An argument that I encounter a lot is that student assignments need to be graded in order for students to put in any effort at all. But is that true? In the literature, grades have been connected to stress and anxiety for students, more cheating, less cooperation, less thinking, less trust — so ultimately less learning. So what does grading student work do for student motivation? My summary of Chamberlin et al. (2023) below.
Chamberlin et al. (2023) define student motivation as a combination of intrinsic motivation (based on self-determination theory, i.e. autonomy, relatedness, competence) and autonomous extrinsic motivation. They compare different scenarios: “Grades-University”, where all undergraduate courses receive final grades on a traditional multi-grade scale; “Hybrid-University”, where some courses are evaluated on traditional multi-grade scales, but others as pass/fail, and even others with a narrative evaluation, and “Narrative-University”, where only narrative evaluations are given, no grades.
They find that bad grades often lead to students giving up on subjects, not just for the duration of university but even for later on in their lives (can confirm from anecdotal experience). Knowing that a graded course might be more difficult than another one tended to lead to strategic decisions for the better grade and against the potentially more interesting course. Grades did not serve as feedback that students used to adjust their learning strategies, but they seemed to have a negative impact on well-being, both because of the decreased self-worth and feeling of competence, but also because of the impact on relationships with instructors and even parents.
Narrative evaluations, on the other hand, led to students feeling more competent and connected. They could also improve trust in the instructor when students felt their feedback was justified and that they were seen by the instructor, who reacted to them as a person and who they could build a relationship with.
In the discussion, the authors mention that combining grades with narrative evaluations — even though it might look like best of both worlds at first glance — might not be the way to go, because grades might overshadow the formative and other positive components of the narrative evaluations (which would be my gut feeling as well: If I got a grade, and that grade was final, why would I still read about what I did wrong?). Motivation is of course not only determined by whether/how a course is being graded. For example, a student mentioned pressure to impress the teacher, independent of grades, as a source of stress.
The study does not report on (or investigate) which condition led to the most learning, but they found differences in the quality of academic motivation: More intrinsic motivation and with it deeper reflection for “narrative” and “hybrid”, and more extrinsic motivation and with it more focus on details for “grades”. And they point out that grades can discourage students from even attempting to take certain courses or assignment, thus making them miss out completely on those learning opportunities.
Of course, we cannot suddenly stop grading completely. But maybe we can consider if we need to grade everything, and if grading is actually serving us toward the goal of having motivated students that actually want to engage and achieve, and work together with their peers and us. From this study, it certainly seems worth considering grading less and giving more narrative feedback instead.
Chamberlin, K., Yasué, M., & Chiang, I. C. A. (2023). The impact of grades on student motivation. Active Learning in Higher Education, 24(2), 109-124.