Grades Fail at Motivating Students. Intrinsic Motivation Works Better.

Opinion | 21st Century Skills

Grades Fail at Motivating Students. Intrinsic Motivation Works Better.

By Tim Klein     May 21, 2020

Grades Fail at Motivating Students. Intrinsic Motivation Works Better.

This article is part of the report: Education in the Face of Unprecedented Challenges.

We are approaching the two month mark since schools shut their doors in response to COVID-19, and we are now entering a new phase in the learning process. Despite an optimistic start, educators and students alike are realizing that remote learning is not all that it’s cracked up to be.

When distance learning started it was a novelty for students; it was fun to sit at home and “go to school” without ever leaving the bed or getting out of their sweatpants. It was funny to see the inside of a teacher’s home through their zoom screen, proving that they do actually exist outside of the classroom.

That novelty has officially worn off. Zoom fatigue is real.

As bad as things are, it appears that things are going to get worse before they get better.

I have spoken with educators and students all over the world, from middle school teachers in Uruguay, to high school teachers in Australia to graduate professors at Columbia University, and they all are witnessing the same trend: Students are turning off their videos and microphones. They are disconnecting and disengaging. What makes this especially challenging is that the traditional ways schools have motivated students are no longer available.

Historically, we’ve mandated students attend school, but we’ve incentivized them to do well by rewarding them with grades, GPAs and class rankings. In a pre-COVID-19 world, the logic was simple: You get good grades to get into a good college.

But thanks to COVID-19, grades have suddenly lost their meaning.

In the past few months, many schools have changed their grading policy. Some have gone pass/fail, others have removed grades entirely. At some schools, student grades were frozen in time, pre-pandemic, regardless of the work they do.

All of these policies are the right thing to do; they show concern for the students and are an empathetic response to a terrible situation. They have also eliminated grades as a motivating factor to do well in school. If students aren’t rewarded with an A for their five paragraph essay, why write it? If they no longer want to go to college in a remote learning world, why should they push themselves to take AP Statistics?

Perhaps all this is for the best. Maybe we can finally ask the question: Have these strategies been working?

Letting Go of Grades

There is a long standing belief that grades are important because they motivate students to do the work. Take them away, and kids won’t do anything.

This sentiment is widely held, and accepted as a fact, yet there is little to no evidence or research that proves that grades make students learn more or work harder in school. In fact, there is ample evidence that grades actually do the opposite: They hurt academic motivation and inhibit learning.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that a majority of high school students were disengaged in school, even before COVID-19.

We have known things have been broken for a long time. Perhaps the decimation of our current academic model can finally provide the impetus we need to let go of outdated practices that don’t work, and embrace those that do. In short, rather than try to motivate students, we should be considering: what motivates them?

We can turn to motivational psychology for answers. Decades of research, led by Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, have shown that students work harder, learn more and are much more likely to thrive in school when they are intrinsically motivated and self-determined.

Tapping Into Intrinsic Motivation

Rather than focus on grades to motivate students, we should focus on these intrinsic motivators. Deci and Ryan’s framework for motivation, called Self Determination Theory, has identified three elements that foster intrinsic motivation: autonomy, competence and relatedness.

Autonomy simply means choice. Students need to feel like they are in control of their learning. They must be given meaningful choices or engaging tasks to choose from. We must shift from telling students what they should learn to empowering them to choose where to invest their time, such as giving them more independent projects that they can design themselves.

To cultivate autonomy we need to let students choose what they learn.

This means the autonomy of teachers will need to shift as well. They will need to transition from teaching students, to helping them facilitate their own learning.

Along with choice, students also need to develop competence. Schools must provide students the opportunity to learn new skills. Students have an innate desire to feel like they are growing, getting better and developing new abilities. To facilitate competence, schools need to shift the attention from specific content students should learn, to focusing on helping them build the skills they are motivated to learn.

A good place to start would be to help students identify the skills, they are motivated to learn and master. With this information, parents and teachers can then co-design projects that build such skills.

In other words, schools must shift from prioritizing content knowledge to skill development. As long as students are learning to communicate, collaborate and think critically, it doesn’t matter what they apply that to. Let them learn about video games, sports or how to make videos on YouTube. As long as they are learning skills it will prove valuable.

To cultivate competence we need to let students choose how they learn.

Finally, students need relatedness. They need a sense of belonging and meaningful connection. They need to feel like they are a valued part of a larger community. The way we provide this to students is by showing them they are respected and cared for. Research shows that when students feel respected and cared for, they in turn respect and care for people in their community.

We need to show kids that they matter more than their grades. This may mean that teachers may have to let go of a specific lesson plan or academic outcome, and focus on supporting their students.

Rather than asking, what should I teach my kids? Consider: How can I help them? What do they need in their lives right now—in school or otherwise—and how can I provide it to them?

When teachers fully invest in the holistic well-being of their students, those students will invest in the school community, whether physical or virtual, and they don’t need the carrot and stick of grades to care about their learning.

The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on the country, the world and the education system. However, it provides us an opportunity to let go of old practices that we know don’t motivate kids or improve learning, and embrace the evidence-based strategies that do.

This will not be easy and there will be a steep-learning curve to make this shift. But, we live in a difficult world already; we might as well invest in practices that will set our kids up for success in the future.

Learn more about EdSurge operations, ethics and policies here. Learn more about EdSurge supporters here.

Next Up

Education in the Face of Unprecedented Challenges

More from EdSurge

Get our email newsletterSign me up
Keep up to date with our email newsletterSign me up