Reflective Blog

I cannot believe that I am already writing my final blog for this module; it has gone incredibly quick and I feel a pang of sadness knowing that we will no longer be spending our weeks writing and commenting on each other’s work.

Before I began this module, I was a novice blogger at best. Whilst I consider myself computer savvy to a certain degree, I had never before written a blog. Being given the freedom to express my ideas and discuss research and theory on my own page, without having to think about whether my work is relevant to the learning outcomes or if it is what the lecturer expects has been a refreshing educational experience for me. At many points during my degree I have become accustomed to take what I am given; learn what I am taught; rehearse what I have read. Therefore, it is understandable that during the first couple of blogs I felt ill-equipped and frustrated; my scaffolding had been taken away and I found it difficult to find a direction on my own two feet. Looking back at the initial few weeks, I understand now why I felt like that. Never before had I been handed such an opportunity to be autonomous in what I would learn, and this made me nervous. What if I learnt the wrong thing? What if Jesse didn’t agree with what I wrote? Now I see that these questions were irrelevant, because no matter what psychological concept I explored or educational method I discussed, I was still learning.

What have I learnt?

I will begin literally. I spent my weeks blogging about grades. I discussed the effects that grades have on motivation and creativity, and explored the similarity of grading systems to game play. Finally, I evaluated the extent to which grades are valid and reliable measures of student learning. I have come to the conclusion that grades are NOT a necessity in education, but a practicality, because as humans, we like to categorise and have become overly reliant on quantifiable assessment and measurement. Even in my synthesis blog, after all the evidence I had presented against the use of grades, I still had to argue that I couldn’t see it changing, when in reality, grades will have to change in order for us as students to be able to present and demonstrate accurately our capabilities and accomplishments. Is it accurate and fair to reduce all my pieces or work, all my learning, reading, speeches, effort, accomplishments and achievements into one ultimate degree classification? Honestly, I think the answer is no. Jesse commented on my previous blog that I was still missing the point arguing that grades have to be used. They don’t! They are only continued to be used because it is the done thing. Not necessarily the best way, the right way, or the fair way, but the done thing nevertheless. I will be interested to see how grading systems will change in the future; I only hope that educators will begin to take notice of the research and evidence out there, and realise that it is not fair or truthful to evaluate a student by simply assigning them a letter grade or a percentage.

Secondly, I would like to comment on what I will take away from this module, other than the topics I have blogged and read about. I have learnt that it is possible to learn autonomously, without the continuous guidance and instruction of a teacher. I have realised that learning does not end when the lecture has finished, and that it is wrong to think that I should only learn what my teacher has included on a PowerPoint slide or what I have been told will be on my final exam. Furthermore, I have discovered that autonomous learning is more enjoyable than I ever imagined it would be (with the added bonus of no final exam!!!) If I were to count the hours I have spent researching and reading and then blogging, discussing, commenting and debating, I realise I have dedicated far more time to this module than any other module during my whole degree. Most importantly, I have been given the freedom to learn what I choose, without boundaries, and without having to conform to the rigid learning outcomes that stipulate what I must learn in order to do well.

Finally, I would like to thank Jesse, for sitting back and observing us developing our own ideas; for not spoon feeding us, but for giving us an opportunity to learn what we are interested in, and for organising the most enjoyable module of my undergraduate degree.

Thank you Jesse, and thank you to everyone who has taken the time to read my blogs and comment on them.



To grade or not to grade? That is the question (Synthesis Blog)

Over the past few months I have evaluated current methods of grading students by applying psychological concepts to this educational technique. I have discussed the psychological theory behind the use of grades from several perspectives; I argued that they can cause a diminishing effect on intrinsic motivation; how they suppress creativity in learning in favour of conformity; and discussed the benefits and harmful effects that gamification can have on grades.
Finally, I evaluated the extent to which grades are a valid and reliable measure of student learning.

I have come to the conclusion that the worst thing about using grades is how restrictive they are on student learning.

