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Martin V. Covington
In Memoriam

Martin V. Covington

Professor of Psychology, Emeritus

UC Berkeley

Professor Martin Vaden Covington, cherished colleague, scientist, teacher, mentor, and friend, passed away peacefully at his home in Sea Ranch, California, on January 29, 2018. He was just shy of his 82nd birthday.

Marty Covington was born on February 14, 1936, in San Bernardino, California, to Vaden Covington and Dorothy Stone Covington. He and a younger sister, Marilyn Roach, were raised in Redlands. His father, a self-made man, founded Covington Engineering, a firm that produces stone and lapidary equipment, still in existence today. Covington admired that hardy quality of his father’s—likely the source of his own striking can-do attitude toward any challenge that stood in his path. He was among the first in his family to attend college and earned his B.A. in psychology, magna cum laude, from the University of Redlands in 1957. Although he flirted with entering the ministry, he ultimately chose psychology and the University of California, Berkeley, as his professional home for his entire career. Covington received his Ph.D. from Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education in 1962, in the field of educational psychology.

It was in the San Bernardino Mountains that Marty first met Bette Wilson. Both families had cabins there and she was a Stanford student while he was a graduate student at Berkeley. They married in 1962 and marked almost 56 years of a loving partnership. Their two sons, Matthew and Mark, each shared special interests and many travels with their father—Matt, a partner in Marty’s love of nature and photography, and Mark, a partner in Marty’s passion for World War II history. In 1975, the family bought a plot of land in Sea Ranch and together, with the labor of Marty and his sons, built a beautiful home on the meadow overlooking the Pacific Ocean. 

Professor Covington’s commitment to and love for Berkeley spanned 61 years, starting with his graduate studies. He held a long-standing appointment as a research psychologist in the Institute of Personality and Social Research (IPSR) since 1961 and in 1964 he joined the faculty of the Department of Psychology.  Upon his retirement to emeritus status in 2008, he was appointed Professor of the Graduate School.

Professor Covington was internationally known for his research on student motivation, intrinsic learning, and achievement in the classroom. Among his first contributions, in collaboration with Crutchfield, Davies, and Olton, was the design of a curriculum called “The Productive Thinking Program” (1972) with lessons, student problem sets, and a teacher guide. Using creative curricula, vivid experiments, and memorable conceptualizations, Covington focused attention on the crisis of motivation in education. He argued that a love for learning is greatly undermined when we turn schooling into an ability game. His numerous publications, with many reprinted, and seven books, among them Self-Worth and School Learning (1976), Making the Grade (1992), and The Will to Learn (1998), have become classics in the field and are used worldwide.  

With Richard G. Beery, Covington developed self-worth theory, which illustrated the steps that students took to protect their self-esteem in highly competitive learning environments. To avoid attributions made to a lack of ability—when faced with potential failure—students engage in self-defeating strategies such as not trying or procrastinating or employing excuses, all to preserve a sense of worth. While teachers typically encourage students to expend more effort, Covington provided a counterview, by explicating the dynamics of effort as a double-edged sword, occurring in classrooms as we typically construct them.  

His research also recast the debate about the relationship between achievement and self-esteem, and called for reform of the reward-scarce schooling system—where grades are equated with worth—instead to embrace the promotion of intrinsic motivation. As he wrote, “It is only when students engage in personally meaningful endeavors for which they can be justifiably proud that self-confidence grows, and it is this growing self-assurance that in turn triggers further achievement.”

Covington’s laboratory could be found in the college classroom. As a dynamic instructor of “Introductory Psychology,” he tested theories about motivation through experiments in instructional innovations. This creative work resulted in an enormous data bank on student learning within varying instructional contexts, which has provided cohorts of graduate students the opportunity to study as well as influence motivation in the classroom. His most recent book, Life Beyond Grades: Designing College Courses to Promote Intrinsic Motivation (2017), heralds what was learned there. Co-authored with Linda M. von Hoene and Dominic J. Voge, the book was published by Cambridge University Press just shortly before his death. The completion of this monumental work brought him much joy and provides the educational community with his parting wisdom about how large lecture courses, in colleges and universities, can be transformed in ways that more deeply engage students in learning.

