Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Grades & Risk Aversion

There are many reasons to abolish grading and I often write about this topic. Today, I want to show how grades actually work to encourage students to artificially avoid taking risks.

Imagine you are a student, and you have two assignments to chose from. One assignment appears to be a real challenge - something you've never really attempted or explored before, while the other looks quite easy as it appears to be eerily similar to a project you've done before. Which one do you chose?

Here's the problem.

You don't have all the information required to make the choice.

All too often, students have artificial inducements thrown in their faces to motivate them. I've had students tell me that they are offered all kinds of bribes including:
  • money
  • cell phones
  • all-terrain vehicles
  • holidays
  • a car when they are 16
I could go on and on. Both the quality and quantity of such a list makes my head spin. As an educator you may shake your head or wag your finger in judgement of these parents who spoil their chilidren with such extravegant bribes.

Again, there's a problem.

For every finger wag you throw at a parent, there is an equivalent wag returning in your own direction.

If you use grades or honor rolls in your classroom or school, you are just as much of the problem as the parent offering their child an all-terrain vehicle for performance.

Here's why.

The parent's bribes are contingent on the grades you give the students. That means that your students are waiting to be rewarded at home for being rewarded at school.

Students, no matter what age, unavoidably experience grades as reward and punishment. Grading systems encourage students view their learning as a means to an end. They are either striving for that carrot or avoiding the stick.

Alfie Kohn explains in his article The Costs of Overemphasizing Achievement:

If the point is to succeed rather than to stretch one’s thinking or discover new ideas, then it is completely logical for a student to want to do whatever is easiest. That, after all, will maximize the probability of success--or at least minimize the probability of failure.
 A number of researchers have tested this hypothesis. Typically, in such an experiment, kids are told they’re going to be given a task. Some are informed that their performance will be evaluated while others are encouraged to think of this as an opportunity to learn rather than to do well. Then each student is given a chance to choose how hard a version of the task he or she wants to try. The result is always the same: Those who had been told it’s "an opportunity to learn" are more willing to challenge themselves than are those who had been led to think about how well they’ll do.
It’s convenient for us to assume that kids who cut corners are just being lazy because then it’s the kids who have to be fixed. But perhaps they’re just being rational. They have adapted to an environment where results, not intellectual exploration, are what count. When school systems use traditional grading systems--or, worse, when they add honor rolls and other incentives to enhance the significance of grades--they are unwittingly discouraging students from stretching themselves to see what they’re capable of doing. It’s almost painfully ironic: School officials and reformers complain bitterly about how kids today just want to take the easy way out. . . while simultaneously creating an emphasis on performance and results that leads predictably to that very outcome.
The game of school has been maintained and played for far too long. It's time we stop blaming the kids for being lazy or disengaged when, ironically, it may be our grading practices that are actually responsible for encouraging and perpetuating such problems.

I stopped punishing my students with grades five years ago. Best decision I ever made. When will you stop?

For more on abolishing grades, see this page.


  1. Guess Blogger Bruce W (a famous superhero) wrote a similar blog post on my blog today.

    I noticed that when I de-emphasized grades (I tell them only at the end of the quarter - we're not allowed to completely do away with them) students began to take risks and their work improved.

  2. I have found that the detox period goes more smoothly when I share the research on grading.

    One example the kids love:
    Have two classes read a section from a book. Tell one class before they read that there will be a quiz on it...guess who always scores higher? Of course, the class that just read for pleasure.

    Another piece connected to risk taking...researchers took a class of 5 year olds. Everyday they came in and grabbed art supplies (free-choice) and created something before class started. Researchers started to grade their art...of course, after awhile, all the kids quit grabbing art supplies.

  3. Great insight Joe. My question is how to fill-in the gaps? When you say you've stopped giving grades, do you really mean that you've completely stopped giving grades? What does your assessment look like now? Let's start a dialogue, because I'm moving away from constant homework grades and huge, formative assessments and I'd like to know your strategies.



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