Grades and Creativity

In my first “grading” blog, I wrote about the effect of grades on intrinsic motivation and the theory that giving grades causes a diminishing interest in learning because it is seen as more of a chore necessary to acquire a good grade (Deci & Ryan, 1985; Kohn, 1993). The attainment of a degree has become structured in such a way that student learning is governed by grades. Therefore, grades are restrictive because students are so focused on getting good grades that taking pleasure in the learning task has become second best. The biggest restriction is placed on creativity. All too often, students will learn the minimal amount of information necessary to get a good grade because they are more focused on the end grade than the learning. Whilst I have been writing my blogs I have asked myself,

Do students come to university to learn or do they come to get a degree? Does a high class degree constitute a high level of learning?

It seems to me that in order to leave university with a first, the most important thing a student can learn is which academic hoops to jump through in order to get consistently high grades. It is unfortunate that because of this student creativity has become second best; an added bonus if a student can find the time to further their knowledge beyond the learning outcomes whilst trying to stick to deadlines and revision timetables. Grades have an overwhelming influence on what students learn, how they learn and how much they are willing to learn (Gibbs & Simpson, 2004). Lecturers spend weeks feeding information to their students and expect them to be able to learn that knowledge and regurgitate it in an exam. No choice, no creativity.

However, grades are not all bad. There are exceptions. I will use this module as an example. Jesse has allowed us to govern our own learning and pick topics that genuinely interest us. We have been able to demonstrate our educational creativity in several ways, from how we present and display our blogs to what we write about in them. No two blogs are the same; our pages are considerably different, as are our writing styles and our topics. Yes, there is some overlapping of theory and research, but we have been able to write and learn in a way that suits us, not our teacher. Jesse says himself that he learns new things from us all the time. There would be little opportunity for him to learn from us if we were sat in a lecture theatre making notes from his PowerPoint slides. Yet, he still grades us. I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t motivated by getting a good grade, because I am. There is so much emphasis placed on grades in our degree that I would be naïve if I thought my grades didn’t matter. It is the feeling of freedom and self-governed learning that I am trying to highlight here.

Gamification: is it beneficial?

I focused several blogs on the topic of gamification in education, arguing that grades have many game-like elements (Lee & Hammer, 2011). Due to the conflicting research, it was difficult to come to a conclusion as to whether gamification is a positive or negative phenomenon. Lee and Hammer (2011) outlined several psychological benefits of gamification, with various researchers arguing that game-like principles can offer cognitive, emotional and social benefits. However, to play a game, one must adhere to certain rules in order to advance (Rock, 2004), and herein lies my problem. There is an element of conformity to gamification, which leaves little room for creativity in student learning. Students have to adhere to the rules in order to progress and have little control over what they learn. If they do decide to dedicate time and effort learning about topics that aren’t in accordance with the learning outcomes of their modules, they receive little or no credit for it, so will generally submit to conformity because it is expected of them. This leads me again to question what attaining a high class degree actually means. What can it really tell us about the level of learning and student capability?

Are grades valid or reliable?

To evaluate grades from a scientific perspective, I focused my final “grading” blog on the extent to which grades are a valid and reliable measure of learning. Do grades measure what they claim to? Are they a truthful, consistent and fair representation of student learning? I do not believe that grades awarded as a result of examinations are valid representations of student learning. It is impossible to measure the true depth and understanding of what a student has learnt in a two hour exam. Race (2009) argued that what an exam does tell you is how well learners write, not how well they have learnt. What is measured is not necessarily learning, but “neatness, speed and eloquence of learners’ writing” (Race, 2009). This leads me to question the status quo, and I am left wondering why most modules are still utilising examinations as a means of assessing learning. This module is an example of when grades can adequately represent learning, because I am not assessed on how much information I can regurgitate in a two hour time period under immensely stressful conditions, but on how I can apply the psychological theory and research that I have learnt to my chosen topic of interest. Now that we have come to the end of this module, I am left wondering why this method of assessment is still very much in the minority, considering what I now know about traditional methods of grading. As for reliability, I think that it is humanly impossible for a teacher to be truly consistent in their marking. How can all assignments and exam papers be marked to exactly the same standard, given that different markers are awarding the grades? Teachers are not robots. As I have mentioned in my previous blog, the difference between an A grade and a C grade may be correct APA referencing for one marker, yet for another it may be the creative and innovative content of the piece of work being marked. There are discrepancies in the validity and reliability of grading systems. However, it is extremely difficult to overcome this completely, give that teachers are not machines. Nevertheless, I do think that this module is a significant step in the right direction in terms of assessing learning using valid means of measurement.

