Grades as a necessary evil? How they affect student motivation and what we can do about it.

By Heather Fedesco, CFT Assistant Director

During the December meeting of the CFT’s student motivation journal club, we tackled the perplexing question of whether grades help or hinder student motivation. Chamberlin and colleagues’ paper titled, “The impact of grades on student motivation” gave us a great launching point to embark on this discussion.

The authors reviewed literature that suggests that grades may play a dual function. On the one hand, they provide feedback to students, measure performance for external audiences, and they might enhance motivation if students perceive them as competence-enhancing feedback. On the other hand, grades have been associated with higher levels of stress, anxiety and cheating behaviors, and a reduction in cooperative learning, critical thinking, autonomous academic motivation, and feelings of trust between the instructor and student.  

In light of this previous research, their focus was on the following key questions:

  1. How do grades and narrative evaluations affect basic psychological needs (autonomy, competence, relatedness) and academic motivation in undergraduate students?
  2. More generally, what types of academic motivation drive undergraduate students?
  3. Do universities with alternative grading systems attract or engender students with different academic motivation?

To answer these questions, the authors conducted a mixed methods study at three institutions with differing grading systems:

Specifically, Chamberlin et al. relied on end of semester course evaluations from the Hybrid-University. They also conducted interviews with 13 participants from the Hybrid-University where they asked what information (if any) they received from grades, whether grades affect what classes they take, how their relationship to grades has changed since high school, and whether their motivation, engagement or experience differed when they received narrative evaluations vs. grades. Finally, they surveyed all three institutions: Grades (n=100), Hybrid (n=113) and Narrative (n = 181). They included the Academic Motivation Scale to assess intrinsic and extrinsic motivation (e.g., I go to university because I experience pleasure and satisfaction while learning new things [intrinsic]; I go to university because eventually it will enable me to enter the job market in a field that I like [extrinsic]). They also included the Learning Self-Regulation Questionnaire to assess autonomous vs. controlled regulation for engaging in specific learning techniques (e.g., I participate actively in my class because learning is important to my intellectual growth [autonomous]; I participate actively in my class because others would think badly of me if I didn’t [controlled]). They then ran an ANOVA to test their research questions.

Results of the qualitative analyses revealed that grades had more negative consequences than narrative feedback. Specifically, grades provided information on students’ skills or abilities that helped them avoid classes, teachers or assignments that would lower GPAs or helped them avoid careers in which they may be more likely to fail. Grades sometimes encouraged students to take the easier/safer route over taking courses that would be more meaningful to them. Grades were also a source of stress and anxiety for students who received either higher and lower grades. Students also were unable to identify ways that grades provided competence-enhancing information feedback (e.g., how grades help them adjust their study habits).

Students reported that perceptions of inconsistency and fairness in grading can affect their interpersonal relationships with their instructors. In addition, low grades can negatively affect relationships with instructors, peers, and parents.

There was a mix of students who cared more about grades in high school or college with some feeling like they were less concerned about grades in high school because they consistently received high grades. Others felt they cared less about grades in college because they were more autonomously motivated to learn. Other contextual factors that influenced perceptions of grades and their impact on motivation include consistently receiving low grades and not having plans for graduate school. Finally, some students identified a consumeristic approach to their education where they spoke about the exchange of tuition for desirable grades.

When reflecting on the narrative evaluations, students said that they were more useful than grades because they provided information on specific areas of competence, areas that need improvement, and advice on how to improve. Even when students received critical comments, trust with the instructor was still intact because they respected their instructor and their feedback. Students felt that more trust and a closer interpersonal relationship could be fostered with their instructors because instructors could give feedback that is tailored to the student as a person and how they can grow. Finally, when receiving narrative evaluations, students said it encourages them to care more about the collective learning experience rather than the individualistic grade. They were also less likely to focus on superficial details of an assignment.

Turning towards the quantitative results, Chamberlin and colleagues found that students from the two universities with alternative grading systems tended to have higher autonomous motivation for attending university, while the participants at Grades-University scored the lowest. For autonomous motivation to engage in learning, Narrative-University scored higher in comparison to Hybrid- and Grades-University. Finally, none of the interaction terms that they tested had significant effects, except that students with higher high school GPAs had higher autonomous academic motivation to attend university.

In sum, Chamberlin et al. conclude that for the students in their research study, grades were associated with more detriments to their motivation whereas narrative feedback had more positive effects on student motivation. They acknowledge that while it is unlikely for universities to abolish grades, specific programs or courses (e.g., introductory courses, graduate schools) could incorporate narrative evaluations as opposed to multi-interval grades given the prioritization of deep learning over the standardized communication of performance to external audiences for these types of programs and courses. Moreover, instructors can provide narrative/written feedback several days prior to providing grades on an assignment to help students focus their attention on the learning goals as opposed to an extrinsic reward.

During our discussion of this article in the journal club meeting, some instructors weren’t sure how to execute narrative feedback effectively for large class sizes or they felt that giving narrative feedback on ungraded assignments was a daunting task. Some questioned whether giving narrative feedback prior to giving a grade might undo the motivational effects of narrative feedback, or might reinforce the detrimental consequences of grades on student motivation. Others reflected on moments in previous classes where they gave feedback on an assignment rather than a grade and students couldn’t help but ask how that feedback translated to a specific grade. Conversely, one participant reflected on her positive experience receiving narrative feedback at the end of each of her doctoral courses, which helped her figure out what to do at each next step in her career, suggesting that incorporating this type of feedback in graduate schools may not only be more feasible but also very helpful.

We considered other variations that may help downplay the effects of grades on motivation. One option was a non-graded course where everyone gets an A if they show up – something that could occur in a senior level course. Students are happy because the A adds to their GPA, but really they only get narrative feedback throughout the course, which helps facilitate their deeper learning.

One participant reflected on grading contracts that were instituted in a graduate level statistics course she was part of. The requirements for what was necessary for an A were listed with less requirements listed to earn a B. Essentially, students agree to do a set amount of work and if completed, they would earn the grade associated with that.

As another option, pass/fail classes might make students feel less stressed or anxious about their grades and they can instead focus their energy on the parts of the course they are most interested in/where they get the most enjoyment out of. Of course, students in these courses might still be strategic about their learning, which may encourage them to continuously ask the instructor where the line is between passing and failing so that they can do the minimum amount of work needed in order to pass the class.   

Instructors can also reconsider how they go about providing feedback. For example, one participant asked how much of our feedback is given to justify the quantitative grade versus helping students improve on the next assignment? If we instead shifted our feedback to be more in line with giving information about where students stand in terms of the course learning objectives versus justifying the quantitative grade, the feedback might have more value and might help students meet the learning goals. This could also be done when talking with students about assignments during office hours. When students start moving the conversation to be more about their grade, instructors can steer them away and focus more on what’s really important on the assignment and what they should take away from it, rather than the grade itself.

One instructor mentioned that for her cumulative final project, students receive small bits of narrative feedback throughout the course to help improve their project. Before students submit their final project, she asks them what they want feedback on for this final submission since they were receiving feedback on the entire project throughout the semester. This helps save some time while giving students feedback on something they might actually want to read (versus the majority of our feedback, which perhaps goes unread).

Finally, one last possibility that we discussed was giving students written feedback on their work and then asking them to assign themselves a grade based on this feedback. Taken together, it is unclear whether these suggestions will remove some of the negative effects that grades have on student motivation, but they could be interesting starting points.

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