Mind over matter: If you don’t mind learning the grade won’t matter


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, 1999; Docan, 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 prevents individuals from engaging in learning at a deeper, more explorative level.

The current grading system reinforces competition, rather than collaboration (Kohn, 1999; Rohe 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., 2006; White & 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.

Throughout these blogs the message is clear: psychological research must be implemented into pedagogy.


11 responses »

  1. I think the alternative overhaul would need to shift to mastery based learning. One approach to this is a student paced environment where knowledge or skills are mastered one step at a time until the point of perfection (Block and Burns, 1976). Only at this point, may a skill be certified so that the learner can move on.
    One of the criticisms of this approach is its connection to behaviourism, that it is rigid and mechanistic (Block & Burns, 1976). However the Daniel Pink (2009) demonstrated autonomous mastery as being highly creative, certainly more so than carrots and sticks. Certainly when the individual is working on a mastery paradigm the token value of grades is replaced merely by a discriminative ladder upon which all may eventually climb. This is the very essence of metacognition and the type of reward that creates intrinsic motivation. So a shift to such an approach makes opportunity and achievement available to all, at their own due pace.

    Block, J. H., & Burns, R. B. (1976). Mastery learning. Review of research in education, 4, 3-49. Retrieved from http://faculty.unlv.edu/jensen/html/Doctorate/CIT620/materials/block_burns_1976.pdf

    Pink, D. (2009). TED Talk: The Puzzle of Motivation. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_pink_on_motivation.html

  2. I think this is a very important issue to address. Grades determine our future, they determine whether we get into college, University and whether employers want to employ us. Grades determine what kind of person we are perceived to be; high grades suggest that person is hard working and intelligent low grades suggest the opposite, yet you may have a very hard working intelligent student who just isn’t very good at exams or should I say isn’t very good at memorising near to useless information. Well this seems very unfair and as you mention it is detrimental to students, both low and high achievers.
    Birney (1964) found that grades relate to course or subject interest. According to this research, courses which evoke little interest, high grades result in little effort from students but courses with higher interest and higher grades result in more effort from students. Furthermore, a study by Kohn (1993) found that a student tends to lose interest in a subject if they are continuously rewarded for it, they lose interest in the tasks they have to do to obtain that reward. Thus they are going to be less likely to work for it as they don’t see it as a challenge anymore. This demonstrates my earlier point. A student may achieve high grades yet they are not particularly hard working, they put in little effort however, their grade, to an outsider, for example an employer,would suggest differently. Thus this may result in them having a better chance of gaining employment over somebody who is much more hard working and conscientious, based solely on one letter. Seems very unfair and biased and something needs to be done, as you suggested in your talk.


    Kohn, A. Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993

    Robert C. Birney The Journal of Higher Education Vol. 35, No. 2 (Feb., 1964), pp. 96-98

  3. Grading is such an important aspect within education; Guskey (1) suggests that the best practice (whether to grade or not to grade) is as complex as it was 60 years ago. Doesn’t that tell us something? Educators are not sure of the answer, there will always be some form of debate and, actually, the evidence for/against is not being implemented into education (maybe because society has conformed to this way of thinking – that grades are the answer). Having said this, research has shown educators both sides of the debate. For one, it doesn’t matter what grades students receive, as long as the teacher can teach well (2). This results in confusion for the traditional method of teaching. If the teacher teaches well, then surely the student consequently will become a high achiever? Not necessarily, as the focus is still very much on teaching and not learning. The teacher may teach well, but 5% out of the whole class may not actually learn very much as the teaching may be teaching in a way that does not suit their learning. Having said this, it is suggested in Guskey’s (1) article, by Bloom et al., that teachers must check how well students are learning – by diagnosing any problems they are having and providing solutions to their learning, which is an example of advocating. Conversely, when teachers grade, they must describe and evaluate students’ work, which is an example of judging. It is therefore argued that advocating and judging do not go well together, suggesting that teachers have the difficulty of having to find a balance between the two.

  4. It is important to realise that the tests that are given to students are not always reliable, or in other words, the tests do not measure what they are meant to measure. When this happens the trust that the students have in the exams, and education systems decrease. Examples of this lack of trust in society are shown through the additional expectations that employers expect out of graduates. No longer is a degree enough for employment. It is argued that this lack of reliability in exams in not a new concept, instead has been an issue for over a century (1), the solution proposed is that this inaccuracy is acknowledged and understood so that the weaknesses and floors in testing and grading can be substituted or otherwise resolved. It is also acknowledged that testing individuals should not be the only means of assessing students. Research has identified that students should be exposed to “deep approaches to learning” which allow the student to critical analyse and synthesis the information being presented to them (2). This method of learning can be assessed through the student’s interaction with the information, not just the end result. By employing this method students are being assessed just as they would in the real world and it promotes a deeper understanding of the information.