To conclude, grading the work of students is the most common and universal means of evaluating their learning and academic performance. As I have discussed, the system has its faults, but if it was truly ineffective in evaluating learning then it would not have persisted in our education system for so many years. What grades do measure is achievement, and this cannot be completely separated from learning ability. I have come to the conclusion that the most significant problem associated with grading systems is that it comes at the expense of creativity. However, this module is an example of how to overcome this problem because we have been given the opportunity to govern our own learning, choose our own topics and write about what interests us, whilst still being graded. I think it is unrealistic to abolish grades completely, and I honestly cannot think of a system that could replace them. However, I do think that the traditional system can be improved and I hope to see such changes made in the future.


Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behaviour. New York, NY: Plenum

Gibbs, G., & Simspon, C. (2004). Conditions under which assessment supports students’ learning. Learning andTeaching in Higher Education, 1, 3- 31.

Kohn, A. (1993). Punished by Rewards:  The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes.  Boston:  Houghton Mifflin.

Lee, J. J., & Hammer, J. (2011). Gamification in education: What, how, why bother? Academic Exchange Quarterly, 15(2), 1-5.

Race, P. (2009). Designing assessment to improve physical sciences learning: A physical sciences practical guide. Retrieved from

Rock, M. (2004). Transifuring it out: Converting disengaged learning to active participants. Teaching Exceptional Children, 36(5), 64-72.

Grades: Are grades valid or reliable?

reliability validity

Assessments and the subsequent awarding of grades are the most widely employed measure of learning; a way for an instructor to gather information about what has been learnt and make a judgement (Brookhart, 1999). The grades that constitute a degree are relied upon by educators and employers as a valid indicator of a student’s academic performance.

Discussing the application of psychological principles to grading systems has lead me to pose a question that, as psychologists, we are always encouraged to consider when using measures to collect and analyse research data.

Are grades a valid and reliable measure of student learning?

Brookhart (1999) stipulates that judgements about the work that students produce must be meaningful and accurate; in other words, the measure of student learning must be valid and reliable.

But is this the case?



There are many definitions of validity in the literature depending on what that definition is being applied to (Winter, 2000). However, a definition of validity that is relatable to assessment in education is:

“An account is valid or true if it represents accurately those features of the phenomena, that it is intended to describe, explain or theorise” (Hammersley, 1987).

Put simply, validity is the degree to which a measure measures what it is supposed to (Black & Champion, 1976).


Reliability can be defined as the ability to measure consistently and to maintain the capacity to yield the same measurement, otherwise known as stability (Black & Champion, 1976; Johnson & Pennypacker, 1980).


Taking these definitions into account, let me refer back to grading systems and evaluate to what extent they are valid and reliable. First, consider validity. When sitting an exam or writing an essay, what is actually being measured in that assessment? Educators claim that assessments measure how well students have learnt information relating to particular learning outcomes. Assessments intend to measure how much relevant knowledge and data has been acquired by a student, in addition to how this knowledge can be applied to problem solving and real world situations (Race, 2009). At least, this is what employers are encouraged to think when they are presented with a student who has been awarded a first class degree and who has managed to get A grades in almost every module. What learning outcomes don’t tell you is that actually, exam and coursework assessments measure  how learners write (Race, 2009).

Think about an exam: You are expected to produce work that demonstrates what you have learnt by answering several SAQs and then one essay question. In that work, you are expected to write clearly, concisely and extremely quickly, without noticeable grammatical error in a two hour time period. Does this method of assessment adequately measure learning? How is it possible to condense months of learning and effort into a two hour exam? What is measured is not learning, but “neatness, speed and eloquence of learners’ writing” (Race, 2009). Furthermore, think about revision for exams. In an attempt to regurgitate all relevant knowledge necessary to acquire a good grade in an exam, students will try to absorb considerable amounts of knowledge about a particular subject area. They will revise the relevant information in the hope that they can then regurgitate in the exam. Some may even attempt past papers to get a feeling of the structure and format of that exam. This may be what is necessary to get an A grade in the exam, but does it measure learning? It could be argued that this method of assessment measures only the ability to pass an exam, rather than measuring learning.This implies that the validity of grades is not what is claimed by educators because grades do not represent what they claim to represent. Race, Brown and Smith (2005) argue that assessments must be valid; they should assess what it is that educators genuinely want to measure. Thus, it is misleading for learning outcomes to propose that, for example, problem solving skills will be measured, when in fact the resulting grade is heavily dependent on the quality and style of writing.

