Grades and Student Motivation

Do grades motivate students? The answer is yes, but it's not an unqualified yes. Below are highlights from a couple of first-rate studies that illustrate those qualifications, and they aren't the only studies to do so.

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Do grades motivate students? The answer is yes, but it's not an unqualified yes. Below are highlights from a couple of first-rate studies that illustrate those qualifications, and they aren't the only studies to do so. “Three experiments, carried out in professional schools, revealed that expectation of a grade for a task, compared with no grade, consistently induced greater adoption of performance-avoidance, but not performance-approach goals.” (p. 1) Students in these studies were given work and told it would be graded. Other students were given the same work and told that it would not be graded. When students anticipated getting their work graded, they adopted performance-avoidance goals that “have been systematically linked to anxiety, hopelessness, shame, low ability-related esteem, and pretask threat appraisals.” (p. 1) Furthermore, performance-avoidance goals are negatively related to self-determination, perceptions of control, and feeling calm during evaluations. The performance-approach goals are linked to positive interpretations of the challenge, performance aspirations, performance, and self-esteem. Why? “We argue that having a performance evaluated with a grade is likely to increase the level of performance-avoidance goals ... precisely because the individual being evaluated is in a position of dependence and powerlessness.” (p. 3) Yes, students earn grades and they earn better ones if they study and master course content, but teachers control the grades. They decide what gets graded, how much it's worth, whether the student can redo the work, and what grade the work has earned. Typically students have no say in the grading process. There are a couple of other interesting findings in this work. In the second experiment, students received their graded work, and it came with a comment (constructive formative feedback). The feedback did not change how students oriented to the next graded task. “Expectations of a grade, compared with no grade, consistently induced greater adoption of performance-avoidance goals even when grading was accompanied by a formative comment.” (p. 1) “It would seem that when comment-based assessment is accompanied by a grade, the potentially beneficial impact of the comment on pretask performance-avoidance goals is overshadowed by the grade.” (p. 15) And finally, the negative consequences of grading were not just felt by students whom the researchers labeled “chronic low achievers.” The research measure of “externally attributed competence” (what they called “subject GPA”) had no moderating impact on the grade-pretask goal relationships (p.15). In other words, the good students responded to the expectation they'd be graded in the same way as the not-so-good students. Here's the conclusion from the second study: “There is no evidence that exam performance is improved for those students that stand to gain the most from additional study.” Results of testing five hypotheses support the conclusion. The researchers thought that students with borderline grades, in this case those right between a D and C course grade, would be more motivated to study for a comprehensive final than students with a solid C grade. That did not turn out to be the case. Those borderline grades did not motivate extra effort and study. This research appears in an economics research journal, and its design reflects research protocols of that field rather than educational research. Nonetheless, it is good empirical work. It involved five instructors teaching four different courses, both upper and lower division, and sizable student cohorts. Students in the study knew their grades were borderline. The finding is surprising. Why wouldn't a student study more when chances to improve a course grade were good? This research doesn't answer that question, but those of us who teach know that many students who are in peril don't believe that studying will make a difference. Often they're pretty much convinced that they can't master the material. They simply want to make it through the course. They spend their study time hoping that the exam will be easy and keeping their fingers crossed that they'll get lucky with their guesses. Grades are so important—to students, to their parents, to our institutions, and to employers. We need to know all that we can about what they do and don't accomplish in the learning experiences of students. They do motivate students, but perhaps not to the extent or in the ways we believe. References: Grant, D., and Green, W.B. (2013). Grades as incentives. Empirical Economics, 44, 1563-1592. Pulfrey, C., Darnon, C., and Butera, F. Why grades engender performance-avoidance goals: The mediating role of autonomous motivation. Journal of Educational Psychology. Advance online publication, June 20, 2011.