Home » Blogs for PSP-3003 » The Psychology of Grades – Can giving grades diminish interest in learning?

The Psychology of Grades – Can giving grades diminish interest in learning?

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.

To Conclude..

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

7 thoughts on “The Psychology of Grades – Can giving grades diminish interest in learning?

  1. I found your blog topic really interesting and it got me thinking about one of my friends from college who is Finnish and is currently over in Finland doing her degree, you posed a question at the end of your blog about if there is an alternative to the grading system that we currently implement? Well, back to my friend… I remember her telling me that in Finland they have no mandatory tests or exams and that most academic feedback is given verbally, so with this in mind I have done a bit of research into the Finnish way of education.

    Firstly, in 2000 the first results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) revealed Finnish youths to be the best young readers in the world. A further three years later, they were leading in maths and by 2006 Finland was number one out of 57 countries in science. This makes Finland’s education system the best in the world coming in first place in 2012, followed by Korea and the UK coming in at 6th.

    40 years ago the Finnish government implemented new education policies and as seen above these new policies have had extremely positive outcomes, one of the reforms was that of the grading system whereby teachers make their own assessment tests, they do not provide numerical grades or percentages, but instead use descriptive feedback both verbally and written, this results in students no longer being compared to one another. Feedback from both students and teachers stated that this new marking method helped teachers and students to focus on learning in an environment that took away the fear of failing. In order to track academic progression, pupils are provided with report cards twice a year that state where they currently stand on a scale from 4-10 within each subject area.

    So perhaps rather than the current grading system that is in use here, we could take some influence from Finland and their way of achieving outstanding academic standards and becoming the best in the world. They do not put as much emphasis on passing exams and being graded, they focus on the quality of teaching and the school environment. Pupils receive exactly the same standards of teaching and content across all schools; no child is left behind or ‘labeled’ if they are struggling, drop-out rates are incredibly low and graduate numbers are extremely high.




    Click to access A%20short%20history%20of%20educational%20reform%20in%20Finland%20FINAL.pdf

  2. What a refreshing blog! I know from my own experience that grades take away from learning; classes become a means to one final letter that will distinguish you from everyone else- hence the term “I am a B student”. Sadly the school system is predictable; we all have an inkling when we finish an exam or hand in an assignment about our grade, at the very least we know that our efforts are not going to produce anything more than a grade. Demetriou (2010) found that our motivation to achieve academically decreases as we progress through school; we learn the relationship between work and grades. He found that uncertainty over reward enhanced learning through approach motivation. I sometimes use avoidance motivation in exams or assignments; I am afraid of getting a bad grade so I never try – If I fail I can attribute it to my not trying instead of ability. Perhaps changing education so that children learn because they want to instead of frightening them into passing tests and dishing out predictable rewards (grades), we would improve attitudes towards school.

    Demetriou (2010) Motivation to learn: A neuroeducational investigation of reward uncertainty and its impact on learning in a computer game

  3. Considering how grades affect students’ performance is an interesting discussion topic and regarding this in terms of what keeps students motivated to continue striving for good grades. The concept of intrinsic motivation appears to carry some weight in terms of self-determination and achievement. Intrinsic motivation was found to be indicated more by violation and internal locus than by perceived choice (Reeve, Nix, & Hamm, 2003), which suggests it is an internal motivation, but it certainly can be reinforced as you mentioned. On the contrary, receiving bad grades for your work has been reported to lead to a decrease in self-esteem, when self- esteem was based on academic achievement (Crocker et al, 2003). This raises the question, if a grading system is really a good way to measure learning. In another study it was found that this is dependent upon how the individual perceives the stress of the learning environment (school grade), and this resulted either in positive (challenge) or in negative (hindrance) learning outcomes (LePine et al, 2004). So grades seem to work better for some, but overall not really helping to achieve clear learning goals, Is this a call for autonomous learning? As pointed out in Becca’s blog this week, there seems to be a need to change the educational system and adapt a new approach toward learning that is more independent, but give means for productive feedback ( as Jack pointed out is taking place in Finland). How would our education look different if we had learnt from research on more autonomous learning? For example, from an investigation among university students has found that autonomous learning at university level encourages students to think and reflect critically upon their own learning and due to independency becomes more meaningful to the individual (Yumuck, 2002).


    Crocker et al, 2003 .When Grades Determine Self-Worth: Consequences of Contingent Self-Worth for Male and Female Engineering and Psychology Majors.
    Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 85(3), 507-516. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.85.3.507

    LePine et al, 2004. Challenge and Hindrance Stress: Relationships With Exhaustion, Motivation to Learn, and Learning Performance. Journal of Applied Psychology 89(5), 883-891. doi: 10.1037/0021-9010.89.5.883

    Reeve, Nix, & Hamm,2003. Testing models of the experience of self-determination in intrinsic motivation and the conundrum of choice. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95(2), 375-392. doi: 10.1037/0022-0663.95.2.375

    Yumuck, 2002. Letting go of control to the learners: the role of the Internet in promoting a more autonomous view of learning in an academic translation course. Educational Research 44 (2).