Secondly, consider reliability. Race (2009) argues that for many, reliability is synonymous with consistency and fairness. He proposes that reliability is important because assessing the work of students fairly and reliably is the single most important thing educators can do for learners. Race, Brown and Smith (2005) argue that reliability can be achieved by inter-rater marking, that is, different assessors marking students’ work and coming to a unified decision. Furthermore, the researchers argue that all assignments should be marked to the same standard. Here in lies my problem. When I spoke to Jesse a few weeks ago to discuss grading systems, he told me that when marking, he would very much focus on the knowledgeable content and theory, and didn’t place as much importance on correct APA referencing, grammar and so on. However, he informed me that different members of staff in the faculty placed much more emphasis on correct spelling, grammar and writing style, rather than the knowledgeable content of a student’s work. Bearing this in mind, what would happen if a student produced an informatively novel and innovative piece of work, that unfortunately contained several spelling mistakes and incorrect APA referencing at the end? Would one teacher provide the same mark as another, considering the differences in their marking preferences? This leads me to question the extent to which grades are a reliable indicator of student learning. If the difference between an A grade and a C grade is a correct APA reference for one educator, yet a paragraph of innovative research ideas for another, how can reliability possibly be present in such a grading system?

These discrepancies in the validity and reliability of grading systems lead me to question their place in learning environments. If grades are not valid or reliable, then they are of little use to the students who receive them, let alone the future employers who regard them as valid and reliable indicators of student ability.



Brookhart, S. (1999). The art and science of classroom assessment: The missing part of pedagogy. Washington, DC: ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education.

Black, J. A., & Champion, D. J. (1976). Methods and issues in social research. New York, NY: Wiley.

Hammersley, M. (1987). Some notes on the terms ‘validity’ and ‘reliability’. British Educational Research Journal, 13(1), 73-81.

Johnson, J. M., & Pennypacker, H. S. (1980). Strategies and tactics of human behavioural research. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Race, P. (2009). Designing assessment to improve physical sciences learning: A physical sciences practical guide. Retrieved from

Race, P., Brown, S., & Smith, B. (2005). Tips on assessment: 2nd Edition. London, England: Routledge.

Winter, G. (2000). A comparative discussion on the notion of ‘validity’ in quantitative and qualitative research. The Qualitative Report, 4. Retrieved from

Grades: Is the grading system gamified? (part II)


My focus last week was on the gamification of grading systems and I discussed the negative impact that this phenomenon has on student learning. However, since there is a considerable research base that supports elements of gamification in education, I feel it is fair to discuss how gamifying grading systems may have educational benefits.

For those who did not read my blog last week, let me put gamification into perspective.

Lee and Hammer (2011) define gamification as

“the use of game mechanics, dynamics and frameworks to promote desired behaviours.”

Huotari and Hamari (2012) describe gamification as

“a service design aimed at providing game-like experiences to users, commonly with the end-goal affecting user behaviour.”

Essentially gamification is the emulation of game-like principles and rules in education. For example, levelling up to improve your skills and abilities and to advance toward completion can be applied to the movement through university towards the completion of your degree.

Although there has been much debate as to whether this phenomenon can be advantageous or detrimental to the learning process, I will discuss research that is supportive of gamifying grading systems. For example, gamification is effective because it can evoke experiences reminiscent of games that produce feelings of mastery and autonomy in a way that traditional grading systems fail to accomplish (Hamari & Koivisto, 2013).