This translation of instructional theory and research into practice has been the hallmark of Covington’s efforts. Not only did he commit yearly to engaging undergraduates in the wonders of psychology but he also prepared graduate students to teach Psychology 1—first, as graduate student instructors (GSIs) and second, to be mentored in developing their own Psychology 1 courses. His commitment to the development of teaching moved well beyond psychology. Professor Covington played a central role in the work of the GSI Teaching and Resource Center for more than two decades as a regular speaker at the Faculty Seminar on Teaching with GSIs, was a central contributor to the How Students Learn Project, a member of the Graduate Council’s Advisory Committee for GSI Affairs, and was the instructor of a graduate-level seminar on designing courses to enhance student motivation. This seminar was taken by graduate students from across the disciplines and has had a significant impact on the teaching these former graduate students are now doing as faculty members. His imprint was felt campus-wide and beyond.

Among many honors, Covington received the Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate’s Distinguished Teaching Award (1976), the Berkeley Faculty Award for Outstanding Mentorship of GSIs (2002), and he was the first holder of the Berkeley Presidential Chair in Undergraduate Education (2001-2006). He served as president of the International Society for Test Anxiety Research (1986-1988) and was honored for distinguished research contributions by the International Mediation Society (1998) and a Miller Professorship Lecture at the University of Illinois (1987). He also earned the Phi Beta Kappa Award for Outstanding University Instructor of the Year (1998) in Northern California.

In addition to Professor Covington’s contributions to research and teaching, he was also involved early on in departmental administration. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Department of Psychology was organized not along content areas, such as clinical psychology, social psychology, quantitative psychology, etc., but rather in Groups 1, 2, and 3, whose faculty membership was based in large part on friendship patterns. When one of us (Zedeck) joined the department in 1969, he became a member of Group 3, for which Professor Covington was the vice-chair.  It will long be remembered how Marty and Bette Covington made our lives, both personal and academic, enriching.  They warmly welcomed new faculty to the department and their home; they provided advice, support, and consultation for a new Ph.D. getting started in academics. The encouragement for junior as well as senior faculty continued throughout Professor Covington’s time in the department. Another of us (Weinstein) was privileged to teach a graduate seminar on school reform with Marty as well as to receive lessons in acrylic painting. And von Hoene was a longtime collaborator with Marty around the development of university teachers. 

Those who worked closely with Marty remember many wonderful things about him: the mischievous twinkle in his eye, his laughter, his wide range of interests and hobbies, his curiosity, and most of all his compassion. What is ever present in submitted remembrances of him is a tremendous feeling of gratitude for this remarkable man who made each individual feel valued in every encounter, whether it be in a classroom, an office hour, a café, on the phone, at a meeting, or over dinner. He maintained a belief in the possibility of education to nurture a love of learning and promote a healthy sense of self-worth, in spite of all the challenges, serving as a role model for all.

A video of his departmental Distinguished Faculty Lecture, given in 2012 at UC Berkeley, provides a glimpse of Professor Covington in action: 

The Martin V. Covington Memorial Tribute demonstrates the profound impact of Professor Covington’s life and work as told through the voices of his students, GSIs, and colleagues alike. The Martin V. Covington GSI Teaching Development Fund at Berkeley’s GSI Teaching and Resource Center has been created to support programs that prepare GSIs for teaching and acknowledge their successes, in a manner consistent with Covington’s life work and dedicated to his memory.

Professor Covington leaves behind generations of students and readers whom he inspired and a loving family, with wife Bette, sons and daughters-in-law Matthew (JoAnn) and Mark (Jody), and four grandchildren, Tom, Neil, Max, and Hannah, to whom he was deeply devoted.

Not surprisingly, this master scholar-teacher, who studied intrinsic motivation, lived his own life fully immersed in the creative process—ever growing—not only in his research and teaching but also in his highly-skilled photography, painting, airplane modeling, and his work as a magician. “Magic teaches us to see,” Covington has been quoted at saying, “And true magic never leaves us feeling the same.” So can it be said for motivated learning in any domain!

Rhona S. Weinstein
Linda M. von Hoene
Sheldon Zedeck