Wednesday, 1 September 2010

The Fall from Grades

“What would it be like if one of today's art schools offered a single prize so lucrative and prominent that the winner would be virtually assured of making a living? The whole school, I think, would become obsessed with the prize, and suddenly the non-competitive atmosphere of post modern practice would evaporate.” -James Elkins

If you start typing the word “intrinsic” into Google you’re likely to see a drop-down list of suggestions appear. Second down the list will be “intrinsic motivation”. You can do exactly the same for the word “extrinsic” with the same result. These two forms of motivation have a huge role to play in education but almost everybody would hope that the principle motivator for anything students (or staff) do is intrinsic rather than extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is the desire to do something for its own sake whereas extrinsic motivation seeks approval - or the avoidance of disapproval - or other kinds of rewards (money, prizes accolades, praise etc) from external sources. It’s very well documented that intrinsically motivated people consistently perform better at creative and cognitively challenging tasks, are more persistent and generally enjoy what they do more than extrinsically motivated people.

Of course, it would be an oversimplification to say that people are either intrinsically or extrinsically motivated. Most individuals are intrinsically AND extrinsically motivated by different things to different degrees depending on a variety of factors. Nonetheless we all recognize that some things just motivate us whereas other things, you couldn’t even pay us to do.

There's a rather curious phenomenon which is closely related to these forms of motivation known as the “Overjustification Effect” where people who are intrinsically motivated lose interest in an activity if it becomes associated with rewards. Most particularly they lose the ability to sustain their motivation after rewards are removed. In other words, the introduction of rewards actually destroys peoples’ intrinsic motivation. It's speculated that rewards are closely associated with typical means of persuading people to do dreary work or carry out chores, and this begins to form negative perceptions around any related activity.

Surprise rewards, on the other hand, do have a vaguely positive influence on people's subsequent motivation but such rewards have to be both genuinely unexpected and justified. Rewarding someone for no clear reason or for something which they feel is undeserving can simply lead to confusion.

“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. That this effect is produced by the extrinsic motivators known as grades has been documented with students of different ages and from different cultures. Yet the findings are rarely cited by educators.” (Alfie Kohn 1994)

Teachers have to tread a very narrow line when it comes to motivation - between challenging and potentially demotivating students. They need to galvanise students’ motivation as a means of challenging them. Challenges are one of the primary means by which people learn and develop but without motivation on the part of students it's often impossible to present challenges meaningfully. One of a teacher's fundamental skills therefore is to accurately gauge the level at which a challenge can be pitched without dulling the pleasure of engagement. For this reason, encouragement is one of the most useful tools at their disposal, but it’s important that this encouragement isn’t some form of disguised praise or the offer of future reward but rather a genuine involvement in the student’s striving to improve what they do.

Generally speaking then, rewards are inadvisable (unless, of course, you want to manipulate someone, and don’t care about the longer term consequences). In ideal circumstances it’s preferable to create as many opportunities as possible for extrinsically motivated people to develop intrinsic motivation. Supporting autonomy, providing choice and alternative ways of achieving successful outcomes, making projects relevant, achievable and challenging and creating an environment which is enabling and supportive, all help people internalize their motivation. In other words anything that promotes, clarifies and makes something rewarding in itself, has the potential to transform an extrinsically motivated individual into an intrinsically motivated one.

Ultimately, it’s not important whether I, as a teacher, think that what a student has done is good or not. What’s important is whether they’ve achieved something which is valuable to their development and whether the goals they’re setting for themselves, and that are set for them, are relevant and challenging enough to maintain their interest and engagement. Everybody strives to improve what they do - we should be building on this desire, not stifling it. The aim of education should be to promote students' independence and self-efficacy as much as possible, not to cultivate self-doubt and dependence. Grades especially, are the last thing that we should be offering as a means of motivating students. Grades are little more than an addictive and pernicious drug peddled by schools and universities to maintain dependency and conformity to their antiquated systems of assessment. Grades are a drug students would do better without – literally.


I've also written on the problem of grading here.

ELKINS, J., 2001. Why Art Cannot be Taught. University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago.

