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Psychological impact of grades on a student

“I remember the first time that a grading rubric was attached to a piece of my writing….Suddenly all the joy was taken away.  I was writing for a grade — I was no longer exploring for me.  I want to get that back.  Will I ever get that back?” Claire, a student (in Olson, 2006)

How true is this? Since decades, there has been an ongoing argument whether gradation system should be stopped or continued. Enough has been written and published about it.

The basic function of grades is to provide information to the parents, peers and others about how the student is performing and quantifying it. A very private thing done very publicly! The grading may happen once a quarter, month or even on a weekly basis. A Continuous and comprehensive evaluation is also gaining popularity to assess and teach the student on a daily continuous basis.

There is one school of thought who feels that gradation contributes in motivating the students for learning more and fosters competition which is necessary in a flat world today.

But the research conducted by some of the eminent psychologists Condry & Koslowski in 1977 and Deci & Ryan in 1987 have revealed that gradation system affects the motivation, diminishes the learning interest and reduces the mental ability to be creative and think of solutions to problems. It produces more robots, mechanical work force rather than thinking human beings.

In a bid to receive high grades, there are many ambitious students who choose tasks that are much below their capacity. This in turn reduces their chances of learning more and sharpening their skills.

When it comes to gaining knowledge, instead of how much you have learnt, it is important to know how better you have understood it so that when it comes to practical applications, the same knowledge can be used effectively. But gradation system creates a division between the higher grade students and lower grade students due to which unknowingly an attitude of superiority or inferiority gets developed in them.

The students with low grades feel that they are not on the right track and are losers whereas those who receive high grades feel that they are going to be super successful. Once such grade-oriented thinking starts seeping in the minds of the students, they feel motivated only to get high grades and not to learn and explore more or to develop something new from what they have learnt. That is the reason why, there are many ‘yes ministers’ around instead of innovators and creators.

 A student asked his Zen master how long it would take to reach enlightenment.  “Ten years,” the master said.  But, the student persisted, what if he studied very hard?  “Then 20 years,” the master responded.  Surprised, the student asked how long it would take if he worked very, very hard and became the most dedicated student in the Ashram.  “In that case, 30 years,” the master replied.  His explanation:  “If you have one eye on how close you are to achieving your goal that leaves only one eye for your task.”

So we could establish the following from research and from opinion of many educators, teachers and learners.

  • Grades are tools to quantify the result but not all results can be quantified, not all learning lead to assessment
  • Grades de-motivates students and creates a division
  • The students getting higher grades also become a lot lax and eventually learning doesn’t happen

We know most of the things above, so what can be done? The first question that comes to everyone’s minds is then how will the students get into colleges/universities.

Well, I have news for you. There are quite a few universities who accept students based on the detailed descriptions of the curriculum, recommendations, essays, and interviews which collectively offer a fuller picture of the applicant than does a grade-point average.

Although these points have been discussed since the past 2-3 decades, the grade system is here to stay, so the following are things I feel that can be done to ensure that the impact of grades do not scar the students.

  • Evaluation cannot and should not be restricted to learners alone, teachers and parents play an equal part in a child’s education and should be evaluated; hence both of them are equally responsible for the child’s failure or success
  • The students rather than getting a quantitative report card should get a qualitative feedback report card and a feedback for improvement on a weekly basis
  • The parents should be involved in those feedback sessions (as far as possible) and onus should be on the parents and teachers for the child’s success.

Having mentioned all this there is a silver lining. Several classes have been de-graded.

Jim Drier, an English teacher at Mundelein High School in Illinois never gives his students “a number or grade on anything they do.  The things that grades make kids do are heartbreaking for an educator”:  arguing with teachers, fighting with parents, cheating, and memorizing facts just for a test and then forgetting them.  “This is not why I became a teacher.” Without grades, “I think my relationships with students are better,” Drier says.  “Their writing improves more quickly and the things they learn stay with them longer.  I’ve had lots of kids tell me it’s changed their attitude about coming to school.” 

It’s a known fact that Albert Einstein was a very poor student and Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and several others left their college half-way. Thankfully, these people never let the grades make any impact on their minds. But it cannot be so with every student. There are devastating effects of grades on certain students, several students commit suicide since they cannot handle the pressure of the competition. We do not want our children to be measured quantitatively but qualitatively and completing the curriculum should not be the priority over making them understand and explore the concepts. It is high time to challenge the conventional system and act to improve it!

About Hardik Parikh

Hardik Parikh is the Co-founder of PracTutor. PracTutor is a personalized fun way to master Common Core Math and English. All kids – whether they need intervention, accelerated learning or career and college readiness – can achieve their goals within PracTutor.
  • Katherine Levine

    This is such a complicated issue, but so important to think about. Part of the problem is the elitism attached to school success and as you note that is only part of who are kids are.  However, I doubt that grading will go away.  Jerome Kagan said in one study that whether graded or not, kids place themselves on a dumb to smart continuum and perform accordingly.  I think Emotional Intelligence efforts help and wish more school taught EI skills.  Anyway, I would like to use your post as a kind of guest blog on my Parents Are People Blog and hope you will grant me permission to do so.   

    • Hardik

      Thanks for the input. Please go ahead and use the blog with due reference.

  • Thanks for the input. Please go ahead and use the blog with due reference.