Grades are bad for education (Marcus Geduld)

On Quora, Marcus Geduld has a nice compilation of quotes from various sources that together make a strong case against grades being used in education. I’ll quote portions of it below:

Most of the criticisms of grading you’ll hear today were laid out forcefully and eloquently anywhere from four to eight decades ago (Crooks, 1933; De Zouche, 1945; Kirschenbaum, Simon, & Napier, 1971; Linder, 1940; Marshall, 1968), and these early essays make for eye-opening reading.  They remind us just how long it’s been clear there’s something wrong with what we’re doing as well as just how little progress we’ve made in acting on that realization.

In the 1980s and ‘90s, educational psychologists systematically studied the effects of grades.  As I’ve reported elsewhere (Kohn, 1999a, 1999b, 1999c), when students from elementary school to college who are led to focus on grades are compared with those who aren’t, the results support three robust conclusions:

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.

… research suggests that the common tendency of students to focus on grades doesn’t reflect an innate predilection or a “learning style” to be accommodated; rather, it’s due to having been led for years to work for grades.

Replacing letter and number grades with narrative assessments or conferences — qualitative summaries of student progress offered in writing or as part of a conversation — is not a utopian fantasy.  It has already been done successfully in many elementary and middle schools and even in some high schools, both public and private (Kohn, 1999c).  It’s important not only to realize that such schools exist but to investigate why they’ve eliminated grades, how they’ve managed to do so (hint: the process can be gradual), and what benefits they have realized.

Naturally objections will be raised to this — or any — significant policy change, but once students and their parents have been shown the relevant research, reassured about their concerns, and invited to participate in constructing alternative forms of assessment, the abolition of grades proves to be not only realistic but an enormous improvement over the status quo.  Sometimes it’s only after grading has ended that we realize just how harmful it’s been.

To address one common fear, the graduates of grade-free high schools are indeed accepted by selective private colleges and large public universities — on the basis of narrative reports and detailed descriptions of the curriculum (as well as recommendations, essays, and interviews), which collectively offer a fuller picture of the applicant than does a grade-point average.  Moreover, these schools point out that their students are often more motivated and proficient learners, thus better prepared for college, than their counterparts at traditional schools who have been preoccupied with grades.

In any case, college admission is surely no bar to eliminating grades in elementary and middle schools because colleges are largely indifferent to what students have done before high school.  That leaves proponents of grades for younger children to fall back on some version of an argument I call “BGUTI”:  Better Get Used To It (Kohn, 2005).  The claim here is that we should do unpleasant and unnecessary things to children now in order to prepare them for the fact that just such things will be done to them later.  This justification is exactly as absurd as it sounds, yet it continues to drive education policy.

The Case Against Grades

Go read the original article linked above for more!

More from Alfie Kohn (who wrote the above) via Geduld:

In a study that appeared in the Journal of Educational Psychology(August 2011), Caroline Pulfrey et al., took Swiss students who were in their upper teens and mid twenties from an English as a foreign language class and asked them to do assignments that involved listening and comprehending.

There were 3 experiments.

In the first experiment, one group of students were told that they would receive a grade for their learning while the other group was told they would not receive a grade. In the second experiment, on a single assignment students either received only a grade, only a comment, or a grade and a comment. The third experiment was similar to the second experiment, but this time the students received their respective feedback and completed a second assignment.

Together these three experiments revealed that the anticipation of a grade, as opposed to no feedback or a comment, increases performance avoidance, a fear of failure and a loss of interest. It’s important to note that this was true of both high and low achieving students. While conventional wisdom might tell us that grading should inspire learners to do their best, this is not what the research is telling us.

Common sense might also convince us to adopt a “more the merrier” kind of attitude towards providing students with both a comment and a grade, but again, research shows that the presence of a grade (with or without a comment) is responsible for lower levels of motivation, a loss of interest for learning, and a preference for easier tasks. Unfortunately, the positive benefits of a formative comment is overshadowed by the negative effects of the grade.

All this supports Ruth Butler’s (1988) research from twenty years ago that grades and grades with a comment are responsible for lower levels of intrinsic motivation for learning.

Grades and the fear of failure

More (bit emotional here):

We have trained many of our most successful students to work only for the grade. When the grades are taken away, so is the validation that they are good students. Their effort was to please the teacher; it was totally disconnected from curiosity and learning. They are good students, not because they are good at learning, but because they are good at playing the game of school. These students take the longest time to engage in the work of the class. They continually asked, “Will this be graded?” as a sign of how significant the task is. On the last day of school, I had a student come up to me and ask, “So now will you tell me my grade?” She was convinced that I had a secret grade book that I just wouldn’t share with them. We created these students, through our use of grades as rewards and as punishment. We trained them that the work of school isn’t about the work of learning. We need to find ways to undo the damage that this has done to our students.

— teacher who quit grading his students: for the love of learning

The rest of Geduld’s essay is worth reading; check out the links given at the bottom!

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