We serve in institutions with the mission of nurturing learning. On the surface, this statement seems obvious. Yet, when we examine the focus, practices, incentives, and culture present in most schools, this relationship isn’t always clear. For example, when asking what’s most important to achieve in school, students are likely to respond with “getting good grades.” Such a response isn’t surprising when we consider the messages students so often hear from adults. We tell them, “Study hard to get good grades.” We should advise them to “study so they learn well.” Grades should serve as a reflection of learning, not the purpose for it.
We might think this is a distinction without a difference until we examine its implications. In fact, when grades become the relied-upon driver for student attention and effort, learning too often takes a “back seat.” Learning becomes a servant of grades rather than grades reflecting learning. When this happens, we and our students risk becoming victims of several unfortunate outcomes. As examples:
Earning points becomes more important than finding purpose. Students can become distracted by how to increase their grades and can lose sight of the importance of and reasons why they’re learning.
Performance gets valued over progress. When grades symbolize status and accomplishment, it’s easy for students to want to look good and appear smart over engaging in struggle while developing knowledge and skills.
Cheating can become a strategy. If the point is to get a good grade, finding a short cut can seem like a rational consideration.
Learning is seen as a means rather than an end. In life, learning is the differentiator. Grades that aren’t supported by learning are artificial and useless in the “real world.”
Learning recall is compromised. When learning is driven by grades, once the grade is assigned students typically forget much of what they’ve learned, as their brains believe the purpose for learning has been served.
Grades can mislead. People who attempt to understand what students know can be deceived by the grades students received.
Of course, the position grades occupy in the culture of most schools may seem unassailable. While we may not be able to immediately change the system, there are steps we can take to counter the pressure and influence of grades that can compromise learning. Here are four actions to get started.
Focus on purpose as students are introduced to and engage with new learning. We may not always think deeply about why students should learn what we’re asking. Yet, we know that in life, purpose is the strongest driver of learning. Not everything we ask students to learn has immediate life application, but our students can still benefit from our reflection. Here are some questions we might ask: Why’s this learning important? How might it improve students’ lives? How might they use what they’re learning beyond the confines of the classroom? Of course, achieving a goal to gain competency in a skill can be a purpose. Meeting a challenge can be worth putting in the effort, especially when working with others. Providing service and support to others while learning together can also be a reason to build one’s skills and knowledge.
Focus on the learning process over the product, especially early in the teaching and learning cycle. For example, we might focus instruction and coaching on key strategies for learning, on effective ways to invest learning effort, and on connecting students with key resources to support their learning. Our coaching might focus on where students struggle, on what insights they’re gaining, on what they see as next steps, etc. Meanwhile, we should also consider delaying the assignment of grades for as long as possible. Multiple studies have shown that when grades are assigned, students devalue feedback and focus on the grade. Grades focus on the product and can overwhelm attention to the process.
De-emphasize grades as the reason for learning. Learning builds competence and confidence. Learning creates capacity, options, and power, while grades provide limited value if not supported by real learning.
Remind students that grades have a limited “shelf life,” while learning holds its value. Some students and parents argue that good grades are crucial to get into the post-secondary school of their choice. While in many cases this may be true, it’s good learning that allows students to stay there once they’ve been admitted. Meanwhile, learning leads to good grades, so preoccupation with grades as the goal isn’t necessary.
Admittedly, grades have come to occupy an outsized place in schools and in the learning lives of students. But, they can be a significant distraction from rich, lasting learning. We may not be able to fully dispel the perception of their importance in learning, but we can coach our students to gain a better understanding of and better perspective on how the narrow pursuit of grades can be an empty promise and “fool’s gold” in their pursuit of life meaning and success.