Lee and Hammer (2011) have outlined various psychological benefits of gamification which I have discussed below;


According to the researchers, there are cognitive benefits to gamifying educational methods and grades. The ability to experiment and improve problem solving skills can be enhanced through gamification (Gee, 2008). Games guide players through the process of accomplishing mastery in certain skills and this can be beneficial when applied to educational principles (Koster, 2004). The application of game-like principles to grading systems keeps students engaged and responsive to challenges that are appropriate to their skill level. If implemented correctly, the gamification of grades can offer multiple routes to success by allowing students to choose their own sub-goals within a larger learning task (Locke & Latham, 1990), so arguably this leaves some room for creativity and self-governing learning.


Lee and Hammer (2011) argue that gamification can have emotional benefits to learners. Games provide players with a number of different emotions and provide many positive emotional experiences (McGonigal, 2011). More importantly, games assist players in persevering through the negative emotional experiences associated with failure because the structure of gaming means that a player must fail repeatedly before they learn what works in order to succeed (Gee, 2008). Currently, failure in schools is high risk and the repercussions of failure are severe, meaning that in many cases students will not attempt to try to be creative or novel because they risk too much if they fail. However, if failure was offered  in a way that a student would risk little if they were to fail and would simply be encouraged to keep trying until they succeed and advance academically, perhaps students would be more inclined to take a risk.

Lee and Hammer (2011) argue that “gamification offers the promise of resilience in the face of failure, by reframing failure as a necessary part of learning.”


Gamification could potentially offer social benefits to learners. According to Squire (2006), games allow players to try new identities and roles. Games allow players to take on social roles that they may not feel comfortable expressing in a typical classroom setting. For example, the shy introverted student may have the opportunity to adopt the role of “leader” in a game-like context. Lee and Hammer (2011) argue that game-like interaction in education can provide students with social credibility and recognition amongst peers for their academic achievements. Whereas in a typical classroom academic achievements may be recognised by the teacher by giving a good grade, in a game-like context a student may be rewarded with in-game recognition by doing well in the game (e.g. a particular learning task). Lee and Hammer conclude that a well-designed grading system that emulates gaming allows players/students to adopt meaningful roles and recognisable identities that traditional grading systems cannot employ.

An Example of when Gamification is an Effective Tool in Education

I would like to end this blog by presenting an example of when gamification in education has been effective. Laster (2010) describes how Lee Sheldon, of Indiana University attempted to engage his students academically by introducing a multi-player gaming context to his classroom and applying a World of Warcraft game structure to his students’ learning environment. Students were required to complete quests such as research or presentations and were awarded with experience points (XP) instead of grades and when they achieved certain amounts of XP they were eligible to level up. Results of his experiment were supportive of gamification in education; Sheldon’s students improved their grades by a whole letter grade. They performed significantly better than students being taught via the more traditional approach to education as their class grade averaged a B instead of the typical average of a C grade. Sheldon himself stated that his students seemed more engaged in learning tasks when set in a game-like context. His class experiment is a thought-provoking example of how gamification could work in education and replace existing grading systems.


To summarise, the idea of gamification is a controversial one. On one hand, there are researchers arguing that it is just another way of implementing conformity in education and it simply doesn’t work. However, examples such as Sheldon’s demonstrate that gamification can engage students. Lee and Hammer (2011) argue that gamification can have cognitive, emotional and social benefits to students.

After writing this week’s blog, I am still undecided on the concept of gamification. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on this.


Gee, J. P. (2008). Learning and games. In Katie Salen (Ed.). The ecology of games: Connecting youth, games and learning. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Hamari, J., & Koivisto, J. (2013). Social motivations to use gamification: An empirical study of gamifying exercise. In proceedings of the 21st European conference in information systems. Utrecht, Netherlands.

Huotari, K., & Hamari, J. (2012). Defining gamification – a service marketing perspective. In proceedings of the 16th international academic mindtrek conference, pp. 3-5. Tampere, Finland.

Koster (2004). A theory of fun. Paraglyph Press. New York, NY.

Laster, J. (2010). At Indiana U., a class on game design has
students playing to win. Retrieved from

Lee, J. L. & Hammer, J. (2011). Gamification in education: What, how, why bother? Academic Exchange Quarterly, 15(2), 1- 5.

Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (1990). A theory of goal setting and task performance. Engelwood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Squire, K. (2006). From context to context: Video games as designed experience. Educational Researcher, 35(8), 19-29.


Grades: Is the grading system gamified? (part I)



Last week I discussed how grades encourage conformity in education. I finished my blog by posing the question

“Did you come to university to learn, or did you come to get your degree?”

This question has led me to think about the grading system and its uncanny similarity to the principles of gaming. Think about the typical structure of a computer game: You start at the beginning, where you have limited skills and abilities. You are required to participate in certain tasks and scenarios before you are then able to level up, improve your skills and progress in the game. The aim of the game is to gain the ultimate reward: completion. Now think about the grading system. A computer game is not an unrealistic representation of the way students produce work in order to achieve good grades and ultimately complete their degree (the end reward).

Lee and Hammer (2011) define gamification as “the use of game mechanics, dynamics and frameworks to promote desired behaviours” (p. 1).

If you think of gamification in psychological terms, it is a form of operant conditioning (Skinner, 1938). The game player participates in certain tasks and if they complete that task they are rewarded by levelling up. Attaining grades can also be explained through operant conditioning. Students perform a task (an essay/coursework/revision for an exam) and if they do well they are rewarded by a good grade. This increases the likelihood of them undertaking such tasks in the future (positive reinforcement). This drive to level up can be explained by increases in extrinsic motivation (Ryan & Deci, 2000), defined as participating in an activity because it leads to a separable outcome.

There is a considerable amount of research and theory to suggest that there are benefits to gamifying grading systems and educational practice (see my blog next week for this discussion). However, this week I am going to focus on why the gamification of grades is potentially more harmful than beneficial to student learning.

 Explaining the way in which students work to achieve their grades as “gamification” is another way to demonstrate conformity in education. You jump through the required hoops, you level up, and each time you move closer to the ultimate reward; the attainment of a degree. Game play teaches students how to advance academically, but this is not necessarily a good thing. In last week’s blog I wrote about how conformity quashes creativity which can lead to students who are little more than average in their academic prowess. When you play a game, there are rules that you abide by in order to complete tasks and level up (Rock, 2004). Adhere to these rules and you advance; deviate and you stagnate. This same concept can be applied to the grading system (see last week’s blog). This leaves little room for creativity to transpire in student learning.

In another previous blog I wrote about how giving rewards (grades) for work reduces intrinsic motivation, which can be defined as a drive that comes from within, characterised by feelings of competence and self-determination (Lowman, 1990). Research implies that when an individual receives a reward for completing a task, the likelihood of them losing interest in that activity is increased (Kohn, 1993). Rewarding academic tasks by giving grades may decrease intrinsic motivation (Deci & Ryan, 1985) causing the student to lose interest and enjoyment in that learning task and see it as more of a chore. Gamification is structured on operant conditioning and depends on offering rewards to function effectively. However there is research to suggest that this educational method can be detrimental to the creative learning process and cause a diminishing interest in learning tasks.

To summarise, current grading systems are in many respects emulating the structure and mechanics of gaming, causing a gamification effect in education. However, research evidence suggests that the psychological concepts that gamification is based upon means that gamifying grading systems can actually be harmful to learning and especially damaging to student creativity due to the obligation to conform in order to advance.

Where does learning fit in to gamification?

Next week I will discuss the potential benefits of gamifying grades and present some research to support this.



Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behaviour. New York, NY: Plenum

Kohn, A.  Punished by Rewards:  The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes.  Boston:  Houghton Mifflin, 1993

Lee, J. J., & Hammer, J. (2011). Gamification in education: What, how, why bother? Academic Exchange Quarterly, 15(2), 1-5.

Lowman, J. (1990). Promoting motivation and learning. College Teaching, 38, 136-139. Retrieved from

Rock, M. (2004). Transifuring it out: Converting disengaged learning to active participants. Teaching Exceptional Children, 36(5), 64-72.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary education psychology, 25, 54-67.

Skinner, B. F. (1938). The behavior of organisms: An experimental analysis. New York, NY: Appleton-Century.

Grades: Just another way to impose conformity in education

I have decided to focus my future blogs on the topic of grades. During the next few weeks I am going to argue whether grading is an effective way of evaluating student learning and academic performance, if it is valid and reliable, and what psychological effects grading systems have on students.

