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Finding Your Happy Place: The Negative Impact of Grades on Learning


Welcome back to my series on grading. If you haven’t already, please check out the first two posts: “Food For Thought: The Lack of Validity and Reliability with Grades” and “One Small Step: The Power of Approximation on Learning.” As I wrote last week, outside of school, we celebrate the approximation of learning. Doing so focuses on and fosters innate curiosity, persistence, and growth. However, in schools, rather than celebrating approximation, we use grades to communicate a lack of progress toward a goal, and then we wonder why students in schools become disengaged and disconnected from learning. Like children's initial attempts at talking and walking are celebrated for the progress they represent, we should recapture this enthusiasm for learning in school, rather than letting grades stifle our natural curiosity.

With this in mind, let’s examine the impact grading would have outside of schools for adults and use that as a means to reconsider how we use grading in schools. Think of a hobby you do for fun. For some, it’s gardening, for others it’s archery. For some, it’s reading, for others it’s crafting. For me, it’s baking and cooking. Most Sundays I’m in the kitchen for hours. My time usually begins by baking and it’s usually a fairly advanced recipe. I like the challenge. Mostly, what I bake tastes better than it looks because I have never taken a decorating class and I do not make the recipe often enough to perfect the details. After baking, I’ll spend the rest of the day making a Sunday dinner. The food I produce approximates the intended outcome because it is rarely worthy of an Instagram photo and it is never something someone should pay money for. I am an amateur home cook. Even so, I am furiously motivated by and curious about what new yummy things I can make. The kitchen is my happy place.

Now imagine I had to bake and cook for a grade. Would the grade tempt me to push my limits or to take the easy win? Since I would want the highest grade possible, I would be concerned that if I tried something new or difficult, I wouldn’t be as successful as I would be by making something routine and simple. My focus would be on the grade rather than on the learning or possible accomplishment of trying something new. Therefore, grading would cause me to stick with the tried and true (easy wins). The grade would diminish my desire to attempt new or challenging recipes and expand my range.

Moreover, what impact would grading have on my motivation to be in the kitchen? Would the grade increase my motivation or decrease it? For me, the answer is clear. Grading my food would decrease my motivation to bake and cook. Without grading, I am already intrinsically motivated to be in the kitchen. I do not need or want a grade. Rather than feeling joyful and confident in the kitchen, I would feel pressured and stressed. I would worry about “what will my grade be if this doesn’t turn out right” instead of thinking, “I’m excited to see how this turns out.” Grading my food would shift the kitchen from being my happy place to being another place of stress.

The prevailing argument for grading in schools suggests that grades are motivating. Given this, one might understand how grading intrinsically motivated people could result in demotivation. However, what about tasks students are not intrinsically motivated to do–which, some might say, is much of what students need to do in school? Those who feel this way would argue that when/if someone is not intrinsically motivated to do a task, the grade becomes the motivation to do the work. Without the grade, the task is undone.

So, let’s imagine that instead of being graded for something I’m intrinsically motivated to do, I’m being graded for something I don’t want to do in the first place. For this example, I’ll use the task of doing laundry. While I am intrinsically motivated to have clean clothes, doing laundry is literally a chore and something I will never do with any higher level of engagement beyond compliance. My grade right now regarding laundry is probably a B- at best. I don’t do it until the weekends. I have tried my best to farm out different aspects of it (for example, having one of the kids sort the laundry and another kid bring the laundry upstairs). I often rope my husband into helping me fold the laundry. I never dry-clean anything. I rarely iron. Giving me a grade will not improve my feelings about doing laundry nor will it change my approach. The grade will make me feel like I’m doing something wrong even though the clothes are cleaned, cared for, and the laundry is done.

You can argue my intrinsic motivation to have clean clothes is enough to get me to do the laundry regardless of the degree to which I do it. In this way, some might say it is not a fair comparison to tasks students have to do in school which, without grades, would never be done. For that reason, let’s play this out with a task I currently avoid that has no intrinsic benefit to me: playing chess. In fact, decades ago I took a class once to learn how to play chess. While I do enjoy playing games, especially games that require strategy, I do not enjoy playing chess. My kids love to play chess so playing it would increase my opportunity to have quality time with them. Yet, I have no interest in learning to get better or play at all. If I played and you graded me, I cannot imagine that would be motivating. Since I don’t want to play, the likely possibility of a poor grade only makes me want to avoid it even more.

Here’s the final argument to use grades as motivation…at least if I grade it, it will get done. This is the same way we get people to pay their taxes. We know that paying taxes is inherently something people would avoid so we offer the consequence of fines and jail because, without those penalties, taxes would remain unpaid. Do we really think so little of what we assign to students that without the fear of a low grade, students would avoid the work like people avoid taxes? If so, that’s a telling commentary on the work we ask students to do.

Ironically, grading, intended to motivate, can often extinguish the very spark of curiosity it aims to ignite. If we want to empower students to become self-directed learners who are intrinsically motivated to pursue knowledge for its own sake, then grading them relentlessly undermines our goal. Why? Using grades in this way shifts the focus from learning to evaluation, from process to product. Ultimately, the goal is to create lifelong learners, not grade-chasers. By fostering intrinsic motivation and a love for learning, we can ensure that the pursuit of knowledge remains alive and well within schools and continues long after graduation. After all, don’t we all want school to be a student’s happy place?


P.S. There are some people in your life who just show up and are always there to encourage you. My Catch of the Week, Steve Barkley, does this for me. Not only does he read my posts and support my books, but he has asked me multiple times to be a guest on his podcast. I am so grateful and so happy to share our most recent episode, "Tech Tools and Student Engagement" with you here. Please listen to this episode and check out his wealth of episodes, posts, and resources while you're there!

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