Do grades do any good

Do grades do any good

Every parent wants to boast that his or her child is “a straight A student,” “at the top of her class,” or “on the honor roll.” What generally determines this prized status? Grades. Most often, report cards are the primary means of measuring a child’s progress through school. Doing “well” in school is measured by a series of letters on a piece of paper: A is great; B is ok; C, not so great; and D or F? You’re grounded! Some parents reward children for good grades, ascribing a monetary value to each good letter, or taking away privileges for each bad one. For many families, the grade is the goal.

But what do those letters really mean? And do they really do any good?

Many researchers, educators and parents are now questioning the purpose and effectiveness of grades. Certainly parents deserve to know how their children are doing in school, and students benefit from understanding how they are performing; but how that progress is communicated can have a great impact on how a child learns.

What effect does handing out grades have upon the student when it comes to motivation and learning outcomes?

The research suggests three consistent effects of giving students grades – or leading them to focus on what grade they’ll get. First, their interest in the learning itself is diminished. Second, they come to prefer easier tasks – not because they’re lazy, but because they’re rational. After all, if the point is to get an A, your odds are better if you avoid taking intellectual risks. Third, students tend to think in a more superficial fashion – and to forget what they learned more quickly – when grades are involved.

To put it positively, students who are lucky enough to be in schools (or classrooms) where they don’t get letter or number grades are more likely to want to continue exploring whatever they’re learning, more likely to want to challenge themselves, and more likely to think deeply. The evidence on all of these effects is very clear, and it seems to apply to students of all ages.

As far as I can tell, there are absolutely no benefits of giving grades to balance against these three powerful negative consequences – except that doing so is familiar to us and doesn’t take much effort.

What alternative(s) does the education system have?

Just as you don’t need tests (standardized or homegrown) to learn how well each student is doing, so you don’t need grades to communicate an evaluation back to the students and their parents. You can use narrative reports, by which I mean qualitative summaries of progress in written form, or, better yet, you can have conferences with students and/or their parents to discuss how things are going. Incidentally, many, many schools have abolished grades entirely, and these tend to be places where students are far more engaged with what they’re learning. Even some high schools have done this, and their students don’t appear to be at any disadvantage when it comes to college admission.


The author of this article is Assistant Professor, Pioneer Institute of Professional Institute Indore. 

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