I have had a week to think about what I want to focus on in future blogs and I must admit that it is difficult to direct the focus of my blogs to one particular topic because there is so much to be discussed! Reading Emily’s blog last week inspired me to think about the psychology of using grades to evaluate academic performance in education and I have decided on the psychology of grades as my chosen blog topic.
Grading the work of students, particularly with letters or numbers, is the most common and universal means of evaluating their academic performance. Research findings have produced some interesting theories pertaining to the use (and importance) of grades in education.
Grades can cause students to acquire a diminishing interest in the actual learning itself
Research studies concerned with motivational psychology have produced findings in support of the theory that giving grades for work can diminish the interest that a student has in relation to learning about a particular subject. In order to explain how grades can cause a diminishing interest in learning, I will first explain briefly about motivational theory. One theory defines motivation as the result of an interaction between various positive and negative reinforcers (Lowman, 1990). In relation to education, grades can be related to positive or negative reinforcement. Some students will be motivated by the drive to acquire a high grade (positive reinforcement) whereas other students may be driven more by the fear of failure (negative reinforcement), whether that is defined by a student as receiving a D compared to a C grade, or a C compared to an A. Furthermore, motivation in the classroom can be defined as intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is described as coming from within; defined by feelings of competence and self-determination. In contrast, extrinsic motivation is governed by external sources (Lowman, 1990). So, how is this theory relevant to the application of the grading system in education?
An explanation for this is that when an individual is rewarded for completing specified tasks, the likelihood of them losing interest in the activity they undertook to acquire that reward is increased (Kohn, 1993). Therefore, giving grades (extrinsic positive reinforcers/rewards) can decrease intrinsic motivation (Deci & Ryan, 1985). Put simply, when a student is required to learn particular information for an exam or coursework in order to receive a good grade (reward) and to avoid getting a bad grade (negative reinforcement) they will be more likely to perceive the associated learning task as a chore necessary to acquire the reward and avoid failure rather than involving themselves in an activity that is enjoyable and interesting to them.
Performance goals versus learning goals
Several models of motivation have identified goal orientations to explain behaviour which can be applied to the psychology of education. The desire to acquire a good grade is labelled as a “performance goal orientation”, whereas learning in order to acquire more knowledge because you have an interest in that subject and enjoy learning about it is considered a “learning goal orientation”. These two goal orientations are often considered as separate motivational constructs (Pintrich, 2003) and although it is possible for students to be equally motivated by learning and performance goals (getting a good grade but still enjoy what they are doing), many researchers have proposed that these motivational constructs have an inverse relationship (Beck et al., 1991). Therefore, it is rare that students are equally concerned with getting good grades and enjoying what they are learning. Research evidence has
supported the application of the motivational theories I have discussed in education. For example, several studies have demonstrated that students develop a deterioration of interest in their learning practices and in expanding their knowledge beyond the required topic areas for exams and coursework as a result of being graded (Benware & Deci, 1984; Kage, 1991).
Cognitive Dissonancy Theory
The phenomenon that extrinsic rewards such as grades decrease intrinsic motivation has been interpreted through several perspectives in psychology, including cognitive dissonance theory. For example, Deci (1971) explained the decrease in intrinsic motivation through cognitive dissonance formation, using the term “overjustification” (Lowman, 1990). In relation to grading, giving a student a good grade (reward) for doing something they would like to do (learning) because they enjoy it can lead them to see the learning behaviour as overjustified (Deci, 1971). Consequently, the student strives to resolve this cognitive tension by placing less value on the less powerful intrinsic reward (the enjoyment that the student would get out of learning and becoming more knowledgeable in a certain subject area). The result is that students then place more value on activities deemed necessary to get a high grade than learning more about the subject because it interests them and they enjoy learning about it.
So what are the implications of what I have discussed? Has the use of grades to evaluate academic performance quashed the drive to learn and become more knowledgeable? Has the motivation to learn been replaced by the drive to produce work that is expected and to acquire the limited knowledge outlined by the learning outcomes we have for each of our modules? If grading does suppress the intrinsic motivation to learn, then using grades as an evaluative tool is something worth reviewing. Is there an alternative to giving grades to evaluate academic performance in education, and if so, can these be implemented in higher education? These are some of the ideas I would like to discuss in my future blogs, in addition to any information you can give me in your comments.
Beck, H. P., S. Rorrer-Woody, and L. G. Pierce. “The Relations of Learning and Grade Orientations to Academic Performance.” Teaching of Psychology 18 (1991): 35-37.
Benware, C. A., and E. L. Deci. “Quality of Learning With an Active Versus Passive Motivational Set.” American Educational Research Journal 21 (1984): 755-65.
Deci, E. L. (1971). Effects of externally mediated rewards on intrinsic motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 18, 105-115.
Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behaviour. New York, NY: Plenum
Kage, M. “The Effects of Evaluation on Intrinsic Motivation.” Paper presented at the meeting of the Japan Association of Educational Psychology, Joetsu, Japan, 1991.
Kohn, A. Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993
Lowman, J. (1990). Promoting motivation and learning. College Teaching, 38, 136-139. Retrieved from http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/87567555.1990.10532427
Pintrich, P. (2003). Motivation and classroom learning. Handbook of psychology (pp. 103-122). Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/0471264385.wei0706/abstract?deniedAccessCustomisedMessage=&userIsAuthenticated=false