People who are promised rewards (or promised a withholding of rewards) for doing or filing to do something tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do. The reward, positive or negative, outstrips the activity. I suggest that the pleasure of doing, the pleasure of accomplishing is way more important. But then, how does one measure?
Studies in sociology have shown that, contrary to the conventional thinking, people who have been led to think about what they will receive for engaging in a task (or for doing it well) are apt to do lower quality work than those who are not expecting to get anything at all. In short, we do better at what we WANT to do, regardless of reward/punishment factors.
These findings are consistent across a variety of subject populations, rewards, and tasks, with the most destructive effects occurring in activities that require creativity or higher-order thinking. This effect produced by the extrinsic motivators known as grades has been documented with students of different ages and from different cultures. The findings are rarely cited by educators or administrators or school boards. It is another elephant in the room, or more accurately in the oatmeal.
Studies have shown that the more students are induced to think about what they will get (need to get) on an assignment, the more their desire to learn evaporates, and the less well they tend to do. I think this points to one of our better angels: we are strivers for the sake of striving, doers for the sake of doing. But those who inhabit the ivory towers insist on casting aside intrinsic values for extrinsic ones.
What I noticed, anecdotally, was that students were becoming "point-gatherers" and losing sight of the greater goal: actually KNOWING things. I didn't see this so much in high school. We were only slightly induced by grades (I wasn't much as I said before, preferring to know things and wanting to know more things than my peers, which is also a bad motivation overall). When I was in college finishing my BA in English/Creative Writing/Poetry, I saw the point gathering had escalated to unreasonable proportions.Some of my fellow students were obsessed with asking (begging) for extra credit work as early as the first week of classes. Aaaargh! I heard professor after professor say, nope...just do the actual work on the syllabus and you won't need extra credit. These students rarely did well on the assigned work and gained anxiety and stress as a result of worry over the points. This stance was befuddling to me. It was in no way logical thinking. Again, I was interested in KNOWING things (but certain that this obsession for being "the best" in any given class would LEAD to the points and grades I sought. I made myself sick of myself here. I was not being authentic in my approach. But, I still had as my prime mover the KNOWING. I was able to get back to my authentic self in grad school when there were not grades and there was not an ounce of competition. It was ALL about the work. I had found my safe place where values met outcome.
Then I took up teaching college English. Oy. Back to grades and point gathering. Back to anxiety in students and in me. I felt guilty "giving" an F, perhaps more guilty "giving" an A. It seemed so fake, so contrived, so unfair. But we work within the systems that hire us. So I undertook a radical method of point gathering. I assigned each student all their points the first day. All were perfect. Huh? Of course their job became KEEPING the points. At least I was being creative. At least I was showing the students an unbiased bit o' love. Hmmm. How did that work? Not so well. For some students, the idea was so foreign they couldn't cope. They didn't understand that each test would have a minus-something at the top and this represented points they lost. They wanted to know what that meant in terms of A, B, C, etc. They wanted extra credit right away. Oy again. I persisted in this, as I thought it might teach them to treasure and protect what they had. For some, this lesson was logical and worked. For others, it made me look like some kind of strange weirdo. Point taken.
Since 1893 we (the US) have been pretty much having onto a Titanic of a system. Slowly, since figuring out the No Child Left Behind was actually leaving everyone behind, schools and departments of education have been realizing we need a drastic overhaul of the system. Enter stage left: standards-based (think: proficiency-based) learning and grading. If we're careful (praying loudly here) we may end up being like my graduate program. Oh be still my pounding heart. "Make it so," as Capt. Picard of Star Trek used to say.
How will this animal function? you ask. How indeed will we have transcripts colleges will understand enough to accept our kids to post-secondary studies? Simple. Many many colleges already accept home-schoolers (looking at WHAT they have learned, sans the traditional grades). It will be a far easier shift for colleges than it will be for parents of points-gathering students. Here is the deal:
Let's say you are a student working in any subject area. You will have a plan for yourself that will include standards needing to be proven as met per particular subject area. Your plan will include small steps (foundational learning) and bigger ones (moving from general to specific learning targets within that subject area) that will lead to your demonstrating that you've mastered the subject to a certain proficiency. It's a "build upon the foundation" kind of thing. You (student) will KNOW what it is that you KNOW, and you will KNOW where you need help or time or effort. No competition with others, just with the material and yourself. Grading will be something like this: 1. not proficient, needs intervention or extra help 2. some proficiency (not mastery, but gaining ground with the subject matter) 3. mostly proficient (mastery at a reasonably high level of understanding) and 4. Proficient (mastery at a high level of understanding and application).
One of the beauties of this kind of learning plan (and its grading system) is that the student becomes an owner of the process and the outcome. Every student can have this kind of success. And because the key to mastery is mastery, not averaging, a student who works more slowly or has a bad day/semester/even year, is not penalized by dragging that not-so-stellar part of learning with him/her forever. Once mastery is reached, it is reached, no matter the route it took or the time.
I realize that I am merely skimming the surface herein. It is not my objective to take this lightly or to suggest that it will be an easy change. Not at all. All change is a bit fearful for many, a TREMENDOUSLY fearful thing for some. It is, however, a WAY to begin to shift the paradigm. It is a door opening and fresh air rushing in. It is hope that an antiquated system proven to NOT be working can be overhauled to begin working. School systems and district which are already doing this report successes. They report much higher levels of student engagement and we all agree that one of our biggest problems is retention and low graduation rates. Kids are BORED, feel "done to" rather than "worked with." If we only fix this part and keep kids engaged as stakeholders, we are miles ahead.
So... my suggestion here is this (in 3 parts):
1. encourage your school boards to consider standards-based learning and grading
2. tell your kids you are more interested in what they KNOW than their grades
3. think of your child as an explorer rather than a student, an explorer on a journey to knowledge and success and self-esteem.
I think that's enough from me for now. Let me hear from YOU.