Do Grades Help Students Learn in Classrooms?

This is a series of blogposts meant for students who are in courses using grading contracts of some kind to determine their final course grades, or those who just want to understand better what grades are, what they do in classrooms, and how they effect learning. This is the third post in a series of five blogposts meant to address questions about grading and grading contracts. If you're a teacher (or an inquisitive student), you might look at my Labor-Based Grading Contracts Resources page. 

This series is a collaboration with the really awesome podcast, Pedagogue  (@_Pedagogue_) with Shane Wood. You can listen to me reading this blogpost at Pedagogue, or use the widget below. But maybe you just want to read it on your own below, or follow along. 


Q3. Do grades help students learn in classrooms? 

Over many years, lots of studies of grades’ effects on students and their learning show clear patterns. Not only are grades bad for students when it comes to helping you learn, they also encourage a lot of counterproductive behaviors that harm your learning. 

What do the studies tell us? Grades discourage learning, not encourage it. They often create what researchers call “risk aversion,” which is bad for learning. When you avoid taking risks, you tend to rely only on what you know already and what you are sure you can do. You avoid trying to do things that have the potential of failure. In short, grades encourage you to play it safe with your learning and avoid important behaviors that help you learn, or write better. 

Think about your own experiences in past courses, whether they were English, writing, math, history, or whatever. When your grade was on the line, did you feel good about taking a risk in your learning? When you knew you were being graded in an activity or assignment, did you feel like you could take a big risk, try something new, or explore things you didn’t know? If you were smart, and cared a lot about your grade, you didn’t. 

While not a bad strategy, risk aversion is like walking a tightrope all the time in a course. One wrong step and you lose part of your grade. With each slip in the term, you erode your chances at the higher grades. But what if you need to get things wrong in order to learn a new practice or discover new information? In writing classrooms, avoiding risks keeps you from doing the kinds of learning, exploring, and discovery that the course is designed for. I mean, two central activities in writing classrooms are to read things that are hard to read, and write things that you haven’t written before. Both require risk taking in order to do them well and succeed.  

More generally, if you are going to get better at any activity or practice, be it basketball, knitting, or writing, you have to be willing and able to take risks when you practice those activities. You have to stumble around and even fail, as well as learn your initial limits and try to go past them. 

Through a careful and extensive look at lots of studies of grading in schools, Alfie Kohn reveals in his books and articles consistent findings about grades in classrooms, all of which are bad for your learning as a student. I’ll summarize three important findings that he highlights. 

First, “[g]rades tend to diminish students’ interest in whatever they’re learning.” Likely, your grade on an assignment or essay tends to attract most of your attention. Why? Because it is the summative mark that is supposed to say how well you did, or how good you are. That’s why you submitted the assignment, right, to get a grade? So you are looking for a grade mostly when you get your assignment back. 

The grade easily draws your attention away from the learning parts of the teacher’s feedback, or the comments and discussion around that paper. That’s where your focus should be if your goal is to learn, develop, and improve as a writer. In fact, you'd want the teacher to find weaknesses and things to improve on, but grades keep you from wanting that because weaknesses in a paper means a lower grade. 

Imagine writing a paper for a class, spending a lot of time on it and feeling pretty good about it when you turn it in. Then you get it back with a grade of "D" on it, some comments in the margins, and a note that says:

Good effort here. The ideas are interesting and worth exploring more. But you don't support your ideas with any of the texts in your reference list, or other information. Next time, try to provide more evidence for your claims after you offer them. These are good places to quote from the interesting books in your reference list.

Getting the D and these comments do not feel like a learning moment. And the comments themselves could be read as a snarky or insensitive response by the teacher. I mean, the grade suggests you've done a bad job, and yet the comments say something else at times. So the stuff that the teacher offers that you could use to learn and grow as a writer is at odds with what you know that grade means and does for your progress in the course. The bottom line here: Grades diminish your interest in learning because they offer you a powerful substitute, a simple, easily understood, one dimensional grade or ranking. That grade keeps you from feeling good about learning and developing from your places of failure and weakness. It keeps you from hearing and exploring the meaningful feedback you got.  

