Are candle-given grades killing student motivation to learn?

22AC602D-D9E6-4094-BC24-7B67AD98DF7AResearch suggests that students, when given a grade for a task, as well as a comment on their areas of strength and areas to work on, pay attention to the grade and ignore all other feedback.

I would argue that there is evidence of this “performance ” mentality everywhere.

Your job success is measured foremost by your salary rather than by the happiness of your clients or the beauty of your creations.

Your health success is measured primarily by your weight and your body fat to muscle ratio rather than by the variety of fruit and vegetables in your diet.

Your social intelligence is measured by your number of Facebook friends and popularity on Twitter rather than by the loyalty and compassion you demonstrate to others.

Believe me, I get it. We all want an easy way to measure where we’ve come from, where we want to get to, and how far along the achievement continuum we are at any given time.

Looking at the stats for this blog and making assumptions about the readability of my articles is far easier than taking the time to survey readers and find out what they really think.

That would require designing ways of finding out what I really want to know: not merely how many people clicked on the link and scanned the text, but whether I am succeeding or not at my objective.

That is, have I provoked people to think differently/more deeply about the topics and ideas proposed, have I encouraged other teachers to change and reflect on their practice in manageable but meaningful ways, have I practised what I preach and used the reflective opportunity to continue to grow as both a learner and a teacher?

In academic research, quantitative data is always seen as more “rigorous” than qualitative. As soon as you put a number on something, there seems to be a collective sigh of relief that indicates a belief that “everything is under control”.

But does this control rob students of taking responsibility for their own learning? And without this responsibility, will they ever feel motivated to improve?

I remember once being asked by a colleague “how I went” on an assignment I had just completed for a Masters subject.

I could have spoken about the fascinating new studies being conducted and the breadth of academic literature I engaged with during the task.

I could have mentioned the ways that I had taken what I was learning through peer discussions and the discovery of an abundance of material available on the web, and used this learning to more effectively cater for a student in my class who displayed similar difficulties to the ones I had read about.

I could have said that the lecturer suggested I more clearly explain my understanding through the provision of concrete classroom examples.

But did I? No. I told her that I got a 7.

And so much was assumed through the receipt of that 7 that the dialogue ended there, with a “well done” being the neat little bow on the wrapping of the discussion.

When we give students a grade, are we putting a full stop on their learning?

If those that get an A conclude that they’re an expert, why would they invest more time and effort into future learning?

If those that get an E conclude that it’s too hard and they’ll never be able to succeed, why would they bother to try?

Butler, 1987, asserts that “those given feedback as marks are likely to see it as a way of comparing themselves with others (ego-involvement), those given only comments see it as helping them to improve (task-involvement). The latter group outperforms the former.”

I have seen this phenomenon in action. In terms 2 and 4 we are mandated to grade students in all KLA’s, following a strict set of moderation and rules which are published in a report card.

But in terms 1 and 3 students run a meeting with their parents, outlining their individual learning goals and the progress they have made through conferences with their teachers.

It is only after these meetings that students and parents walk away feeling informed and empowered, knowing how to improve student learning and being eager to start doing so.

I think it is human nature to want to know how you rank against others. Self-esteem is built on recognising your unique gifts and talents, and job confidence is strengthened by the knowledge that you are high enough on the pecking order that you won’t be made redundant.

Parents need to know if their child is performing at grade level or whether they need to employ a private tutor.

But what are we, as candles, trying to achieve?

Categorising learning results into pigeon-hole “bands” from a standardised test which offer rewards to bolster the arrogance (but also the learned helplessness) of our more capable students? And at the same time damaging the self-esteem of low attainers?

Or providing comments which focus on effort and foster a growth mindset; rather than judging, indicating how a student can improve?

Aren’t we candles who need to signpost the way, as well as light the way for others?

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