Updated: Jul 20, 2021
Grades As A Motivator
There is a raging debate in the education community over whether students should receive letter grades or not. I have to admit I have been conflicted over the topic myself.
On one hand, a grade is a clear and simple goal. It makes for an easy way to determine how a student is doing in the class. It can also provide a powerful extrinsic motivation for a student to succeed.
I have had many students tell me first hand that when they receive a high grade, they feel accomplished and proud of themselves, and those are very real feelings. Striving for the grade motivates them, keeps them focused, and encourages them to do the work necessary to achieve such a grade.
The Dark Side of Grades
The dark side of letter grades is that if a student fails to reach that oh so precious "A" then they make a value judgment about themselves. They think they are stupid, dumb, incapable, and a failure. None of these thoughts are true of course. All a bad grade means is that you don't fully understand something YET.
There is also the stress, pressure, and anxiety that some students feel when trying to get a high grade. And ironically, all that stress and pressure usually end up causing the brain to go kaput and ensure those dreaded low scores.
So what's the alternative? Go gradeless? Having no grade at all can be a tricky situation too.
Without a grade, there is no anxiety or stress around getting a grade because there is no grade to get. All that self-flagellation melts away too. There is no grade to associate with being a failure.
OK that's all well and good, but having no grade also means there is no solid marker for students to measure their success against. They could easily end up just coasting along and thinking they are doing great when in reality they are falling behind. There is nothing measuring their progress so they don't know any better. And sometimes a bad grade can jolt a student awake, and set them on a path to accomplish more, which is a good thing.
The middle ground seems to be individualized progress reports that don't contain a letter grade but do contain specific feedback for each student. In scientific studies, this has been shown to be the best method. However, writing detailed individualized progress reports can be very cumbersome for teachers, especially teachers that have large classes.
So what's the grand conclusion here? It really just depends on the student.
Some students are going to be better in a traditional school setting with grades and something to strive for. I thrived in this environment. Other students will do better in a gradeless environment where the pressure is off and they can just enjoy learning and have fun while doing it without worrying too much about grades.
Schools that give individualized progress reports with specific feedback and no letter grade can be hard to find. And for the teachers that write individualized progress reports, God bless you. I hope you are getting paid a lot. You're a hero.
In the end, it's up to you to know your kid and their temperament, so pick a school that fits them. Eventually when they know themselves well enough, they can pick a school that fits too. There is no single correct path. School is an adventure, so go do some exploring and see what works best for you.