Maslow’s Hierarchy of Feedback & Assessment?

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs comes from a 1943 paper that Abraham Maslow published in the Psychological Review, but he fleshed out the idea in the 1950s, when he published Motivation and Personality. In some ways, Maslow was a positive psychologist before there was such a thing. His research on motivation was based on studying people who were widely recognized as exceptional. While it doesn’t get as much attention in the contemporary discourse about motivation, his hierarchy, especially as represented in the well-known pyramid, remains a useful tool for thinking about the needs that informs the motivation of learners.

Recently, as I was working on some book chapters for what I hope to be a forthcoming text on assessment and learning pathways, I found myself reflecting on the connection between Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and what takes place in the assessment exchange between teacher and learners. From the perspective of Maslow’s hierarchy, failing to have more basic needs met may inhibit one’s ability to have motivation or interest in seeking other needs. For example, if one is not getting adequate air, food and sleep; it risks diminishing the perceived need for getting lost in a rich and engaging creative or problem-solving learning experience. Similarly, if one does not experience safety, that may well overwhelm a person’s attention so much that there is little room for experiencing the rewards of other academic pursuits. Of course, there are ample exceptions to this, cases where people lacking food and safety somehow flourish in academic and intellectual pursuits, which is partly why other theories of motivation have largely replaced Malsow’s hierarchy.

Maslow HNNonetheless, I’m curious how Maslow’s early work might inform our approach to assessment. For assessment (and I am referring mostly to the formative sort) to be helpful to a learner, the learn must see a need for it. So, what is the value of an assessment plan that ignores the craving for basic¬†physiological needs, the need to be and feel safe, the need to belong, and the need for confidence and respect from others? All of those needs are likely to dominate one’s attention and motivation. And yet, many of our goals in education are about that which shows up in Maslow’s final stage of needs, that of self-actualization. That is where one recognizes a need and pursues a desire for creative experiences, the ability to solve increasingly complex problems, even the need to learn and accept declarative knowledge. If we are going to create assessment plans that benefit students, perhaps we need to design plans that first takes into account the more fundamental human needs .

Consider how some assessment plans critique learner’s performance without recognizing that a person’s need for confidence precedes the need for feedback on solving a problem. So, how will an assessment plan help a learner if it decreases confidence?¬†Or, consider the idea that a learner is likely more able to benefit from rich feedback on work after there is a trusting community and relationship with the teacher.

These are rough draft thoughts, even rougher than many of my other musings on this blog, but I remained convinced that there is something critical to this line of thinking. Even if Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is not the most useful vehicle for this exploration, it at least gets us going in a positive direction, thinking about and recognizing that assessment plans must take into account a broader¬†understanding of human needs and the human condition.

Education is a deeply human endeavor that calls for our attention to the many facets of a person’s lived experience. To overly mechanize assessment plans risks moving away from this humanness. It is why I’ve more recently considered not only the benefits of rubrics, but also the limitations. If there is any consistent message in my blog, it is about the importance of reflecting on both the affordances and limitations of technological systems, including things like assessment systems. With each system, there is something gained and something lost. There are winners and losers. There are values that are amplified and those that are muffled. From that perspective, perhaps there is some value in reflecting on the intersection of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and systems for assessment. What do you think?


Posted in assessment, blog, education

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is the author of Missional Moonshots, Assistant Vice President of Academics, Associate Professor of education, and a frequent keynote speaker and consultant on topics related to educational innovation and entrepreneurship, futures in education, and the intersection of education and digital culture. Opinions expressed here do not reflect those of his primary employer(s).

One thought on “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Feedback & Assessment?

  1. Peter Condon

    I agree, Maslow’s Hierachy is important in that it teaches us to remember the needs of the individual while teaching. As you say, automatic assessment has some wins, usually lower costs, but also some serious losses, such as the human element, which can only be provided by a human. The need to adapt to situations that learners find themselves in is part of teaching. I think you blog reminds us of this.

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