Illustration by Madison Reardon

Student learning more effective without grades

Grades hinder student learning. Recently, a friend of mine completed an assignment in a way they felt was far below their personal quality standards, but they said, “I think it’s good enough to get 100%, and that’s what I care about.” I doubt any instructor wants students to think in this way, but many of us experience it. Students, as far as I have seen, tend to lean toward doing the minimum for their desired grade. While this is great for maximizing productivity, it is not ideal for genuine learning.

Until around halfway through high school, I did not understand this phenomenon. I was the stereotypical teacher’s pet, obsessive rule-follower and straight-A student. I cared deeply about doing my best on every assignment due to Generalized Anxiety, ADHD and rejection sensitive dysphoria, which combined to form an intense fear of being seen as a failure in any way. I think many students may relate to these thoughts, even if it is to a lesser degree.

Fear of failure both drove me to complete schoolwork and factored into why I frequently submitted assignments late, as I was never satisfied with their quality. Eventually, the inevitable happened. I collapsed under the perpetually increasing pressure to achieve the impossible goals of scholarly perfection I set for myself. I have always been someone who enjoys learning, but by middle school, trying to complete schoolwork caused debilitating breakdowns.

As much as one may wish a grade could objectively measure students’ learning, that simply is not the case. Grading styles vary among teachers, grades themselves can be wildly inaccurate and grading criteria are frequently ambiguous. Perhaps more importantly, the social construction of grades as intellectual currency gives them an emotional power far beyond their intended meaning. High grades never increased my motivation. One low grade however, and my confidence plummeted.

That can be partly explained by the rejection sensitive dysphoria I experience, which is an overwhelming emotional response to actual or perceived rejection or criticism. However, there are many studies that show similar results. According to Dr. Brookhart, PhD in Educational Research and Evaluation, a poor grade is likely to cause abandonment of course work rather than attempts at improvement. Even when positive feedback is provided with the grade, it often does little to reduce the negative effect on student motivation. This is unsurprising, since comments are less likely to be read if presented alongside a grade value, regardless of what that value is.

Additionally, the way motivation works is counterintuitive. If there is something you already enjoy, being offered a reward can make you skeptical. Compensation implies that the activity is not worth doing for its own sake. Good grades are a type of reward, and thus function similarly. Grades make schoolwork, and learning itself, less meaningful, and reduce intrinsic motivation and creativity. This is not to say that grades are inherently bad. They can be useful tools for indicating subject mastery, but they should be used carefully and sparingly.

Clear, constructive feedback is the most effective way to increase student learning. According to a study conducted by psychologist Ellis Page in 1958, even simple, standardized comments such as “good work, keep at it,” correlate with significant improvement on future assessments. Studies in more recent years have also produced the same results. The 2009 study by Chase & Houmanfar determined that specific feedback is far more beneficial, but I would happily take generic comments over nothing at all.

For my fellow students, examine your relationship with grades. It is possible to take power back and find motivation in your own interests. Remind each other that grades do not define you. Professors, I encourage you to further explore the scientific literature on the impact of grading. All students deserve to learn, and there are simple changes that can help. Start by providing feedback that emphasizes high expectations and support for students. Grades will not disappear any time soon, but we can reduce their negative impacts.If you would like any of the sources that I found useful in researching this topic or are interested in discussing grades, feel free to contact me via email at lc21-1040@lclark.edu.

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