Grades: Not the motivation we want

If the question is “Do rewards motivate students?” the answer is, “Absolutely, they motivate students to get rewards.” – Alfie Kohn

Last week, after several days spent learning about operant conditioning and behaviorism, my AP Psych students read Alfie Kohn’s 1994 article, “The Risks of Rewards.”

In this article, Kohn argues that rewards are as damaging to children as punishments, and what children need (instead of grades) is an engaging curriculum, a safe learning environment, and the ability to follow their own interests.

“At least two dozen studies have shown that people expecting to receive a reward for completing a task (or for doing it successfully) simply do not perform as well as those who expect nothing,” he wrote.

I asked my students to share their responses to a few questions, including: Do you think grades destroy intrinsic motivation? If so, what should schools do instead? Ironically, this was a graded discussion, with points assigned for participation.

The students overwhelmingly agreed with Kohn’s assertion that grades, like all rewards, damage intrinsic motivation and become an end in themselves. Here are a few of their comments:

I know from my own experience (and from what I have heard others say) that students are more interested in A’s and 4.0s than what they are learning in class.

On projects with strict grading rubrics, I limit the research and exploration of the topic strictly to what was specified on the rubric.

I agree that grades destroy motivation. Case in point, I’m only responding on this forum so that I can get my 10/10 points.

Keep in mind – these kids are ones we consider “high achievers.” They buy into the education system and its promise of a better job and better life, which is why they are taking an AP class. They want to do well. It’s discouraging, to say the least, to see how readily they admit they care far more about their grades than what they are learning.

Students also pointed out that this emphasis on grades leads many high school kids to take shortcuts, like cheating on tests, copying worksheets and plagiarizing papers. Get the grade – by any means necessary.

Students in past years have told me similar stories about losing intrinsic motivation to rewards – how they loved practicing piano until their parents started rewarding it, how they loved reading until suddenly they were reading for stickers. There is a wistfulness about these stories, a longing for the days when they used to read, write, play music or study bugs just for the fun of it.

I am frustrated to be part of this system that promotes grade-seeking over learning, but it’s tough to find an alternative, as I noted a few weeks ago in my post: Would you give out all As?

Kohn’s vision of engaging classrooms with open-ended, student-directed inquiry sounds great, but the state has told me what skills and knowledge students are expected to master in my class. And once we have standards, we need some way to assess how well students are progressing toward them. Replacing grades with some other measure would be merely window dressing.

If we can’t abolish grades, however, we must curb our reliance on them as a motivator.

First of all, teachers (and parents) need to stop talking about grades so much. Students constantly hear us say things like “if you don’t do this, your grade will suffer” or “this will be on the test, and it’s worth a lot of points.” I’m guilty – I’ve said those things myself – and I regret it now.

If students still insist on asking “will it be on the test?” we can finesse our responses. For example: “This will add to your understanding of settlement patterns, and the test is on settlement patterns.”

Second, we can be more thoughtful in our rubric design. If students are doing only what the rubric requires, then the rubric must require the right things. If you assign a research paper or essay, make sure the rubric requires context, a nuanced understanding of the subject, and evidence of divergent thinking and critical thinking.

Third, we can incorporate more of what we know about human motivation into our teaching strategies. According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, teenagers who have their physiological and safety needs met are seeking a sense of belonging and connection.

The best teachers know how to build a sense of community and shared purpose in their classrooms. Their students are still motivated by grades, but their effort blows away the grading scale. I think of Lori Keekley, an English and journalism teacher at St. Louis Park High School, whose students put in countless hours during evenings and weekends — not for the grade, but because they want to do good work. They are consistently producing one of the best high school newspapers in the country.

In the end, most of my AP Psych students concluded that grades were a necessary evil. “Without grades, students would never try,” one wrote. “If schools got rid of grades, I don’t think many students would have the motivation to study the material, especially with subjects they may not like,” wrote another.

But we can do our best to de-emphasize grades – and limit their power – rather than building them up in our students’ minds. Let’s motivate students to learn, not to perform for our approval.

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