The Case Against Grades
"I remember the first time that a grading rubric was attached to a piece of my writing….Suddenly all the joy was taken away. I was writing for a grade -- I was no longer exploring for me. I want to get that back. Will I ever get that back?" -- Claire, a student (in Olson, 2006)
The Effects of Grading
- Grades tend to diminish students’ interest in whatever they’re learning. A “grading orientation” and a “learning orientation” have been shown to be inversely related and, as far as I can tell, every study that has ever investigated the impact on intrinsic motivation of receiving grades (or instructions that emphasize the importance of getting good grades) has found a negative effect.
- Grades create a preference for the easiest possible task. Impress upon students that what they’re doing will count toward their grade, and their response will likely be to avoid taking any unnecessary intellectual risks. They’ll choose a shorter book, or a project on a familiar topic, in order to minimize the chance of doing poorly -- not because they’re “unmotivated” but because they’re rational. They’re responding to adults who, by telling them the goal is to get a good mark, have sent the message that success matters more than learning.
- Grades tend to reduce the quality of students’ thinking. They may skim books for what they’ll “need to know.” They’re less likely to wonder, say, “How can we be sure that’s true?” than to ask “Is this going to be on the test?” In one experiment, students told they’d be graded on how well they learned a social studies lesson had more trouble understanding the main point of the text than did students who were told that no grades would be involved. Even on a measure of rote recall, the graded group remembered fewer facts a week later (Grolnick and Ryan, 1987).
Research on the effects of grading has slowed down in the last couple of decades, but the studies that are still being done reinforce the earlier findings. For example, a grade-oriented environment is associated with increased levels of cheating (Anderman and Murdock, 2007), grades (whether or not accompanied by comments) promote a fear of failure even in high-achieving students (Pulfrey et al., 2011), and the elimination of grades (in favor of a pass/fail system) produces substantial benefits with no apparent disadvantages in medical school (White and Fantone, 2010). More important, no recent research has contradicted the earlier “big three” findings, so those conclusions still stand.