Winning the grade game

Should assessment be used as a motivational tool?

The way our grading system is set up feels like we are telling students that if they learn (or memorize) enough material, they will be rewarded with an A.  That is a very strong motivational tool for students who place a lot of stock in grades, which is many of them.  Personally speaking, this system worked just fine for me and several of my peers.  We were good a playing the grade game and winning with good grades.  However, several of us who get good grades also enjoy the process of learning (see any grad student), and thus the motivation shifts somewhere along the way to the process of learning the material, not just winning the grade game.

However, this system clearly does not work for everyone, and even may have done those who got good grades a disservice along the way.  The grade game can be a stressful one, and that stress leads to even higher stakes put in the grades students get.  Rapid inflation of the A may lead to an effect described by Dan Pink where the person can no longer think critically and that seems like it may be an issue in education.

So… is assessment a good motivational tool in education?  I do not think there is an easy answer to this.  Perhaps there is a place for grades in a classroom, but used in such ways that don’t stress students out.  For example, less testing and more emphasis on projects and problem solving may be a good way to incorporate autonomy, purpose, and mastery into the assessment process.  In this way, assessment may be an appropriate tool.

Category(s): GEDI

7 Responses to Winning the grade game

  1. Based on what you’re saying here, it’s almost as if we’re rewarding students for being good at memorizing rather than being good at learning. Is someone considered smart if they have good grades? Ultimately, yes. But did they get those grades through hard work and good study skills, actually learning the material and gaining knowledge, or a combination of both? Should it matter? In this context, I would advocate for more essays and papers rather than tests. These assessments will place more of an emphasis on application of concepts rather than pure memorization, which is the real goal of education – to be able to learn something so well you can integrate it into and apply it to everyday life and educational enhancement.

  2. There are lots of different ways to be motivated, and each person responds in their own ways. You bring up a good point that assessments and grades can be a motivational force. For example, the fear of being fired from your job can motivate you to do your work. Pressure from parents, the desire for a good salary, fame, and many other notions can drive students to perform in education.

    I think you could have a scale from negative to positive, and place these motivations loosely along the scale. Working because you’re afraid would be more negative, while working because you enjoy what you do would be more positive. With this idea of a positivity scale for motivation, I like to gauge how settled I feel for different motivators (I don’t mean to simplify motivation or other factors with this scale, it is more of a broad technique).

    You discuss that grades are used to represent a student’s performance. A single letter is used to represent all that a student did or learned over a semester. Of course this cannot possibly speak for all the individual experiences or skills, knowledge, and traits which don’t show through on a final exam. However, the grade has its uses. It does provide a generic indication of performance, is quickly understood by others, and can be used to compare students to others. If we remove or reduce grades, how do we fill those roles? We can’t go back and relive a student’s entire semester, so we need some way to compress and encapsulate a student’s experience in a class. What would that look like? How can it be used to compare against others?

  3. Absolutely, I also think it in the similar way. From my childhood I have seen some of my friends, even me stressing with the fact that “the timed test is going to judge us”, which scares a lot of students. A student can be good in his/her skill (lets say in programming) but for the time constraint and the typical type of exam (write about the key features of a procedural programming?), students performs poorly and ultimately they get a bad grade. I think the assessments can be done in a much creative way without stressing students but rightly judging their knowledge and skills.

  4. I can’t agree more. In my personal experience, grades motivated me. It was like my reward for hard work and a way of being recognized. However, Grades should never me the only indicator of how much student have learned in a class. They are just a tool, among others, that give a measure of how much this person performed or learned. They way we value the meaning of a grade should definitely be revisited and teachers have a responsibility to give autonomy to their student and put emphasis only on learning and motivation.

  5. I’ve always enjoyed the courses that encouraged group projects/reports than overemphasis on examinations. I was speaking with an instructor yesterday regarding this issue. She admitted she administered graded exams, but placed little weight on them. Instead, the students are given projects and reports, and asked to deliver presentations. While she’s not in engineering (as I am), this is an element of teaching that seems to dominate in most of my graduate courses. I’ve had three graduate courses, where the projects were sole source of the grade, and only one exam was actually given, but it was take home. The point is that, in the profession (at least in engineering), work is done in teams, thus teamwork should be emphasized in the classroom. As an undergraduate in engineering here Tech, I only had 3 courses that actually required giving (5 minute presentations) and a few courses that had group projects (unfortunately this forced me to work with students that had little interest in participating). WHY?! When I started grad school I was terrified of giving presentations (I still thought this meant I was to read directly off of note cards or slides) and an absolute fear of entering into group projects (I learned as an undergrad that most decisions and work would be pushed onto me). IF these important tasks were taught in the undergraduate classroom in place of meaningless high-weighted exams, students may enter the workforce more prepared.

  6. Congrats on playing the game so well. But as you said, it is not suitable for everyone. In another word, it is not fair to use only one criteria to evaluate all of people. We should admit the uniqueness of everyone. Different people have different strength and weaknesses. Some people are good at achieving a good score with enjoying learning. But some people are afraid of this kind of high timing system. We should innovate more systems to evaluate everyone fairly.

  7. I agree with what you are saying, but I think it’s really important that if we are going to use projects as a replacement for test-based assessment, that we aren’t doing it just to check a box, that we are assigning projects intentionally and meaningfully. We’ve all had that group project member who coasts by and does nothing. I think we as instructors will need to put a little thought and creativity into figuring out how projects – particularly group projects – can be used to measure each student’s understanding and learning progress.

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