This week in my blog I will demonstrate how grades are just another way to impose conformity in education. Something Emily wrote in her blog last week caught my attention:

The idea that grades tend to reduce the quality of students’ thinking (Kohn, 1999).

The way students learn can be thought of as creative thinking – students apply their own ideas and rationale to the subjects they are attempting to learn.  However, grading systems encourage conformity. Students are required to jump through certain academic hoops to be awarded good grades. This current system of evaluating academic performance is the epitome of conformity.

To demonstrate this argument in statistical terms (yes, I am really talking stats!) think about means. Creativity is the deviation away from the mean, yet conformity is an adherence to that mean. Now think of the meaning of MEAN: A synonym of MEAN = AVERAGE. As students, do we want to be average, or do we want to stand out for our academic achievements? Do you think the current grading system allows us do stand out?

Conformity quashes creative thinking!

Research findings on student assessment have found that grades have an overwhelming influence on what students learn, how they learn and how much they are willing to learn (Gibbs & Simpson, 2004). Think of how you revise for an exam. What information do you learn? Do you learn as much as you can about the topic because it interests you? Or do you simply learn what needs to be known in order to get an A?

It is the same for coursework and essays. Many educational bodies have fought back when the use of MCQ exams is criticised for denying the student to show their creative learning ability by arguing that students have the opportunity to present their creative ideas in essays. Is this really the case? Think of how you start writing an essay. Do you spend time researching and learning about a topic that genuinely interests you? Or, do you check out the marking criteria available on blackboard, maybe even ask your tutor what he expects you to write to get an A, before starting to write an essay that has been manufactured completely by the expectations of your tutor or the marker?

I want to focus my blog this week on a paper by Sternberg (2006) who regards creativity as a habit, yet proposed that schools often inadvertently treat creativity as a bad habit through the use of standardised tests and grades. Sternberg points out that creativity is not necessarily an innate trait; it is an attitude towards life that can be actively encouraged or discouraged. Sternberg has proposed three ways to promote creative thinking:

1.       Offer regular opportunities to engage in creative thinking

2.       Offer encouragement when an individual avails themselves of such opportunities

3.       Reward the individual when they respond to encouragement to think/behave creatively.

Sternberg argues that it is necessary to offer all three conditions and if any of these conditions are taken away or restricted, then creative thinking will diminish.

Think about creative thinking in education. When I choose my modules for my degree, I know that they will cover a wide range of theory and research; some of which will really interest me, some which won’t. Then when it comes to learning the material for the exam, I decide to focus on the topic that really interests me, and spend my evenings reading about new ground-breaking research in that area, even though I know deep down that I should be revising all the other topics (what my institution expects of me by asking me to conform). Then when it comes to sitting my exam, I answer several MCQs, and the long answer question is on a topic that I have failed to revise adequately enough. I could write ten thousand words on my chosen topic of interest because that is what I am passionate about, so I decide to write about that instead. Then when I get my grade I am discouraged and disappointed because I got a D for all that effort.

1.       Did that exam offer me regular opportunities to demonstrate my creative thinking?

2.       Did my D grade encourage me to be creative in the future?

3.       Did my D grade reward me for my efforts to be creative?

It seems that the answer to all these questions is NO. Until the current systems put in place to evaluate a student’s learning ability is changed drastically, our education will continue to encourage us to conform; be average; be as one and not stand out from the crowd. How is this adequate training for a competitive world where creativity is the key to success? Sternberg (2006) argues that standardised tests and essays are not necessarily bad or wrong; they are just incredibly limited in what they assess.

Ask yourself this: Have you come to university to learn or have you come to get your degree?

In the grading systems used today by educational institutions, these are two separate and distinct entities.

Please take a look at my talk which relates to my blog discussion this week:


Gibbs, G., & Simspon, C. (2004). Conditions under which assessment supports students’ learning. Learning andTeaching in Higher Education, 1, 3- 31.

Kohn, A. (1999). From degrading to de-grading. Retireved from

Sternberg, R. (2006). Creativity as a Habit. Education Week, 25(24), 47-64.