Are grades good motivators?

Dan Pink puts forward the fact that incentives at a workplace do not help in improving the work or achieving a task faster.  Moreover, sometimes they hamper the task at hand. In short, incentives are not a good motivator.  He further talks about the importance of Autonomy (desire of self-driven), Mastery (desire to learn and improve without any incentive or recognition) and lastly Purpose (something you can align yourself with, want to achieve through work and contribute to the world). These points made by Dan Pink makes me think that in a way grading and assessment at the school or university level are supposed to be motivators. The question is how good are they?

Well, getting good grades might land you a job but does not necessarily guarantee mastery, autonomy, purpose or even creativity. The only way these things can be achieved is if we start to adopt a new way of learning which focuses more on learning and mastery rather than grades. If we want students to retain knowledge and transfer it further, written exams and tests alone won’t help. Practical knowledge along with the use of creativity and problem -solving needs to be adopted as well.

There is no way we can get away with the exams completely. They have their place. But there is a need for change in student attitudes. There is a need to make them think that learning is also important and not only grades. This I think can be done by incorporating new assessment techniques. Group projects involving real-life problems is one of the ways. Group projects also lead to peer assessment which is very close to the real world job scenario. I also feel that exam questions should be set more in a practical way rather than a theoretical way. Real life situations in exams will make students think of the problem at hand, analyze it, question it, use existing approaches to solve it and identify the consequences. Self-assessment by the students at the end of the class is something that is gaining popularity as well. This is where students assess their performance in the class and submit the assessment to the teacher. In the end, it is all about adjustment and change for the betterment. It does not motivate students to do better but moreover, stops their creative thinking by narrowing their approach to learning. Bad grades may also sometimes shatter you completely. So, I think a mid-way approach (improving our current grading system) is the best way forward. I am of the view that grading and exams should stay but their importance should be minimal. Learning is the main focus and should always be.

What do you think? Are the grades necessary? Are they motivating students to perform better? Is there a middle way? Can we improve the current grading system and make it more learning-centric?



22 Replies to “Are grades good motivators?”

  1. I really agree with your point that assessment would be improved by increasing the focus on practical application and real life examples. I find that this tends to be the way that I learn best (I’m not particularly good at memorization and enjoy learning much more when I see how it fits in with real life). I recently took a licensure exam within my field and the test was constructed much like the way we would navigate real life cases. Information built on previous steps and if a mistake was made early on it may impact everything else that came after. I appreciated this approach as it mimicked what I will be expected to be able to do daily in my professional life, rather than testing dates and names and such that I had to memorize from a book.

    1. Thanks for reading. I agree with you. I think real life situations kind of prepare you for the problems in the real world. It not only gives you confidence but also let us be creative and innovative in the process which is kind of lacking in today’s grading process.

  2. Jap,

    “There is a need to make them think that learning is also important and not only grades.” You are 100% correct on this point. I believe that evaluation as a purely diagnostic measure can work, but only if the goals for a class are clearly stated, are justified, and clearly related to the student’s benefit. When that happens, then the students will engage more with their learning processes and not experience the alienation from their work that the current grading model perpetuates.

    1. Thanks for reading, Jon. Today’s grading system does not do justice to the learning process. The learning somewhere gets lost while chasing the perfect grade at the end. But you are right that if the goals and objectives of the class are clearly stated and help the student learn, it does make the class more interesting and engaging.

  3. I vote for the Middle Way, for extremes lead to great suffering, And I vote for it only as long as we understand there is no perfect solution, for even the ‘boundaries’ of the middle path shift. I think compromises can be made.
    At the college level, we eventually find a lane we wish to be proficient in – engineering, art, science, history – and it would be beneficial for us to have a good understanding of what we’re talking about by the time we graduate, yes? Architecture firms don’t hire architects who don’t know architecture. And architecture students don’t want to go to schools that don’t teach architecture well. And schools don’t want to hire teachers that don’t teach well. So assessment is needed for all kinds of levels.
    I like your call for group projects that involve knowledge of real-life tasks and scenarios – something engaging and meaningful. Completing parts of the task to begin with, sections before whole, until an entire project can be reviewed, evaluated, and resolved – the final. It’s not fool-proof, but it’s creative.
    Not every answer will be correct. In ‘real-life’ situations, what projects run smooth without a hitch? I’ve never worked on one in my life. But it is within those very mistakes and errors we learn the correct way. I think we can find a balance in there somewhere. Nice post!

