What is the purpose of grades? To increase motivation, to reflect what you have learned, or to provide a point of reference for future learning— all of the above are incorrect (you fail this exam). The true purpose of grades is accountability, for educational institutes to show how well students perform on assignments and tests. As humans, we have an innate, evolutionary impulse to categorize, to which education has become one of our victims.
William Farish invented the GPA system in 1792 at the University of Cambridge. He created this system (inspired by factory workings “grading” the quality of the products that were being made) as a way to process more students and their work in a shorter amount of time while increasing his income, dubbing him the “world’s most famous lazy teacher” (Soh, 2011). When people heard this idea about how you could increase production within education, many schools adopted the same method— thus you have the grading system.
The result of this grading system is that not only does it extinguish the desire to learn, but students are afraid to take a risk of learning something because of the possible cost of not receiving an A or A+, so they constrain their learning (and the mistakes that come with it). I was helping out in a class, and when the teaching assistant explained a self-concept exercise (only worth a small percent), all the student questions were about formatting, references, and criteria in order to receive the highest grade possible; they completely missed the whole point of the assignment. To students, it is all about the performance and rewards, rather than the process and knowledge obtained.
To the students, grades all about the performance and rewards, rather than the learning and knowledge that can be obtained. We see this all the time, where report cards in primary school are of utter importance. Most children strive for gold stars and a report card with all A’s, while parents demand them so that they can judge their children’s performance in school. In contrast, what happens when parents ask the child what they learned in school today— and the child struggles to think of an answer.
We see this all the time, where report cards in primary school are of utter importance. Most children strive for gold stars and a report card with all A’s, while parents demand them so that they can judge their children’s performance in school. In contrast, what happens when parents ask the child what they learned in school today— and the child struggles to think of an answer. With this said, I can think of a few psychological explanations for why is there so much emphasis on grades, especially in higher education.
The Focusing Effect. This is a cognitive bias, where people put too much emphasis, focus, and importance on one aspect of the event, resulting in the inability to think about the value of future events, consider other possibilities, see the bigger picture, and think about how it could be useful in the future. As students, we focus on the grades, rather than the larger concept of how will this class and knowledge help me in the future. This bias can also relate to education; how it is more about performance than learning and knowledge. We focus more on the small details like grades, thinking that they are of utmost importance, but we lose sight of the purpose of education and learning, and only institute structure and change in the small details of lecture rooms and teaching, rather than consider how these changes and the system as a whole impact student learning. Grades do not dictate our success (as we think they do). For example, when you get out of school, it is highly unlikely that anybody will ask you your GPA, and use that as a factor to evaluate you. Nevertheless, we lose sight of this notion because of the focusing effect. In other words, we cannot see the forest through the trees.
Delay of Gratification. This is the ability to resist the temptation for an immediate reward and wait for a later reward; it is normally associated with resisting a smaller, immediate reward in order to receive a larger or more enduring reward later. The effect is most famously demonstrated in the Marshmallow Experiment done by Stanford University in 1960’s. Children are in a room sitting at a table, with a fluffy marshmallow sitting in front of them; the experimenter tells them that if they can wait until they return (without eating the marshmallow) then they are rewarded with a second one. As you would expect, most of the children cannot avoid temptation and eat it before the experimenter returns.
This is a somewhat predictable response for children because they tend to lack impulse-control, but can the same be said for adults and students in higher education? I believe so. Because as a society, we are consistently ambushed with instant gratification, the same can be said for our education and grades. We do not want to wait and plan for something that may or may not happen in the future, like applying our newly developed skills and knowledge to real-life situations; students want an instant gratification of a physical reward of their performance and effort now, not later. In addition to this, grades because they are physical and can be measured, serve extrinsic motivators to increase performance, but we shouldn’t be motivated by a letter or number that is completely subjective, we should be motivated intrinsically to gain knowledge and see what we can do with it.
Delay Discounting AKA hyperbolic Discounting. This is the psychological tendency for the subjective value of a reward to decrease as the delay to obtaining that reward increases, in other words, people tend to want small rewards now, than wanting to wait or attempt to try for larger rewards later. Although similar to delay of gratification, Delay Discounting is in reference to time. Nevertheless, how does delay discounting play into education and grades? Throughout our four or five years at a post-secondary institute, the application of learning after those four years, seems meaningless because it is so far into the future, so in the meantime between the present and future, it’s all about grades— tests, assignments, papers, GPA and making the Dean’s Honor list. It is easier to think about the “now” rather than the “later”, hence, we tend to discount future events and not care about them as much. Moreover, frankly, who has time to plan when we are so overwhelmed with acting tests and researching papers? With delay discounting, it can be very difficult to think about non-measurable events or stimuli that seem to occur so far in the future, and grades and learning are no acceptation.
After explaining why there is such an emphasis on grades, using three different psychological biases: focusing effect, delay of gratification, and delay discounting AKA hyperbolic discounting. It should be clear that grades are ineffective for learning. As grades are subjective (created by a lazy teacher), remove the ability to take risks, decrease motivation to learn, and do not reflect what have you learned; we need to ask ourselves is there a way that we can measure learning and what does learning actually measure.
For this week’s featured photo, I put one of my artworks up. It provides a good analogy of what we should focus on. Rather than looking at this serigraph as blue horizontal lines, green vertical lines and pick diagonal lines; view it as a cluster of bamboos in a body of blue water. In addition to the abstract concept that is bamboo, I produced this piece, out of pure passion for art making. I did not receive any grade or extrinsic incentive to produce this piece, and we should treat education and learning in the same fashion. Do it because you want to, not for the grade, because your grades will NEVER reflect what you have learned.
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