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As much as we might want to believe otherwise, grades as they are typically employed are not very effective learning motivators. Certainly, they can be used to get students to do more work, avoid embarrassment, sidestep punishment, and achieve status—but they can also cause students to find shortcuts to avoid true learning. In common practice, grades operate mostly as an extrinsic motivator, and unfortunately, the more grades are used to motivate, the less effective they become.  

Grades too often become the goal of learning rather than a reflection of learning. We even say things like “Work hard so that you get a good grade!” when we should be encouraging students to work hard so that they learn. When they do, their grades will generally take care of themselves. 

Nevertheless, grades are deeply embedded in the life and culture of most schools. As much as we might sometimes like to ignore or abandon them, grades remain a part of our reality. The question is, are there ways we can position grades and our grading practices to motivate students and encourage them to focus on learning? Here are five strategies to consider.  

First, we can support and build motivation when we grade against clear criteria or rubrics (criterion-referenced assessments) and not other students (norm-referenced assessments). The best motivation for improvement comes when students compete with their own past performance. Motivation grows when students see next steps and the path to success. Grading that compares a student’s performance to the performance of other students can undermine motivation for those who might believe they may not measure up or cannot catch up. Further, grading against the performance of other students does not tell students whether they have learned what was intended, just how they did relative to other students.  

Second, we might emphasize learning and progress in addition to performance. Students typically become more motivated when they can see and track their progress. We might collect data regarding what students know at the beginning of a learning and teaching cycle in order to gain an understanding of their prior knowledge and create a baseline to track future progress. We need to avoid grading what students know before they are asked to learn. Data from initial work can be compared to performance at the end of a unit or learning cycle to document learning progress. As a result, we have access to what knowledge students have gained as we consider assigning grades, not just what they know and may already knew prior to the learning and teaching cycle. 

Third, and related, we can delay the assignment of grades as long as possible. Multiple research studies have documented the motivational power of timely, specific, objective, actionable feedback, especially when it is not attached to a grade. Unfortunately, when grades are attached to feedback, they tend to overshadow the information, and feedback is ignored. Further, students often see assignment of a grade as a sign that learning is complete, and they no longer focus on learning effort. 

Fourth, we might give students opportunities to have their best work considered for grading. The purpose of grades is to reflect what students have learned, so it makes sense to consider the work that best represents their learning. As examples, when students submit multiple assignments, complete multiple assessments, or create multiple products, we might allow them to choose the pieces of evidence that best represent their learning to be evaluated for grading. Another option is to allow students to have a lowest score dropped to avoid them giving up if they did poorly on a single task or assessment. Limited and targeted retakes or resubmissions can also motivate students to keep learning.  

Fifth, if we choose to award extra credit, we can award credit for extra learning. The practice of awarding extra credit for actions unrelated to learning may compel students to work toward a higher grade, but it does little, if anything, to move learning forward. On the other hand, we can recognize additional learning. As examples, students might choose to pursue greater understanding of a concept, dig deeper into a topic, or explore an implication associated with what we have been teaching. The opportunity to receive credit for additional learning and have their work reflected in a grade can be a learning motivator.  

It is true that over-emphasis on grades can corrupt learning. However, with deployment of thoughtful grading practices, we can minimize the distraction grades can present and build motivation for students to learn.  

Thought for the Week

AI can teach and share knowledge, sure, but it lacks the key elements of human modeling, nurturing, and connecting that are essential components of a comprehensive learning process.

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