DEAN, J., 2009. How Rewards Can Backfire and Reduce Motivation. [online]. Available from:

HATTIE, J. and TIMPERLEY, H., 2007. The Power of Feedback. [online]. Available from:

HITZ, R. and DRISCOLL, A., (undated). Praise in the Classroom. [online]. Available from:

KAPLAN, A. 2009. Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation. [online]. Available from:

KOHN, A. 1994. GRADING: The Issue Is Not How but Why. [online]. Available from:

KOHN, A., 1999. From Degrading to De-Grading. High School Magazine. [online] Available from:


Lesley Punton said...

On Elkins' point about a single lucrative prize, I doubt it would make much difference to the vast majority of students. Only the small handful who believed they were in with a chance to win (and had the desire to compete) would likely be affected, and the remainder would, I suspect, go about their studies as normal. I guess it could be damaging to the intrinsic motivation of those few, and as such, would perhaps be detrimental to them.

J. Hamlyn said...

True. But if such a prize "virtually assured of making a living", I think the associated school would almost certainly attract an increase of extrinsically motivated applicants.

The fewer extrinsically motivating factors the better.

Anonymous said...

J. Hamlyn said...

Hi Tor,
Warhol eh - intrinsically of extrinsically motivated?

Anonymous said...

"intrinsically of extrinsically motivated?" That's what I thought!
(And isn't that a hilarious pic? The creatures in the back are bounty hunters. (From star wars i think)
I'm not sure whether I have the courage to answer to a teacher on a public forum, (too much trauma!) but certainly one could make some observations on the relationship between Warhol and George Lucas.

Lori Stevens said...

I always HATED grades, (and I think much of that was my own attitude to actually having to work.)
I LOVED sitting down with kids and talking about their work, critiquing their papers and art in conversation.
But it does come down to the infinite number of logistics- for the school, community, colleges, state and federal government, financing, and in CA now, teaching employment! OMG!
SO. Here’s a ramble for you.
Grades will never go away, but instead must become a tool for the teacher to use as he/she decides. Don’t you often find that grades are that piece of encouragement? That they motivate? (as well as demotivate?)… Should we focus less on grades (I know, I know.. students have a hard time doing that) and more on ah-ha moments and learning. So. How does one grade interest, attitude, and participation? How does one explicitly and cognitively USE grades?
I recognized decided some years ago that grades were more a power play on my part than a recognition of the quality of my teaching as well as student learning. I decided to pass almost all students (the grades in our classes would truly only adversely affect their futures. Seldom did the opposite occur.) Beyond that, my grading often became a personal statement from me to the student about what I thought of their effort and potential. Grades actually became harder, more time consuming for me, but the conversations returned. So did much of what you wrote about: independence, self-efficacy, relevance, engagement, etc. Can we as teachers independently “rewrite” the definition of grades and grading?
Rewards: Schools in California, as well as across the nation, are PAYING students for improved grades, higher grade point averages, coming to school. Wanna puke now?

J. Hamlyn said...

That's extremely worrying about students being paid. I've seen that once on a TV documentary about an American school but I'd hoped it was a one off. Paying kids is a quick fix with long term negative consequences. I'm also really doubtful about grading effort. As Alfie Kohn says:

Never give a separate grade for effort. When students seem to be indifferent to what they are being asked to learn, educators sometimes respond with the very strategy that precipitated the problem in the first place: grading students' efforts to coerce them to try harder. The fatal paradox is that while coercion can sometimes elicit resentful obedience, it can never create desire. A low grade for effort is more likely to be read as "You're a failure even at trying." On the other hand, a high grade for effort combined with a low grade for achievement says, "You're just too dumb to succeed." Most of all, rewarding or punishing children's efforts allows educators to ignore the possibility that the curriculum or learning environment may have something to do with students' lack of enthusiasm."

You may be right that grades are here to stay (though they only arrived in 1792 according to some sources) but I think Kohn is right that we should do everything in our power to play them down and to emphasize constructive feedback instead.

Lori Stevens said...

Yeah, that's kinda what I meant.
But Jim, don't you think there's something to effort, particularly in the creative arts, where the "willingness" to fail is such a hard thing to encourage?

J. Hamlyn said...

That's a really important question Lori. I've taken the liberty of responding in a new post here:



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