Monday, March 25, 2013

The Risk with the Grade

Recently a professor, curious about my interest with linking grades to students' emotions and motivation, asked me if I felt safe when I took an introduction to literature class.

I didn't know how to respond. She reminded how I once expressed to her how much I learned in the literature class, and she wanted to know if I felt safe to take risks there. I answered, "No."

She said to me that safety is a privilege and by keeping students safe we may be denying them particular learning opportunities. In other words, teachers who sometimes push students outside of their comfort zone (as I experienced in the introduction to literature class) can teach some of the strongest and most valuable lessons. 

But what does this have to do with grades and evaluations?

Generally speaking, anytime one is evaluated on their performance they are pushed outside of their comfort zone. As students know their work is being evaluated and marked with a letter grade, they place more value on the assignment.

For example:

As a student who has taken several pass/fail classes, I know the level of importance students place on assigned writing tasks in these courses.  Many of my peers -- myself included -- have said these words, "It's only a pass/fail course," meaning that the level of work required is the bare minimum.

However, had a grade been assigned to the writing task, the level of commitment and effort given by myself and my peers would have skyrocketed. This reaction might be because the grade itself pushes students outside of their comfort zone and motivates them to do better work.

I initially thought, as I have began the early stages of my master's thesis concerning the link between grades and evaluations to emotions and motivations with writing, that harsh grading and strongly critical evaluations must decimate a student's motivation to writing.  But this cannot be the whole story.

In the introduction to literature class that I mentioned above, the first grade I received in the class was an F.  Through much work and determination, I squeaked by with a B for the semester. The F placed me outside of my comfort zone and motivated me to up my performance level. I know without a doubt that my dedication to that class far outweighs any of my undergraduate work from a pass/fail course. A evaluations from a pass/fail course could never motivate me the way the F did. 

Without the risk, uncertainty, and the lack of security grades provide, will student motivation decrease?

Please share your thoughts with me as I explore this topic.

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