    1. Thanks for reading, Ben. I completely agree with you. The middle way is probably the way to go. Some kind of assessment is needed at all levels. But there is a need to make the learning process more important than the grades. I know many people who do not have good grades but are far better engineers conceptually than I am. I am of the view that the present grading system needs to be changed a little bit.

      1. Hello Jap & Ben!

        I enjoyed your post & this thread that followed. I am also a proponent of something like the “middle way” and see a lot of value in leveraging a pragmatic approach to teaching and learning and setting students up to apply their knowledge and skills. I think you both are going to be really into our Case Study/PBL unit (you’re probably very familiar with these methods already) because we are going to have a dynamite speaker that week & will share a lot of material that can help you shape these kinds of activities/projects for your students (it’s also one of the deliverables, so you’ll get to make one of your own!)

  4. Thank you for your post! I was also thinking of the purpose of assessment, and whether the current grading system would fit into the purpose. Definitely, assessment is not to define their ability, nor to criticize their performance. As you pointed out, assessment is to prepare students better for the real world and to make them learn more. So, I totally agree with your idea that grading and exams need to exist, with the transformation of its focus toward motivators.

  5. My favorite example to de-centralize grades a little bit is when we shop (for goods or service) online. We don’t fully trust the stars, do we? They might be manufactured, or paid for or not even objective enough. What we usually do is to check the reviews, the testimonials people took time to write for that service or product that summarizes the quality of the work. Nobody writes those reviews based on a rubric and yet they are so useful.

    1. Thanks for reading, Arash. You gave a great example. The present grading system is not a good representation of learning and knowledge.

  6. Hi Japsimran, this is a great post and really good food for thought. While learning should be the main objective and focus, grades are seen as the indicators of the students for themselves, unfortunately. Living in a neoliberal competitive world, unfortunately, I think it is really hard to make students think more about the importance of learning. Even if we improve the current grading system to make it more learning-centric, I doubt that students appreciate that. In the class this semester, I told my students that they are really more than their scores and the result when they lost 0.75 from their quiz, most of them came to my office hours and implicitly or many times explicitly saying that they need to do an internship or their grades will have an impact their positions in military at VT. I am really struggling to find an answer to that… but appreciated your post!

    1. Thanks for reading. You are right, it is sad to learn that everything is about grades nowadays. This needs to be changed and hopefully, it will over time.

  7. You’re asking some really good questions here!
    What I’ve been slowly realizing as I read through this module’s blogs, is that I come from a certain academic background and that that background leads me to have specific views on some topics that may not hold true across all fields.

    There are a lot of science, engineering and math students in our class. I study international relations(IR). While there is some quantitative work in the form of statistical analysis in what people in my field do, for the most part IR scholars are responsible for good research design, critical thinking, creative ideas and clear writing. I do not think these things are testable and assessments can have many different forms. For most of the classes I’ve taken as a graduate student here, out final assessments have been 25 page research papers that we work on throughout the semester. We might get some credit for participating in seminar discussion or proving reading completion/comprehension, but for the most part we’re graded on papers. If my professors suddenly started trying to test me in my classes, I don’t think I would take very kindly to that change. But likewise, it sounds like a lot of our classmates ARE required to take tests because that’s the way their fields have traditionally done things. I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t really have answers, but I do think it’s important for all of us (myself included) to consider where we are situated and how there will not be any blanket statements that can account for assessments across all fields.

