Thoughts on Course Grades

Like many educators, I worry about the level of effort that my students commit to their studies (the process) and the quality of their work (the product). We call the process many things: engagement, time on task, passion… But we mean to describe that self-driven, motivated commitment to learning for the sake of learning that we value.

Unfortunately, in many educational environments, the standard proxy for effort is the course grade. Grades are a poor proxy, but are so ingrained in educational practice (in some of the institutions where I teach) and in students’ minds that it may be useful to consider a way to structure grade rewards to encourage the genuine engagement from students that we desire.

I’ve tried to address this in my syllabi and in my course designs by assuring students in various ways. Most recently, I’ve tried to get them to understand that they start out in my class with an A and that it’s theirs to lose by not doing the course work. I’ve had some success with that approach and some students have embraced the notion that they start at the high end of the scale and not at the low end. It’s subtle, but seems to help some students’ mindset.

I’ve recently been trying to reconcile that with my insistence in classes that students should view the syllabus as the least they can do to pass a course; they should view it as a floor, rather than a ceiling. But why should they, when they get an A for doing what’s listed in the syllabus? The potential reward (or lack thereof) doesn’t match the effort I’d like to see my students make.

Meanwhile, I’ve read Carol Dweck’s work on the perils of praise which, if I read it correctly, comes down to two main findings:

  • If you praise outcomes (using rewards, e.g.), learners will tend not to take risks. Instead, they’ll do only those things they know they can do, because they’ve done them before and know it will bring rewards.
  • If you prize effort, then learners will tend to take risks, even if it might lead to failure, because they learn to value the process, rather than the product.

I’ve also been thinking about Daniel Pink’s work on the motivation distribution: reward too little or too much and individuals aren’t motivated; reward enough to cover the necessities and individuals are motivated to improve.

How can I build those ideas into my course designs?

Effort is difficult to observe or quantify, but we know it when we see the results. I can focus on the effort involved when I’m conversing with students, but how can I encode the value I place on effort in forms that will resonate with students who don’t typically engage in conversations with their instructors?

Setting the right reward structure might be easier, however. Simply create a syllabus that outlines what students need to do to attain a respectable B in a course and leave an A-level project up to the individual student to conceive of, propose, and execute. Think of the A-level project as the student’s 20% flex time. They get to be creative; in fact, need to be creative in order to receive the highest rewards. The project design, itself, can be a series of milestones that presses students to think early and often about their original contribution to the class.

Some students will be happy working toward a B and leaving it at that, while the others—the grade-seekers and aspirers—will be called on to think about their learning experience and about what sparks their creative talents.