When "A's" Don't Matter

At the close of every semester I am besieged by grade-grubbing students who have finally calculated their tally and are now in a mad scramble for extra points. Revisions flood in along with anxious requests for extra credit and extra time. Worse, the quality of these last minute assignments is uniformly substandard. Suddenly it's all about the points, not the material. And almost everything we know tells us that extrinsic rewards like grades or higher pay are lousy ways to motivate people. In fact, a more rigorous grading standard can actually cause performance to worsen. The really good students will work only until they receive the reward they want. Then they park it. The poor ones develop learned helplessness and scud along or give up. And this isn't some woolly-headed education reformist talking; it's mainstream economics and behavioral psychology. Every study says the same thing: extrinsic motivators are fine for purely mechanical tasks, but they become impediments as soon as the work involves even simple cognitive or creative abilities. So what does motivate students to learn? It's the same thing that has always motivated people: an interesting and engaging problem, a certain freedom to investigate the issue and the personal satisfaction of getting better at something. As the You Tube video above points out, people will spend hours playing the guitar for no gain other than the satisfaction of getting better at it. They will edit Wickipedia for free, act in community theaters and grow useless flowers in their garden all because it interests them to do so, they have a certain freedom to do the task the way they see fit and they like doing it well. Sadly, I am not free to abolish grading in higher education. I have tried, however, to change the emphasis in my classes. This semester I tried two new things. First, I required students to write a paper the first week of class that summarized their past experience in courses similar to Humanities 101. I also asked them to select a personal learning goal for the semester and gave them several examples: improve critical reading, improve writing, use better supporting arguments, come to class better prepared, etc.. The aim was to emphasize autonomy (i.e., they got to pick the learning goal, not me). I put each student's personal goal on my grading spreadsheet next to their names so I would be reminded of it every time I read his or her work. On the last paper, too, I asked students to describe how well they achieved their personal learning goals. The second innovation was to end the course on the right note. I wanted to diminish the inevitable point-grubbing that concludes every semester. So on the last day of class I had them take out three blank sheets of paper. On one I asked them to write the big ideas or works from the class that most engaged them (the Iliad and the Inferno were big hits). On a second sheet I asked them to describe a time during the semester when they either thought about, discussed or applied ideas from the course outside of the class. This is my favorite question. On the final sheet I asked them to describe what they were most proud of accomplishing this semester. For 15 minutes they wrote their responses. Then I had them stand and scramble all of the papers by handing them quickly to one another for 45 seconds. Afterwards they split into groups of four or five and chose the class's greatest hits (one from each category). Then we shared them as a class. It was a nice way to end the semester. Instead of communicating their success privately to me, we were celebrating each other's semesters and accomplishments. Later, too, after class, I could sit in my office and enjoy all sixty some answers. The result? Hmmm... Well, I need to come back to their goals more frequently than I did this semester; I did not follow through on that as well as I could have done. The last day exercise was wonderful, though. It put the emphasis where it should be. Better yet, that stuff they wrote on those scraps of paper matched rather well with the course outcomes, which I went over next... ahem, just before passing out my teaching evals.


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