadequately distinguished, or the role of activity-specific motivation is ignored, although there are some recent exceptions (such as Julkunen 2001). As McGroarty notes, a deficiency of previous work is that it has ‘not generally included attention to particular individual meanings or detailed assessment of participants’ interpretations of instructional tasks, school or classroom environments, or social groups within the classroom’ (McGroarty 2001). There is still much work to be done in developing frameworks that distinguish between and relate more general orientations and motivations (which may or may not be goal-oriented) and the specific motives and goals associated with a particular language-acquisition or assessment activity, and thus with the engagement of abilities and learning which result from it.

Vygotskyan approaches have not figured prominently in the work on motivation within applied linguistics, and their potential to contribute to research in this area has perhaps not been fully recognised. Activity theory was developed by A. N. Leont’ev and others after Vygotsky’s early death, drawing on aspects of Marxist theory (Wertsch 1985). It focuses upon goal-directed actions, and proposes a three-level framework for their analysis. The highest level is the activity, a socially defined category such as work, play, or instructional activity, which serves to ‘orient the subject in the world of objects’ (Leont’ev, cited in Wertsch 1985) As Wertsch notes:

One of the most important characteristics of an activity is that it is not determined or even strongly circumscribed by the physical or perceptual context in which humans function. Rather, it is a sociocultural interpretation or creation that is imposed on the context by the participant(s) (Wertsch 1985: 203).

According to Wertsch, the activity provides the social context for behaviour and:

... is grounded in a set of assumptions about appropriate roles, goals and means used by the participants in that setting... The guiding and integrating force of these assumptions is what Leont’ev called the motive of an activity. For Leont’ev a motive is not a construct that can be understood in biological or even psychological terms. Rather, it is an aspect of a sociohistorically specific, institutionally defined setting. Among other things, the motive that is involved in a particular activity setting specifies what is to be maximised in that setting. By maximising one goal, one set of behaviors, and the like over others, the motive also determines what will be given up if need be in order to accomplish something else (Wertsch 1985: 212).

Later developments of activity theory have incorporated greater attention to the role of individual agency, (shaped by prior experience as well as biologically endowed characteristics) in interacting with the socially determined motives of activity (see Lantolf and Thorne 2006). Activity theory is thus well suited as a framework for examining motivation at the task level, as opposed to the more general level traditionally targeted by questionnaires and interviews; a bottom-up view as opposed to the top-down view of traditional motivational research. It also takes a social and historical view of activity, and can therefore provide insights into the genesis of motivation and motive, not just from immediate influences, but from prior cultural and historical factors. For example, Gillette (1994) examined the way in which social background affected the goals and thus the performance of university students studying French. This historical and developmental view, combined with attention to the dynamic nature of activity systems, is also helpful in examining motivational change over time, an aspect that has been highlighted by researchers as requiring further exploration (Oxford and Shearin 1996). Additionally, activity theory focuses attention on the ‘motives’ inherent in particular socially defined activities. It is therefore able to go beyond the focus on the individual inherent in the psychological tradition that has dominated much motivational research to look at the socially constructed nature of motives and motivation and how motive relates both to the immediate social context and to the individual histories and circumstances that individuals bring with them into that context. It thus complements other recent work which has highlighted the deficiencies in narrowly psychological views of motivation, using concepts such as investment, which acknowledge the social dimensions of phenomena that have hitherto been attributed to the individual in isolation (Pierce 1995; Siegal 1996).

The usefulness of considering the socially determined aspect of motive has perhaps been somewhat overlooked in some of the work conducted under an activity theory framework in applied linguistics to date. For example, even Coughlan and Duff (whose paper popularised the activity – task distinction within applied linguistics) state that:

Unlike a task, an activity has no set of objectives in and of itself – rather, participants have their own objectives, and act according to these and the researchers’ objectives, all of which are negotiated (either implicitly or explicitly) over the course of the interaction (Coughlan and Duff 1994: 175).

