Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Grades and Behavior

What happens when students don't receive grades? Grades are a near universal feature of education, but plenty of more progressive educators don't like them (Alfie Kohn's "Punished by Rewards" comes to mind). Grades create negative competition, they say, are always a bit arbitrary, and make learning about external rewards, not inherent value.

They have a point that grades affect behavior. But some data out of a few business schools shows that the behavioral costs of not having grades are pretty big too.

According to Sept. 12's Business Week, student grades at the University of Chicago's biz school, Wharton (UPenn), Stanford and Harvard are not dislosed to recruiters. Students can't make them available voluntarily, either. Since people generally go to business school in order to get better managerial jobs coming out, this in essence means that grades have no impact on student lives.

Nondisclosure policies were adopted to encourage teamwork and allow students to take harder classes without fear of the results.

But what is the result? Vice-Dean Anjani Jain of Wharton writes in a recent Wharton Journal article that the time students spend on academics has fallen 22% in the four years since the non-disclosure policy was adopted at his school. Professors have had to resort to near-primary school tactics to keep students engaged (Harvard Business School takes attendance).

It turns out that yes, grades are external rewards, but most people work for external rewards. Particularly motivated students may not need grades -- gifted students' independent studies come to mind -- but in general grades create a culture of accountability. And most students need that.


Roarmail said...

I enjoy your blog. It seems to me you are taking a pretty big leaps in this entry though. I don't think it is fair to generalize from the motivations of a group of people at one business school to greater fundamental truths about human nature and learning. We have no idea if people attending business school have the same or different motivators as other people. In general could they be more motivated by money and less by learning or helping others?

Also, what this research may be suggesting is the product of years of defining learning as about grades. Yes, these adults who have always been taught from the time they were young that you have to study to get the grade may have lost other motivations for learning. If so, that points to a problem with the use of external rewards, not an argument for them.

jo_jo said...

I think it's very valuable to discuss grades, since they are given so much weight in so many areas. Parental expectations is one area where a grade can cause a lot of problems for a gifted kid. But is the answer to remove grades completely?

Personally, I don't think so. Grades are feedback, sometimes the only personal feedback a student gets. Once I had a job where they never gave feedback - good job, bad job, indifferent job - I had no idea. It was incredibly frustrating because I wanted to move up in the organization but had no idea how to be successful. In fact, it became a game to see how far I had to go to actually illict a response from management.

I remember as a gifted kid finding some comfort in the grade system. At least I knew what was expected and what would be rewarded. At that point, it was up to me to decide whether to play the game or not.


li said...

Interesting topic. My own personal view is that grades are problematic, but yes, probably necessary where any group is taught.

Speaking from the personal experience of homeschooling my son for four years, it was wonderful not to deal with grades during the first three years. This afforded us the luxury of stretching our curriculum to great heights with impunity. "Failure" was often the catalyst for the deepest learning.

During our final homeschooling year, I used a traditional grading system because my son expressed a desire to return to traditional school for high school. And now, back in the system, he does well with his grades. The negative in this is that the top grades occasionally leaves me wondering whether he is coasting in some areas; now that there is a ceiling, I'm not sure that his motivation to learn is as strong as it was without one.

Then there is that issue of good grades sometimes being tied to "what is expected." But we all know that great thinkers are often mavericks. So do grades promote great thinking?

Finally, though, I do see that the grading system does teach him responsibility and rewards him for his work. In the end, how far he reaches beyond or around the system that will be up to him.

winkerdoodle said...

I find the current grading system in our schools problematic.

I believe grades are meant to convey two different things. This is a problem, because when you see a grade, you cannot honestly know what it means.

A greade is meant to tell me about subject mastery - "He got an A in Algebra, he must be ready for Trig." But it also conveys a sense of the degree to which the student complied with the teachers requirements with respect to homework completion, attendance and participation.

An A clearly means a degree of mastery of the material covered and a degree of compliance. And frankly, no one is worried about the A. It is the Cs and Ds we worry about. Does a D mean that the student has mastered the material but was unwilling or unable to comply with the teachers class requirements? So for example, the student received 100% on the final...By most rules, this student should repeat the course - but why? Or does the D mean that the student complied fully but really doesn't understand the material.

In my opinion the difference matters.

My bigger problem is with the statistical approach that students take in tackling their course work. They calculate how much work needs to be put in to get a specific result out. Whenever a student in one of my courses asked "will this be on the test?" or "How much of my final grade will the mid term be worth?" or "Do you count participation or homework" I know this student does not care one iota about the subject metter. Clearly in our society students are not there to learn but rather to demonstrate compliance skills. Is it any wonder that children in less affluent countries are outpacing our own? They are hungry for knowledge and pursue it with a passion. When the world job market looks at their mastery versus our compliance who do you think is choosen?

Getting down to business said...

Everyone has the assumption that the amount of time spent on formal academics correlates to later success. I question the premise. Look at homeschoolers - many spend a couple hours a day on academics and yet they have higher SAT scores than those who spend 6-8 hours a day in school and hours more home studying, and they go on to have a higher GPA (on average) and a far lower college drop out rate (nearly zero, compared to about half for all American colleges, I believe).

