Are grades an incentive?

I’ve been reading lots of posts on places like Facebook recently about grading. Mainly because it’s that time of year where people are wrapping up courses and getting down to grading final exams and settling on final marks. A stressful time of year for both students and instructors – where the students aren’t sure if they work will pay off and the instructors agonize over whether the work done really does show the effort and knowledge of the student.

So, while already thinking about grading, I came across an article from University Affairs called Grades, the currency on campus. I have to say, I don’t really agree with this article, since they sort of suggest that grades can be a disincentive towards learning. And, personally, I always find grades as a motivator.

In one study, researchers looked at rewarding students with money for how they did on a test. They found if students had to wait a month for the reward, it was less motivating. The article then concludes “[t]his is a serious problem in education, where incentives are almost always delayed.” I disagree, because in pretty much every course I’ve ever taken, you were being constantly graded. And you knew that those grades would affect your final grade. So wanting an ‘A’ at the end of the semester wasn’t only important at the end, but all the way through. If you only aimed for ‘B’s during the semester, you knew it would be hard or impossible to get an ‘A’ at the end.

I posed the following question to my sister – would you prefer no grades (pass/fail) or grades? For me, I’d prefer grades. Because with just pass/fail, it’s hard to have any good idea of how much of the material you are mastering – especially if all assignments are pass/fail. On top of that, how do you determine if you’re improving? That’s not to say pass/fail can’t work. And, grad students should be the ideal candidates, since we’re technically highly motivated students (I say should be because I know students where they would do the bare minimum). At least with grades, you have a better idea on how much of the material you seem to understand. My sister wanted a third option – pass/fail but with lots of comments to provide extra information – how are you doing and are you getting better and what can you improve. Some of that information (the first two anyway) can be provided through grades.

At her work, (large public service), they did a survey of employees who were attending grad school while working. They wanted to know what it was that motivated these students and how they could encourage it for others. The results were that pretty much every employee said they would be going to grad school regardless of whether the employer helped them. It was self-motivation that was the main key. Sure, paying part of the tuition helped, but it wasn’t the deciding or main motivating factors. And I think this is true about grades.

Self-motivation versus incentives is an interesting concept. And one I struggle with. Some days I have tons of self-motivation. But the next one I’ll be trying to come up with incentives to get things done. However, I think we would be better off if we encouraged students to learn how to self-motivate versus developing incentives to get them finished.

In that Procrastination book I read, one of my favorite studies they talked about had to do with self-motivation. Some researchers gave a group of kids an IQ test and came up with an average score. A few weeks later, they gave the kids a second IQ test with the promise of an M&M for each right answer. The average score went up. Later, a second group of researchers wanted to look into this some more. So they gave some kids an IQ test like the first researchers. However, they then split the kids into three groups based on their scores. Next, they gave the kids the second IQ test with the M&M incentive. However, this time they found that the average score only went up significantly for the bottom group of kids. It wasn’t that they weren’t as intelligent as the middle (their new average was about the same as the middle group) but they weren’t self-motivated to perform well on the test. The bigger conclusion though, was that the result that was more significant for this group of kids, was the first score – when they didn’t have the M&M incentive. As it was more predictive as to how they would do in life. The moral of the story (or studies :P) is that self-motivation is really important.

So… do you think having grades made you work harder? Or was it a disincentive to you? Have any of your courses been pass/fail? Did you like it? Where do you stand on grades and grading?


One thought on “Are grades an incentive?

  1. As a student, I’ve always found grades to be very motivating, as I always used to find the external validation of my understanding of the course content to be a helpful way for me to gauge my learning.

    Then when I started teaching, I saw how the sausage was made, and quickly grew to hate them… not because of anything intrinsicly bad about grades, but because of how students perceive them. I have had students tell me that I’m slow at returning feedback on their progress, but that’s not true. I return feedback very quickly, but often slow down on computing grades.

    It bothers me when students conflate grades with feedback. Grades exist for the benefit of the powers that be. I’d rather have comments in the margins to a big number any day of the week.

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