Grades aren’t the Problem

Grades are the scapegoat explaining the loss of intrinsic motivation in schools, and ultimately, in society. Students, instead of taking responsibility for their learning or grades, blame the system for their faults. It is common to hear a student complaining about a teacher who grades harshly or doesn’t teach well; it is less common to hear a student admit they should have gone to bed earlier or studied harder. While we need to address how to best promote education for succeeding generations, reforming the grading system is not where our efforts should lie.

In his article “From Degrading to De-grading,” Alfie Kohn argues grades themselves steal a students’ desire to learn and explore difficult topics. Instead, it it is a lack of interest in the subjects students study in schools that causes declines in internal motivation. Kohn heavily emphasizes changes in the grading system for elementary and middle schoolers, and he mentions the impact it could have on high schoolers. He does not extend his desire for change to the college level. Why? Students in college do not suffer the same pressure from grades as their younger counterparts. They are focusing on their interests and are inspired to explore topics as much or as little as they want in preparation for their careers. Increasing electives and vocational training earlier in a student’s school career allows a student to focus on the subjects that interest them, increasing personal exploration and therefore intrinsic motivation. According to Malcolm Campbell, writing professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, grades are the currency of school. The currency as it stands is necessary to enable a closer comparison and analysis of student success than pass/fail and other systems. By introducing a wider range of classes, we can take pressure off the system that’s already established while simultaneously promoting intrinsic motivation in young students.


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