Business people tend to be astute. It contributes to why they make up the richest segment of the population, not simple greed, but passing the traditional buck to make something bigger in the way of bucks. They see that the studious ones go on to get graduate degrees and make six figures while that group has next to no change of making the Forbes 400 (check the list and see how many doctor and Ph.D.s are on it; the one advanced degree that does show up quite a bit is the Harvard MBA). The Harvard MBA students might realize that their time is better spent learning things outside of school as most people retain only 10% of what they learn in school anyway, that probably being the 10% that was a major concept that struck them as something to remember without ever studying. So instead, these students might be spending their time networking, trying out new business models, who knows what.

When they come out with a study showing these newer graduates are not doing so hot in the business world once they graduate compared to those who had grades given to recruiters, then it will make sense to question the wisdom of the change in policy.

To conclude that a student who isn't studying doesn't have a thirst for knowledge is also an error, seems to me. I have a child who got a 4.0 in computer science (was given an "Outstanding Achievement in Computer Science" Award his last semester and also got an "Outstanding Student in Mathematics and Statistics" Honorable Mention...he was informed that he would have won that award had he not waited till his last semester to take his last 5 upper level math courses such that they didn't feel they had enough upper level math grades to choose him yet, and he did get A's in all of those) without studying as a general rule as he felt he wanted the assessment of what he knew without cramming as he didn't want to know what he could memorize for a test but what he was retaining on his own; he didn't even take notes in class. Now I realize most kids probably couldn't get A's without studying, but I'm not convinced that the studying really helps LONG TERM other than in having grades to impress. Studying is but one way of taking in information, and it rarely stimulates the creative juices which are far more important in longterm success for many fields.

Having a college graduate, I think our son likely learned more (and he agrees) in things he did outside of academics than inside them, things like internships (where you see what it's like "in the real world"), foreign travel, doing his *own* projects rather than those dished out to him.

For example, he had a computer science course with a semester long team project. One of the team members announced himself the leader and the rest figured, "Okay, if you want it so much." The guy wrote foul mouthed, insulting emails to team members while not remembering to show up for class the day project reports were due (which took points away from everyone on the team) and was not communicating the project progress with the client, such that they were getting crummy client reviews and again, this affected the whole team even though only the team leader was allowed to meet with the client. The emails and IMs also had team members getting instructions, but not having the left foot knowing what the right foot was up to, which wasn't good, and caused accountability issues. The other team members wanted to put our son in the other guy's place as team leader, and had gone to the teacher to get permission to do so and informed our son of this. Our son felt this would really tick off the team leader and make it even harder to work with the guy, so he wrote a program in a few hours that would automatically email all the emails and IMs between any team members to ALL team members *as well as put them on a website the client could view at anytime to get a progress report*! This immediately put a stop to the abusive emails the leader was sending, and gave accountability to whoever had been assigned or volunteered to do something by a certain date. The client reviews immediately went from a dismal grade to a top grade. Our son also started printing out his own copy of the project reports to have a back up to hand in on time in case the person responsible for handing it in didn't show up or forgot to bring it. Our son will probably never forget having written that software, but it's been a couple years later and he already can't recall what the software they wrote for the client even did, that's how much impact the actual project and presentation for it held for him (and they did get an A on the final project and presentation).

So I think what people do *of their own initiative* is important, and if you put a motivator of grades out there, you can say it's their own initiative to then study to make the grade, but it becomes unclear at that point if it's to learn to solve new problems or just to make a grade.

Laura Vanderkam said...

Interesting replies. I've been thinking about it more, and I'd put it like this. Grades are not inherently good or bad. Most people, however, are not motivated enough to work in the absence of formal feedback or rewards. Maybe this is a result of years of formal schooling conditioning them, but I don't think so -- plenty of homeschooling parents find their kids love to learn, but they express a bit more enthusiasm if they're rewarded. And most people enjoy getting bonuses and positive feedback at work, and a lot of people need this to be motivated! There is an exception of course. In fact, I'd say it's a dividing line in types of people. There's most of us. Then there are those who are inherently self-motivated or have cultivated it. I recently interviewed a young man who started his own mint making company (which is doing amazingly well, double-digit growth monthly). He said "If you ever took a pass-fail course in college, and still worked really hard, you can run your own business." This may explain why most MBAs don't start their own businesses (see the original post) but it's not the kind of motivation most group learning or working situations can rely on.

pulnimar said...

Posting in Sept. 2011:

"Most people, however, are not motivated enough to work in the absence of formal feedback or rewards."

Personality traits.

I'm one of those who, for part of my life, was actually anti-motivated by praise and rewards. Personal time was important enough that praise and rewards were seen as traps; I'd explicitly avoid repeating the praised activity after being praised for doing it.

pulnimar said...

OTOH, if I knew that it was 'objectively' important that a task be done (and not important because it was an assignment, or what have you), then I'd do it with or without praise.