    (1) http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/01411920500148648
    (2) http://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ988989

  5. In fact, grading is a very basic and important factor to indicate a student’s academic performance. Moreover, grading system exerts positive effect on students. According to Figlio, D. N., & Lucas, M. E. (2004), they showed that students benefit academically from higher teacher grading standards. They also indicated that it is more beneficial to high-level of academic students. Besides, Cherry, T. L., & Ellis, L. V. (2005) showed that rank-order grading system can improve student performance as well.
    However, there is still someone who may argue that grading system is not objective because it is just based on some criteria (University of Washington, no date). Moreover, it also mentioned that it is difficult to indicate a student’s level without teacher’s feedback.
    To be concluded, grading system is an effective way to indicate a student’s level. However, as you mentioned in your blog, it may easily lead students to become extrinically motivated. Therefore, rather than tradition grading system, teachers nowadays should implement a new grading system to provide a more objective and efficient way to assess student’s academic performance.


    Cherry, T. L., & Ellis, L. V. (2005). Does rank-order grading improve student performance? Evidence from a classroom experiment. International Review of Economics Education, 4(1), 9-19.

    Figlio, D. N., & Lucas, M. E. (2004). Do high grading standards affect student performance?. Journal of Public Economics, 88(9), 1815-1834.

    University of Washington (no date). Pros and Cons of Typical Grading Practices. Retrieved 19 November 2013, from http://depts.washington.edu/grading/practices/prosandcons.html

  6. I really enjoyed your blog and find it positive and an encouragement. I would like to share these

    points that tend to be the flip side to your point.

    Grades tend to reduce students’ interest in the learning itself. One of the most well-researched

    findings in the field of motivational psychology is that the more people are rewarded for doing

    something, the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward (Kohn,

    1993). Thus, it shouldn’t be surprising that when students are told they’ll need to know something

    for a test – or, more generally, that something they’re about to do will count for a grade – they are

    likely to come to view that task (or book or idea) as a chore.

    Grades tend to reduce students’ preference for challenging tasks. Students of all ages who have

    been led to concentrate on getting a good grade are likely to pick the easiest possible assignment if

    given a choice (Harter, 1978; Harter and Guzman, 1986; Kage, 1991; Milton et al., 1986). The more

    pressure to get an A, the less inclination to truly challenge oneself. Thus, students who cut corners

    may not be lazy so much as rational; they are adapting to an environment where good grades, not

    intellectual exploration, are what count. They might well say to us, “Hey, you told me the point here

    is to bring up my GPA, to get on the honor roll. Well, I’m not stupid: the easier the assignment, the

    more likely that I can give you what you want. So don’t blame me when I try to find the easiest thing

    to do and end up not learning anything.”

    Grades tend to reduce the quality of students’ thinking. Given that students may lose interest in

    what they’re learning as a result of grades, it makes sense that they’re also apt to think less deeply.

    One series of studies, for example, found that students given numerical grades were significantly less

    creative than those who received qualitative feedback but no grades. The more the task required

    creative thinking, in fact, the worse the performance of students who knew they were going to

    be graded. Providing students with comments in addition to a grade didn’t help: the highest

    achievement occurred only when comments were given instead of numerical scores (Butler, 1987;

    Butler, 1988; Butler and Nisan, 1986).

    Beck, H. P., S. Rorrer-Woody, and L. G. Pierce. “The Relations of Learning and Grade Orientations to

    Academic Performance.” Teaching of Psychology 18 (1991): 35-37.

    Benware, C. A., and E. L. Deci. “Quality of Learning With an Active Versus Passive Motivational

    Set.” American Educational Research Journal 21 (1984): 755-65.

    Kage, M. “The Effects of Evaluation on Intrinsic Motivation.” Paper presented at the meeting of the Japan Association of

    Educational Psychology, Joetsu, Japan, 1991.

  7. Amal I believe your comments, rather than being the flip side of my point as you suggested, highlight the main flaws of grading. Kohn (2011) expresses the opinions you have stated in his ‘Case Against Grades’, and I would highly recommend students who are unsure about the impact of grades to read this.