Second, “[g]rades create a preference for the easiest possible task.” If you have several ways to accomplish a task like writing a research paper, and only the final product of your labors, the paper itself, will be graded, and the labor, process and efforts you put into that paper will not be graded, then it is only logical and smart of you to take the shortest and easiest road to that final product. Why waste your time when time is not calculated in your grade? In fact, the typical grading system encourages you to take the shortest and easiest road possible for all tasks.

The problem with this situation is that it’s contrary to the way learning actually works. Learning is about how you do things, how long and in what ways you labor at activities. Learning is not simply about what your labor ends up producing. Your paper, say that paper that got a "D," might represent some of the learning you’ve accomplished through your research, reading, thinking, and writing, but it is not the learning itself. The paper itself is a shadow of your learning. Your learning is the work you actually did, the researching, reading, writing, etc. That's why you felt good about the paper when you turned it in. You felt good about your experience of working, of laboring. This is also why it feels so awful when you get a low grade on the paper, on the learning shadow. 

The learning is in the entire process that produced the paper. Despite your own good intentions to learn, when you are encouraged to prefer the easiest possible task to get to a final product, you end up preferring not to learn. You end up mostly trying to get stuff done for the highest grade possible. Good learning is about taking the longest and hardest way possible, not the shortest and easiest. Grades do not encourage anyone to take the long and hard way.  

Third, “[g]rades tend to reduce the quality of students’ thinking.” This one we might think of as a product or function of the first two findings. This problem comes from an orientation or a stance that grades encourage you to take on. It’s the orientation that leads you to rightly ask your teacher grade-based questions, such as, “Is this what you want?” or “how many quotes do I need in my paper?” These questions are ones about what the teacher is looking for in order for you to get a high grade. More critical and learning-based questions are ones about the process of learning, such as “how do I investigate the kinds of information that will help me explore this subject?” or “what diverse voices are important to engage with concerning this topic?” Grades encourage only questions that help a student get a better grade, not think critically on their own, and not learn. 

Why do these things happen? Kohn shows through research in psychology that it has to do with the psychological and learning problems that grades carry with them in classrooms. For example, many believe that grades motivate students to excel or at least do work. And this may be true in one sense, but grades tend to be the wrong kind of motivation. They are extrinsic motivation. They are external to the thing we really want, such as learning to write. When you do an assignment to get a good grade, you are doing the assignment for external motivation that is designed into the course itself, since you usually do not have any control over these aspects of the class. 

The kind of motivation that really matters for long-term learning, learning that will be meaningful and useful to a person after a course, is a different kind of motivation. It is intrinsic motivation. That is, motivation that comes from a wanting to do the activity itself, or from wanting the learning itself. 

Grades create conditions that mostly encourage extrinsic motivation, motivation outside of the subject or activity at hand and is placed on top of that activity. Using extrinsic motivation tends to work from the idea that you, the student, couldn’t possibly be motivated or find enough interest in the learning activities asked of you, so an additional reward, a grade, is offered so that you’ll do the work. If you are extrinsically motivated in your writing course, it means your interest is focused primarily on the immediate reward or the avoidance of punishment. You will do work and learn only insofar as it helps you get the reward you want, or avoid punishment. 

This is a condition that the mere presence of grades creates. Take them away from the course, and you will find other reasons to do the work and learn. 

The bottom line: Being extrinsically motivated in a writing class usually means you are more interested in getting a good grade on your paper, than writing a good paper, or even learning how to write one. Now, when grades are absent from a course -- when we take grades away -- research shows very clearly that the classroom more easily encourages intrinsic motivation in students. This means, you do something because you find ways to be interested and engaged with it. This kind of motivation leads to better, longer-lasting, more meaningful learning. And happier students and teachers. 

So do grades help students learn in classrooms? Absolutely not. Grades harm learning in a number of important ways that writing classrooms are centered on. So every writing teacher should consider carefully with their students why and how grades are used, if at all, and what evidence they have that the grading process the course uses actually helps students learn. 


This blog is offered for free in order to engage language and literacy teachers of all levels in antiracist work and dialogue. The hope is that it will help raise enough money to do more substantial and ongoing antiracist work by funding the Asao and Kelly Inoue Antiracist Teaching Endowment, housed at Oregon State University. Read more about the endowment on my endowment page. Please consider donating to the endowment. Thank you for your help and engagement.