While the latter part of this statement is undoubtedly true, as discussed above, activity theory maintains that in fact activities do have inherent motives that are socially recognisable, although participants may not always accept them fully. In fact, activities are differentiated by their different motives, and these are not arbitrary psychological characteristics of the individual, but have a social basis. An individual’s motives and goals will be influenced at least to some extent by the activity they perceive themselves to be participating in, although at the same time the motives they bring with them to the task will also shape the nature of the activity itself, as they frame an event as one activity rather than another. For example, if students who are assigned a practical task in an educational setting perceive themselves to be involved in a learning activity, and accept it as such, the motive of learning will influence their actions – so that they may give as much priority to understanding the processes involved thoroughly, and to acquiring new skills as to completing the task. If, however, they do not accept the activity as a learning activity (either because they are not interested in learning, or do not feel that they can learn from it) but see it as a task of work to be completed in order to fulfil course requirements, then they will give much greater priority to achieving an acceptable task outcome as efficiently as possible – see Lantolf and Genung (2002) for a study illustrating just this point.

While there may be an infinite variety in the individual objectives or motives that participants bring with them to an encounter, conditioned by their individual histories, focusing only on these individual differences is not very helpful to task designers, because it gives little insight into the systematic ways in which their tasks may be instantiated as activities. However, where a common activity frame is present across a number of participants in a task, understanding the motives pertaining to that activity should give information that is generalisable, and can be used to predict task engagement processes.

STUDY CONTEXT

The present study was conducted in the context of an intermediate level tertiary Japanese language course. The unit of work being considered was designed around a central task, in which students were required to interview a native speaker of Japanese and write a report. According to the course designers, as well as developing language skills required to conduct interviews, including formal polite register (keigo), the unit aimed to increase student contact with and ability to network with the local Japanese community and to increase awareness of cultural and social diversity (Ogawa 1998). Over the course of several weeks, the students were required to make contact with a native speaker and arrange an interview on a topic of their own choice, develop a list of interview questions and submit it for teacher feedback, conduct an interview and tape it, write a report in Japanese based on the interview and write a thank you letter. The interview tape, report and letter were submitted for assessment (total of 10% of final grade for semester [3%+6%+1%]).

The tasks provided a focus and purpose for instruction and learning, opportunities to apply and practice learning, and language samples for assessment. According to the designers and teachers, they were designed to provide meaningful and ‘authentic’ opportunities for language use, in that the topic was selected by the student on the basis of their own interests, the interaction was with a non-teacher, the setting was outside the classroom, and the tasks were based on real-world tasks judged by teachers to be relevant to students in the future.

RESEARCH QUESTIONS

In this chapter I want to focus on two questions:

  1. How did students and other participants frame and engage with the interview task – in other words, how was it instantiated as an activity?
  2. How did the motives associated with various activity frames, and other elements of the activity system, affect engagement with the task, and thus affordances for learning?

DATA

Data was gathered for eight subjects (representing a mix of age, sex, ability and background), three of whom are reported on in detail in this study. Assessment data, comprising the draft questions (with teacher feedback), tape of interview (transcribed), report (with teacher feedback and mark), and thank you letter (with teacher feedback and mark) were collected. In addition, a retrospective interview incorporating stimulated recall was conducted, in which students were asked to recall in as much detail as possible the specific process of completing each task, where possible using their assessment products as prompts. They were also asked to comment on their attitudes, motivations and the impact of the assessment requirements.

The informants were quite willing to talk about what for most had been an emotionally taxing experience (both positive and negative). They also seemed to be able to recall quite readily what they were thinking at various key points in the interview with the native speaker, although as with all retrospective and introspective material, care must be taken not to take this data as necessarily an entirely accurate picture of what actually occurred. Supplementary data was also collected in the form of observation of classes, collection of course materials, and interviews with teachers and course designers.