    1. Thanks for reading. I completely agree with you. One approach would not work for all the fields across education. As you said, engineering and science focus too much on grading quantitive work. I am not against solving equations and maths but that is not the only thing. Learning should be the prime focus instead. And it gets diluted in the race of competitive grading system.

  8. Thank you for your post. I wanted to reply to this one, specifically, because I teach a course that is 100% project based, which I agree is a great approach to knowledge transfer and open ended learning.

    I also grade. I thought grades would be a motivator for my students. What I’ve learned is that for some it is and for some it isn’t. Last year I had a few students skip entire groups of assignments because they did the math and were okay with getting a zero for 15% of their grade. Clearly grades didn’t motivate these students.

    I grade for multiple reasons – some I’m learning aren’t good reasons. I grade with lecture quizzes in an attempt to improve lecture participation. This isn’t the best approach so this coming fall I’m going to continue lecture based grading but with the Top Hat learning system integrated into my lectures to make them more interactive – I hope it helps. I know there are many other ways to improve lectures, too.

    I also grade because my department is ABET accredited and I have to provide lecture, assignment and assessment proof that my students are performing well enough against ABET dictated learning objectives. Even when I don’t agree with the learning objectives or the recommended assessment methodologies.

    Finally I grade to give feedback. This is the only one I really believe in. I learned in some Engineering Education classes last spring the true value of feedback. Assess the students, provide thorough feedback and let them resubmit the work. There is research that shows this improves knowledge transfer. I suppose that I could provide the feedback without the grade but my department isn’t ready for that yet.

    My students learn the most from the build and test phase of their project (it is Mechanical Engineering Senior Design Capstone, where they design, build and test an actual device) where they experience failure and trial and error. Parts don’t fit together the way they thought. Friction makes things difficult, etc. I’m facilitating this learning and, for now, have to assess them on it with quantifiable results.

    I guess the bottom line is that project based learning IS awesome but it isn’t the end of assessments (at least not yet or not in this university/department/class). And that I’m experimenting with different classroom and grading techniques to minimize the affects of learning-for-the-test in my class the best ways I can. Each year it is a slightly different experiment. I originally thought (naively) that in four or five years I’d have this teaching thing down pat. In reality it is a constantly evolving, moving target. I like it better that way. Or else I would lose my desire to learn and evolve as a teacher.

    1. Thanks for reading. And it was nice to read your little story. It seems like you will eventually find the perfect balance between learning and grades in the class you teach. I am very happy to hear that you agree with me on project-based learning.

  9. Jap, wonderful post. I agree with some of the points you bring up. Although, one of your comments “The only way these things can be achieved is if we start to adopt a new way of learning which focuses more on learning and mastery rather than grade” got me thinking as I continued to read your post. You also have the view that grades are important but should have a minimal impact and maximize learning-oriented approaches.

    I’m curious if you have an idea of what learning method that shares similar views to Dan Pink where autonomy, mastery, purpose thrives and the focus isn’t on grades. As it stands, if we reduce the impact of grades we reduce also chance reducing their importance to the mass student population within a class. Ultimately, this means we need to offer something more.

    I have considered more of an experiential approach to foster autonomy, mastery, and purpose. I believe we could align the goals of students via their experience in the classroom. This might be why a creative solution is building portfolios where students can engage in something they enjoy.


    1. Thanks for reading, Tim. I believe a combination of project-based learning and experiential learning is the best way. I also think that it is hard to please and accommodate everyone in the class. Right now, theoretical teaching along with big assignments and exams are not fostering learning. I feel that one learns something with practice. A project-based approach along with experiential activities in a class can help you learn more than just theoretical teaching. Obviously, old school blackboard teaching has to stay in place but it can be substituted partially with these approaches. I hope I answered your question.

  10. Interesting post. I agree that grading has its own benefits and the purpose of teaching is not a good grade but learning well which eventually can result in a good grade. In addition, I believe the reason why students have this point of view is mostly that the whole society and system are comparing and evaluating the students’ abilities based on their grade which are not necessarily good scale for their learning process.

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