    Elton, whilst the research by Figlio & Lucas (2003) does suggest that higher grading standards may positively impact performance, this doesn’t provide an argument to support the continued use of grades in education. Figlio & Lucio (2003) admitted in their research that the desirability of using high grading standards in education is questionable, as it can help high-ability students at the expense of low-ability students. This highlights the point I made in my blog that low-ability students can experience negative affect and a decrease in motivation as a result of receiving grades (Meece, Anderman & Anderman, 2006). Research comparing the use of grades with detailed feedback found that providing students with feedback was more effective than using grades (Lipnevich & Smith, 2008). Therefore it is not grading standards that need changing, but to create an alternative method which assesses student’s performance more effectively than grades do. I will discuss alternative solutions in more detail on my next blog.

    It’s really positive to see that the majority of these comments are recognising the flaws of grading. As suggested in my talk, students need to be involved and engaged in educational change to ensure it is successful (Wah, 2007). Students debating and recognising these issues in our blogs and comments is a positive first step.

    Figlio, D. N., & Lucas, M. E. (2004). Do high grading standards affect student performance?. Journal of Public Economics, 88(9), 1815-1834.
    Kohn. (2011). The Case Against Grades. Educational Leadership. Retrieved from http://www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/tcag.htm.
    Lipnevich, A. A., & Smith, J. K. (2008). Response to assessment feedback: The effects of grades, praise, and source of information. Princeton, NJ: ETS.
    Meece, J. L., Anderman, E. M., & Anderman, L. H. (2006). Classroom goal structure, student motivation, and academic achievement. Annu. Rev. Psychol., 57, 487-503.
    Wah, W. Y. L. (2007). Challenges and Strategies to Educational Change–Introducing School-based Curriculum. New Horizons in Education, 55(2), 78-96.

  8. I guess for this module we ought to be writing for the comments – rather than the grade.

    If peer-feedback were the only method of marking, it could be a solution to some of the issues that you described. Some research has found that peer-assessment is a more valid and reliable method of assessment (Liu et al., 2006). Dominic et al. (1997) found that peer feedback in group work, led to signifiant improvements in behaviour.

    Although it appears this isn’t a clear-cut issue – Xie et al. (2008) found that in student blogging, the combination of peer feedback an journal writing reduced reflective thinking skills.

    Dominick, P. G., Reilly, R. R., & Mcgourty, J. W. (1997). The effects of peer feedback on team member behavior. Group & Organization Management, 22(4), 508-520.

    Liu, N. F., & Carless, D. (2006). Peer feedback: the learning element of peer assessment. Teaching in Higher Education, 11(3), 279-290.

    Xie, Y., Ke, F., & Sharma, P. (2008). The effect of peer feedback for blogging on college students’ reflective learning processes. The Internet and Higher Education, 11(1), 18-25.

    • Edited version:

      For this module, maybe we ought to be writing for the comments – rather than the grade. If peer-feedback were the only method of marking, it could be a solution to some of the issues that you described. Some research has found that peer-assessment is a more valid and reliable method of assessment (Liu et al., 2006). Also Dominic et al. (1997) found that peer feedback in response to group work, led to significant improvements in behavior from the group members.

      Although it appears this isn’t a clear-cut issue – Xie et al. (2008) found that in student blogging, the combination of peer feedback and journal writing reduced reflective thinking skills. Reflection was described as being an important prerequisite for deep and meaningful learning, and finding solutions to problems (Moon, 1999).

      Intrinsic motivation can be catalyzed or undermined by teacher practices (Ryan & Stiller, 1991). As intrinsic motivation has been shown to result in higher quality learning and creativity, it is important to identify the factors that undermine it (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Grading means that students become extrinsically motivated to complete their work, and either do so with resentment or with a willingness reflecting the utility of the activity. As you have highlighted throughout your blogs, there are many issues with the current system of grading. In addition, its very presence has been shown to undermine student motivation.

      Dominick, P. G., Reilly, R. R., & Mcgourty, J. W. (1997). The effects of peer feedback on team member behavior. Group & Organization Management, 22(4), 508-520.
      Liu, N. F., & Carless, D. (2006). Peer feedback: the learning element of peer assessment. Teaching in Higher Education, 11(3), 279-290.
      Moon, J. A. (1999). Reflection in learning and professional development: Theory and practice. London Sterling, VA: Kogan Page: Stylus Pub.
      Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary educational psychology, 25(1), 54-67.
      Ryan, R. M., & Stiller, J. (1991). The social contexts of internalization: Parent and teacher influences on autonomy, motivation and learning.
      Xie, Y., Ke, F., & Sharma, P. (2008). The effect of peer feedback for blogging on college students’ reflective learning processes. The Internet and Higher Education, 11(1), 18-25.

  9. Pingback: Applying Motivational Theory to Blogging | psue9e

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