FINDINGS: MAJOR ACTIVITY FRAMES AND RELATED MOTIVATION

On the surface, all informants had performed a similar task – interviewing a native speaker on tape, and writing a report. However, it emerged from an examination of the taped discourse, and from the retrospective reports of the informants, that in fact there were large differences between what happened in each of the interactions. Thus in spite of the surface similarities in the task, the pairs of students and their interviewees were engaging in a range of rather different activities. As anticipated in the task design, the topics covered were different for each student. But at a more fundamental level, the roles assumed by the interactants, and their understandings of what was taking place, as well as their strategies for managing and developing the interaction also appeared to differ widely, in a way that was not always immediately apparent at a surface level on the recordings submitted by the students. Each subject and each interlocutor framed the task differently, and the framing sometimes changed over the course of the interaction. I want to argue that these differences were fundamentally related to the major aims or motives which lay behind the actions of the participants, which were shaped by, and which shaped, their understandings of the social activity in which they were involved and its purposes. The framing of the activity was influenced by various factors, including the participants’ understandings of their capabilities and needs, within the social context (both micro and macro) in which they found themselves. Some students selected known and complicit interviewees, with whom they rehearsed a largely scripted performance, often asking questions to which they already knew the answers. As far as possible this preparation and lack of spontaneity was disguised on the interview tape, sometimes quite convincingly. Other students conducted authentic interviews, and some (but not all) were successfully able to integrate into their performance carefully prepared material which both served the purposes of the interview, and displayed the language they knew was required to obtain a good mark.

A detailed analysis of individual cases can be found elsewhere (Spence-Brown 2001, 2003, 2004), but in summary, there seemed to be three major overlapping activity frames acknowledged by and evident in the actions of the participants, that related to their individual and institutional objectives and the characteristics of the situation. The three frames were: ‘authentic’ social interaction and information gathering interview; language learning/practice activity; and assessment activity. These frames were in a sense built into the task, which was designed as a learning and assessment task, but which relied for its validity for these purposes on being at the same time an authentic opportunity for interaction and for the gathering of information. Some participants were conscious of and able to balance the demands of all three frames at once, although particular frames dominated at different stages of the interview, while for others, one frame dominated.

The design of the task required it to encompass the motives of all three activities, but this only seemed to be possible where the activities complemented each other, or at least the goals and actions associated with each activity did not clash. This was the case where the social conditions (for example, the relationship between participants and their understanding of the situation) were in alignment with all three frames, and where participants perceived that they had the skills and resources to carry out each activity in a way that would not clash with the motives inherent in the other frames. The motives that seemed to drive the activities are summarised in Table 1.

Table 1 Main activities and associated motives

In terms of the ostensible ‘authentic task’ of interviewing a native speaker, there in fact seemed to be two slightly different understandings. Firstly, the task was quite explicitly designed as an information gathering interview, the objective of which was to find out about a topic of interest, and to gather information on which to base a written report in Japanese. However, the course designers had also intended that making the contact for this interview would help students to expand their social interaction with Japanese people (which was one of the aims of the unit of work) and some of the students also seemed to be looking for this ‘social’ contact. Their interviewees (where they were previously unknown to the students at any rate) also seemed to be interacting according to this motive – for example, Diane’s interviewee, an older Japanese housewife, served tea, and when the interview was finished started asking personal questions in a conversational tone. Thus on the surface, the primary object was gathering information, yet the motive for this was not a real need for the information, so much as the desire for an opportunity for interaction. In addition, given the social situation, a straight interview without some ‘off-task’ social interaction would probably have been considered rude and inappropriate. So even at the level of ‘authentic’ interaction, the activity was multilayered. Although in many cases the demands of ‘social interaction/conversation’ and ‘interview’ did not conflict, some students saw the requirement to conduct a formal interview as spoiling an opportunity for more casual and natural conversation, and complained that they did not like the task for this reason.

The ‘authentic’ task was embedded within a language course, and thus another frame was one of language learning, and one major motive for the task was to improve the students’ Japanese. Depending on their differing philosophies of language learning, participants seemed to view the task as a mechanism for providing a purpose for, and practice of language structures and pragmatic rules which had been targeted in the course, and/or to provide an opportunity for ‘authentic’ language use, which would lead to acquisition of communicative skills in general, rather than to the acquisition of any clearly defined body of knowledge or skills.

