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This is part 3 of my series on why grades suck.

On the surface, grades would appear to motivate people to study harder, and as such, be a good thing.  Grades’ power to motivate students is undeniable and real. However, the problem lies not in whether grades motivate or not, but how.

Alfie Kohn, in his book Punished By Rewards (I consider this book a MUST READ for anyone who is interested in this subject), articulates five ways in which grades are harmful (paraphrased):

  1. Grades punish
  2. Grades ignore reasons
  3. Grades rupture relationships
  4. Grades discourage risk-taking
  5. Grades undermine motivation

#1 Grades punish because in order to have “winners” you have to have “losers.”  Teachers create tests and assignments intentionally at a level where they know that some portion of their students will be unsuccessful.  Let me come to teachers’ defense and argue that the reason they create tests that they know some students will fail is not because they are sadistic or enjoy seeing some people fail.  Rather, they have to teach a lot of students with varying levels of ability, and different life circumstances.  They pitch to the middle intentionally so that hopefully the higher performing students won’t be completely bored, and the lower performing students won’t be hopelessly lost (the Digital Aristotle video below really drives this point home).  Teachers are trapped in an industrial revolution mentality educational system just like everyone else.  Regardless of the reason, the students forced to endure these tests can’t help but feel in many cases that they are being punished.

#2 Grades ignore reasons.  For example, many teachers have an attendance policy.  If a student misses a class, or many classes, the reason becomes unimportant (“I’ve got too many students to review all of the individual reasons and excuses why you can’t bother to show up!”).  There’s a policy in place.  It was communicated clearly on the syllabus.  If you don’t show up and don’t have a doctor’s note, that’s not my problem.  How does this make students feel?  It can’t feel good to be treated as just another name on a roster.  The grading policy in this case, allows us teachers to shield ourselves from the effort it might otherwise require us to track a student down and find out if they are okay.  Grades enable teachers to ignore the idiosyncrasies and individuality of the people in our care.  I know.  I’ve been one of those teachers.

#3 Grades rupture relationships.  This one is mostly about power.  It is very difficult for two people to have a genuine friendship when one has power over the other one.  In the classroom, I have sole power to decide your grade.  The US Supreme Court has actually ruled that a professor can be fired for disobeying the university if he or she refuses to change a grade.  But even after being fired, the university can’t change the grade.  In the classroom, to the extent that you care about grades, I am your god.  I can make you do anything I want to.  While the vast majority of teachers wield this power responsibly, tales of sexual or monetary exploitation are not unheard of, and even in the best of circumstances it’s still difficult to be “friends” with your professor.  How can you say what you really think to a person who might dock your grade for it?  The power dynamics are the primary source of cheating and other academic dishonesty.  Take away the grade and there’s really no reason for teachers and students to lie to one another.

#4 Grades discourage risk-taking.  Have you ever heard anyone ask “Will this be on the test?”  Have you ever hounded an instructor to find out exactly how many pages, what font size, how many inch margins the paper has to be to not get docked points?  Have you ever failed to speak your mind for fear of angering the professor? Have you heard a teammate argue that your team should take the easy and safe option for the group project? “Let’s just get it done and out of the way.” On the contrary, have you ever wanted to take on a more ambitious project, but not done it for fear you’ll fail?  Our grading system is inadvertently socializing our young people to be docile, compliant followers of orders.  It’s ironic given that many, if not most, of our society’s heroes are people who took risks, faced big challenges and succeeded.  We don’t often acknowledge how many times they had to fail to get there.  Classrooms should be the safe place to fail.  The classroom is the environment where the impacts of failure can be contained.  We should be encouraging students to swing for the fence, to shoot for the moon, to go big, and if you’re going to fail, fail hard and know that we’re here to catch you.  Not gonna happen though.  You might get a bad grade.

#5 Grades undermine motivation.  This is the fifth and most insidious of the motivational arguments against grades.  The basic idea here is that because we emphasize grades so much, learning becomes a secondary or nonexistent concern.  How many tests have you crammed for, only to forget everything the next day?  If you really cared about learning, wouldn’t you have studied in a way that would more likely promote long-term retention?  How many times have you finished a particularly grueling class and walked out of the final thinking, “I’m so glad I’ll never have to study that again!”  If the method of our teaching makes students LESS excited about learning, then we, as teachers, are failing utterly.  As it turns out, this is exactly what we’re doing.  I’ll let you read the paper for yourself, but a meta-analysis of hundreds of studies showed that even when they get the maximum reward, i.e. an A, student motivation to remain engaged with the content decreases!  For students who got less than an A, the effect on motivation was devastating.  As a teacher, why would I want to engage in a practice that I know will actually make students LESS excited about what I teach???

Why use a strategy we know kills motivation?

It bears restating that grades have become so taken for granted in our culture that we have difficulty conceiving of an educational world without them. In my search for an ideal grading strategy I found that many of these questions about the appropriateness of grading were asked in the 19th and early 20th century when this became the prevalent practice. I naively assumed that the reason nobody asked these questions anymore was that answers had been found, but this is not true. Far from it, I think that we, as a society, just gave up and gave in to the expedience of using grades because there wasn’t any other better way that we could come up with to shepherd millions of young people through the educational system. Now that we have over 100 years of evidence to show us that this is not the best way to do it, it is time to change.

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One Response to 5 Ways Grades Kill the Motivation to Learn

  1. Mary jones says:

    Hi just wanted to agree I think education could use more creativity I as a student hate when my grades aren’t their best it does make you nervous

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