Assessment, The Science of Learning

Science of Learning: Effect of Grades on Learning

Scott Wilson asked a question in a comment on another article about the effect of grades on learning. Here is a blog entry from one of my students from a few years ago on the exact topic. I have copied it in full because linking to a post doesn’t allow for sharing with a group. Hannah’s work and this blog entry can be found here. This is from an undergraduate’s blog where it is expected of them to produce one of these entries every week, comment on each other’s entries (evidence required in the comments as well) and give a talk every other week. I don’t know about you, but I am always pleased with my students’ work.

Hannah Rettie

You have just received your blog grade back for last week, and obtained a ‘D’. You were expecting a ‘B’, so are disappointed and disheartened by the result. The next step you are likely to take is to ask others in the class what grade they received, in order to discover where you rank amongst other students.

This situation is likely to be familiar to a number of students reading this blog. It has been identified from my previous blogs that the grading process is neither reliable nor objective. The other question that needs addressing, regardless of marking quality, is what impact do grades have on the student? Is it beneficial or detrimental for a student to know if they received an ‘A+’ or a ‘C-’?

Research has shown grades can be extrinsically motivating for students, acting as a tangible incentive to meet task demands (Butler, 1988). However, as Matthew’s blog last week suggests, it is intrinsic motivation that fosters optimal learning. This is where the student is interested and engaged in their learning, resulting in deeper processing. Grades decrease intrinsic motivation, as engagement in the task is attributed to the grade desired, rather than the intrinsic interest the student may have initially had (Butler, 1988). It is also important to note that although grades can be extrinsically motivating for high-ability pupils, struggling students may not experience the same benefits. Grades will become salient reminders of their inaccuracies, decreasing their motivation (Meece, Anderman & Anderman, 2006). This can prevent students from focusing on improving performance in later assignments (Lipnevich & Smith, 2008). Therefore if grades aren’t achieving their purpose of motivating students for the next piece of work, their use is questionable.

The majority of students cannot obtain an ‘A’ grade in every assignment. As questioned by Rowbottom (2013), why do we choose to use a system that is detrimental on every student who achieves anything below perfect? Grading can also be detrimental for the high-ability students. Achieving perfect grades can become an obsession for some pupils, resulting in negative feelings and stress when standards are not met (Kohn, 1999Docan, 2006).

The desire to obtain the highest grade possible can lead students to choose the easiest option available (Kohn, 2011). This is not laziness, but using logical thinking. It would be irrational for a student to pick a more challenging topic and risk the chance of failure, in expense of easily obtaining a good grade in an easier task. If convergent thinking allowed you to reach your goal, why would you choose to think divergently? As mentioned in my previous blogs, the necessity to conform in grading is stifling creativity. The stress and motivation encouraging students to reach the top grades prevent individuals from engaging in learning at a deeper, more explorative level.

The current grading system reinforces competition, rather than collaboration (Kohn, 1999Rohe et al., 2006). For example, if students worked collaboratively to all gain top grades, educators would simply tighten the grade boundaries, ensuring a normal distribution was maintained. Therefore students are less likely to help others, as doing so might detriment their own grade (Kohn, 1999). This attitude contradicts the majority of job expectations post-education; where employers are regularly expected to work together in order to effectively achieve a combined goal. In the workplace, you are unlikely to be given an ‘A’ grade for dealing with a customer or organizing a filing system. Thus it is evident that grades don’t prepare children for the world beyond education (Kohn, 2011). This has been highlighted in medical students, who are not educated on self-regulatory skills required to be a doctor. Solutions have been suggested, for example using a pass/fail system instead of traditional grading. This has been shown to increase collaborative learning and intrinsic motivation of medical students, at no expense of their grades (Rohe et al., 2006White & Fantone, 2010). Further discussion on feasible alternatives to grading will be explored in my blog next week.

Education should strive to create intrinsically motivated, creative students who are engaged in the learning process. Traditional grading prevents this objective from flourishing, and an alternative solution must be implemented in order to modernize the currently outdated education system. Solutions to grading have been created, and I will present several suggestions in next week’s blog. Inevitably, society must stop viewing education through rose-tinted glasses. This will prevent intrinsically motivated learners from becoming extrinsically motivated, as a result of poor educational practices. Education should prepare students for an engaging career of life-long progressive learning, not a job where boxes are ticked and progression is rarely made.

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