The third level was that of ‘assessment task’ – a frame which seemed to have been secondary in the minds of the course designers, but which proved to be the most salient, and the most powerful in determining the direction of the activity for several of the students. The course designers had included an assessment aspect to the pedagogic task in line with an approach which has sometimes been called ‘authentic’ assessment (Birenbaum 1996; Khattri et al. 1998; Khattri and Sweet 1996; Hart 1994; Kohonen 1999). This approach advocates assessing meaningful and pedagogically useful tasks, thus reducing the harmful backwash and wasted time associated with stand-alone assessment tasks which have no other purpose. The designers of the task considered the purpose of the assessment to be predominantly formative, as feedback was given in qualitative as well as quantitative terms and the percentage devoted to this task in the end of semester results was small. However, it was clear from the actions of some of the students that their understanding of the behaviour required by a task linked in even a minor way to formal assessment and results was very different from the view held by the teachers. For them, the dominant motive seems to have been to present their abilities in their best light, in order to achieve the highest score possible. Where students were relatively unconcerned about results (as seemed to be the case with one first-year student, Sally) or where they had a very strong commitment to the other levels of the activity (such as social interaction and practicing their language skills) or had confidence that their skill level was relatively high, students seemed to be able to juggle the demands of assessment with the demands of other activity frames. However, in two cases in particular, with later year students who did not believe that their language competence would allow them to put on a good enough performance to achieve their assessment goals, all semblance of authentic interaction was lost. In these cases the task was transformed into a scripted ‘role play’, an activity which they co-constructed with a complicit interviewee, who participated in the construction of a successful performance for assessment just as much as did the student themselves – by rehearsing the interview, re-recording segments, avoiding negotiation of meaning that might have implied problems in their interlocutor’s discourse to a listener, etc.

The contrast between the different activity frames governing the interaction was evident in the interview discourse – scripted questions, answers, and responses, devoid of negotiation of meaning or spontaneity, were characteristic of the interactions governed by the assessment frame. The dominance of this frame was confirmed by students’ stated motives. For example, Robert, a final year low proficiency student, when asked about his aims in approaching the interview said:

Ah, mainly (it) was to pass the criteria for the assignment. Not, like, I wasn’t thinking of, the interview itself, I suppose, I was thinking about what I had to do to make this as presentable as possible.

This should not be seen as purely cynical response from a student uninterested in learning and only aiming to fulfil course requirements. All the students interviewed had elected to study Japanese because of an interest in the language, and some seemed quite upset that the interview task was dominated for them by the need to perform for assessment, and that the task was structured in a way that gave the opportunity to do so. As another student, Kim, said:

We were told not to prepare something before (the) interview, like, not to talk to the person before then but we just can’t, cannot do it. That’s why I don’t like this interview very much, because you can prepare. I like the one that you can just chat about something with your friends.

As Lantolf and Genung found, in the case of a keen graduate student whose initial interest in learning Chinese to fulfil interactive goals was incompatible with the activity shaped by the institutional context and required to fulfil course requirements, the motive was not an unvarying psychological attribute of the student, but a product of the activity system (Lantolf and Genung 2002).

In the case of another student, Sally, who (unusually) did not even refer to assessment when outlining her goals for the interview, the discourse was very different. She had not rote-learned set phrases or scripted questions and responses to anything like the same degree as the other students, and at times topic changes that were totally unprepared for occurred in the course of the interview (again, unlike the situation in other interviews examined). This led to language use which was on the surface less fluent, appropriate and accurate than that of the other students studied – and which resulted in a low grade, despite the much more challenging nature of the interaction she attempted.

However, some students did seem to be able to balance motives to perform well for assessment with equally strong motives to engage in ‘real’ interaction to gather information and to try out their Japanese. Crucially, they selected interviewees whom they did not know, and topics they were interested in, whereas those most interested in maximising assessment success interviewed people they already knew (but pretended they didn’t) on topics they were already familiar with. They utilised rehearsal and preparation, not to script a role play, but to allow them to participate in an interview at a level that would have been impossible without this mediation. For example, Diane, who seemed to embody most clearly the ideal student implicit in the task design, who could juggle all the activity frames at once, made the following comment about her objectives:

Um, I think there were two objectives. One was I wanted everything to sound well on the tape because I knew the tape was being assessed and the other was I was really interested in what the answers would be because I’d written about something and I’d taken a lot of time to prepare it... I think that worked well for me because I was very interested in the answers, so I felt like I could reply more whereas at the same time I was very conscious, it sort of balanced my conscious(ness) of trying to be exactly perfect in my Japanese. I think if I hadn’t of been interested in the subject it would have been terrible because I would have been so conscious of myself that I would have been interviewing myself practically.