  4. I absolutely loved your blog this week, as well as your talk this afternoon. I think it is a fascinating topic and I am so glad that multiple students are looking into it and providing multiple different perspectives on the concept. I specifically remember one particular component of your talk today when you posed the question “are you at university to learn or are you here to get a degree?” This really stuck with me, as I felt it was a question that completely epitomized the flaws of the grading system. Education, as a result of a competitive and comparative grading structure, has essentially been reduced to a means to an end, where many students are reduced to conformative learning and spend more time finding the ways to achieve their desired grades than they do actually learning and being interested in the information. Deci (1971) found in their study of college students’ intrinsic motivational levels that the presence of extrinsic rewards decreased their intrinsic motivation to complete the tasks, even though the rewards increased the efficiency and effort put into the tasks. However, the same study also found that social rewards, such as verbal praise and feedback, as Rebecca describes occurs in the Finnish educational system, was found to actually enhance intrinsic motivation.
    Based on all the provided research, I completely agree with the argument that the existing grade system decreases intrinsic motivation to learn and is thus not beneficial to us in the long run. I do however have a question about implementing other methods of evaluation. Is not some level of comparative evaluation needed in order to determine who can become highly paid professionals such as doctors or engineers and such? Since the existing monetary system is set up in a comparative fashion so that higher skilled and more educationally inclined professions receive higher compensation and are thus more desirable, how, if not by the current grade system, can you accurately determine who is qualified for these highly demanding positions? This is not necessarily an advocacy for the current grade system, since I have stated that I personally believe it to be flawed based on all the provided research, but I am genuinely curious how a different method of grading would fit with how society is structured currently from a socioeconomic standpoint.

    Deci, E. L. (1971) Effects of externally mediated rewards on intrinsic motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 18, 105-115.

  5. Thank you all for your comments; they have really given me food for thought for my future blogs. Mara, I am especially intrigued by your comment. I think it is fair to say that the current grading systems used in education are psychologically and scientifically flawed, but what is the alternative? How can you distinguish between the good and the outstanding? The Centre for Teaching Excellence offers some advantages for using grades, one advantage being that students whose academic performance is outstanding in comparison to their peers are rewarded for their ability. But.. what exactly are we measuring here when we label a student as academically outstanding?

    This leads me to ask you the question: do grades reflect a reliable and valid representation of an individual’s ability?

    Just because I get a first class degree because I got As in all my assignments and jumped through all the necessary academic hoops, learnt a bit about statistics and a little more about neurocognitive science, is that a reliable and valid measure of my ability to become a doctor or psychiatrist? Farrington et al. (2012) recognise that performance in any academic or professional sphere is a complex phenomenon; it is moulded by a variety of factors and features that are more than just content knowledge and academic skills. Basically, we learn a whole lot more in university than our grades give us credit for, right? I think it would be unfortunate to dismiss someone for a future career in medicine because they got a B on their stats test. Farrington et al. have identified the factors that are not measured by grades as “noncognitive skills”. Put simply, noncognitive skills are everything that we learn at university that is not reflected in our grades. When you think about it, that’s an awful lot, right? Do you not think it would be fair to take in to consideration the strategies, attitudes and behaviours learnt at university in addition to the knowledge that has (supposedly) been learnt as reflected by that student’s grades? The faith we put in the grading system is shocking and worrying, considering how little it actually tell us about what we are capable of and how intelligent and creative we actually are. Jesse told me yesterday that Einstein actually didn’t finish his formal education. That says it all, really!

    I’m going to focus my next blog on the talk I did today about how grades are just another way to impose conformity in education, but the week after I am hoping to expand a little more on the point I have made in this comment about how much of a reliable and valid measure a grade actually is of our intellectual and creative capability.


    Centre for Teaching Excellence. Retrieved from cte.illinois.edu/testing/exam/course_grades.html

    Farrington, C. A., Roderick, M., Allensworth, E., Nagaoka, L., Keyes, T. S., Johnson, D. W., & Beechum, N. O. (2012). Teaching adolescents to become learners. The role of noncognitive factors in shaping school performance: A critical literature review. Chicago: University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research.

  6. I think you have a very interesting point but I believe grades are not only important to evaluate student performance but teacher performance.

    Particularly in secondary school, there’s very little student feedback – in the sense that teachers do not usually ask for feedback in regards to their teaching. Some schools have student councils but even with this, grades are a good indicator to monitor teacher performance across an academic year. In my secondary school and primary school alike, when the Ofsted were due, the school became a different school. Everything was polished and shiny and classes had more structure. If Ofsted had only what they could see when they visited and not student’s previous, current and future grades/goals they would not be able to produce a sufficient report in regards to the teaching standards (Ofsted, 2012). Using external reviews are not a good indicator of a teacher’s cumulative performance.

    How would the quality and standards of teaching be assessed if not through the grades of their students?

  7. Pingback: OMG- I Got a B! | Carpe Diem

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