So, while in Diane’s case assessment was still a major determinant of Diane’s motives and goals – to make the tape sound proficient and get good marks – she herself believed that this was balanced by her motivation to participate in an interaction which she found interesting. In the particular case it seems that Diane had the ability and confidence to achieve a productive balance which enabled her to simultaneously address both goals, although at particular points in the interview she was more oriented to one than the other.

ACTIVITY FRAMING AND BEHAVIOUR

In summary then, it was found that activity frames could overlap if congruent – but if not, choices had to be made. The assessment frame was very powerful, suggesting that while learning might be an important motivating factor, in formal, tertiary level courses, successful course completion would appear to be the most powerful motive for many students. Even though on objective measures the contribution of the task assessment to the students’ final mark was very low, the strong ‘display’ motive associated with assessment in this social context seems to be strongly ingrained.

The framing and associated motivation had important consequences for behaviour, and consequently for opportunities for learning. The ‘real life’ interview/conversation frame appeared to promote engagement and focus on meaning. There was more evidence of negotiation of meaning (by both participants), and more linguistic risk-taking and departure from pre-prepared scripts. The language learning/practice frame could lead to both a focus on form and/or a focus on interaction, but was only consonant with the assessment frame if students had high level of skills and several students stated that the imperatives of assessment meant that the task was less useful for learning. For all the students, the assessment frame resulted in careful preparation, multiple drafts and rehearsal before the actual interview. During the interview itself, awareness of assessment resulted in careful management of the discourse, lack of engagement with content, and focus on form.

It thus appeared that using the task for assessment had significant washback implications, as students indicated that they might have behaved very differently if they had not been assessed – or if the tape had not been assessed. In simple terms, students engaged less authentically in interaction than they otherwise may have done. If engagement and interaction are important for language acquisition, this may have had a detrimental effect.

However, assessment did provide a strong incentive for repetition, practice and refinement (mediated by course materials, teacher feedback etc). Although there is not space to give details here, at its best, this preparation afforded an opportunity to work within the ZPD (the Zone of Proximal Development, Vygotsky’s term for the zone where a student is able, with mediation, to complete tasks at a higher level than they could alone, and thus have the opportunity to internalise new skills). The tasks thus provided a fertile environment for learning – as students engaged in imitation and repetition, appropriation of and internalisation of knowledge and skills from various sources of mediation (corrective feedback, text books etc).

FACTORS INFLUENCING FRAMING AND ENGAGEMENT WITH THE TASK

Activity theory provides a powerful tool for examining the various factors affecting the motivation of individuals within social and physical contexts. Some of the factors that appeared to be relevant in this setting included:

  • Existing motives of subjects (students), formed through their personal history and wider contexts (their experience of success and failure, their original goals for choosing to study Japanese etc.) For example, students who had little other opportunity to interact with Japanese gave a higher priority to authentic interaction than did those with established Japanese networks.
  • Perceived relevance and interest of task, assessment of its potential for learning and congruence with self-concept (subjectivity). For example, students who felt that they would never need to do formal interviews in Japanese were less engaged than students who felt such skills would be useful to them.
  • Perceived and negotiated roles, (or ‘division of labor’) of participants. For example, some interviewees seemed to view themselves as a friend and fellow student whose main role was to help the subject complete a good project, while others saw themselves as an interviewee, assisting an Australian student to understand about Japan. There was abundant evidence that the framing of both the activity and the participants’ roles was co-constructed by, and affected actions of both participants.
  • Institutionally and socially determined motives – in particular, the strong need associated with academic settings for achieving success in terms of grades. An interesting difference in the strength of the ‘display’ motive seemed to relate to the perceived ‘stakes’ of the assessment for the individual, combined with the degree of confidence of the participants in their communicative competence – this determined whether other frames could co-exist with the assessment frame. Course-based assessment is generally considered to be low stakes, but it was clear that the ‘stakes’ were not a property purely of the assessment itself (which was worth a very low proportion of the mark in one single subject) but were different for each student. For example, the stakes appeared to be higher for a third year student completing his last subject, who knew that he would be struggling to pass, than for a first year student used to doing well in Japanese.
  • Match between perceived ability level and demands of task – the student’s assessment of the suitability of the linguistic ‘tools’ available to them to perform the task. When the task was beyond the student’s level of competence to perform in a way they considered would appear competent, there seemed to be a strong imperative to find ways of avoiding engaging with it authentically.

CONCLUSIONS

This chapter has drawn upon the conceptual framework of activity theory to examine aspects of motivation and task engagement which have implications for task design, assessment practices and other institutional practices. A crucial insight of activity theory is that motive is both social (related to socially constructed and recognised activities) and individual (determined by the attributes, personal histories etc of individuals who act within activity frames which they co-construct). Both the social and individual determinants of motivation have historical aspects which are relatively stable and long term, as well as aspects which are extremely sensitive to changes in the immediate physical and social environment. Ultimately, what counts for learning will be the moment-by-moment goal-directed actions which take place within teaching and learning activities. Activity theory thus gives us a tool for examining the various facets of tasks in process, and their immediate and wider social environments, with a view to understanding behaviour and its determinants (including what is generally known as ‘motivation’), and thus to empowering useful change.

This study reveals the dominance of the assessment frame in a pedagogic task associated with summative assessment (even though on the surface the stakes seem low) and highlights the associated strong motive for students to control their performance in order to present their skills in the best light. The potential for positive and negative washback on learning which this entails has been touched upon, although it is beyond the scope of this chapter to explore affordances for and obstacles to learning in detail.

I wish to conclude with a brief comment on the implications for task design and pedagogy, although one of the main lessons from this study is that sweeping generalisations about tasks should be highly suspect, and that it is the specifics of individual activity systems which are significant. However, one wider conclusion which might be safely drawn is that advocates of the embedding of assessment within pedagogic activities need to be more aware of the possibilities of negative backwash on learning, especially where students perceive that the risk-taking and authentic engagement which might be conducive to learning will jeopardise their assessment prospects. In addition, as experienced teachers already know, authentic engagement is more likely where the identities and roles of the other participants support it, and where the student perceives the task prescribed to be meaningful, relevant and within their ability to perform competently. The results of this study should encourage task designers to look beyond their own pre-conceived ideas about how a task is to be performed and why, and to engage with both students and the other elements of the activity system of the language course, in order to understand their students’ motivations and behaviour, and to initiate adjustments where appropriate to the culture of the classroom community, division of labour, tools available, as well as to the tasks by which they hope to mediate student learning.

REFERENCES

Bachman, L. 2002. ‘Some reflections on task-based language performance assessment’. Language Testing 19 (4): 453–476.

Birenbaum, M. 1996. ‘Assessment 2000: Towards a pluralistic approach to assessment’. In Alternatives in Assessment of Achievements, Learning Processes and Prior Knowledge, edited by Birenbaum, M; Dochy, F. Boston: Kluwer.

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Cite this chapter as: Spence-Brown, R. 2007. ‘Learner motivation and engagement in a pedagogic and assessment task: Insights from activity theory’. In Learning Discourses and the Discourses of Learning, edited by Marriott, H; Moore, T; Spence-Brown, R. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 12.1 to 12.15.

© Copyright 2007 Robyn Spence-Brown
All rights reserved. Apart from any uses permitted by Australia’s Copyright Act 1968, no part of this book may be reproduced by any process without prior written permission of the copyright owners. The fact that this book is published online does not mean that any part of it can be reproduced without first obtaining written permission: copyright laws do still apply. Inquiries should be directed to the publisher, Monash University ePress: http://www.epress.monash.edu/contacts.html.

Learning Discourses and the Discourses of Learning

   by Helen Marriott, Tim Moore and Robyn Spence-Brown