Landing : Athabascau University

The Roots of Grades-and-Tests

Excellent dismissal by Alfie Kohn of the massive systematic idiocy of grading and testing. Some great arguments made, but I think the main one is summarized most succinctly thus: 

"Extrinsic inducements, of which G&T is the classic example in a school setting, are devices whereby those with more power induce those with less to do something.  G&T isn’t needed for assessment, but it is very nearly indispensable for compelling students to do what they (understandably) may have very little interest in doing. "

We have to work out better ways of teaching than this. It is not right for an educational institution to continue do something so antagonistic to learning.


  • When I was in my undergrad a very smart prof once told our class "don't let your grades interfere with our relationship" - or something like that. At the time (a quarter century ago) I bristled at it. Since I started teaching I have found that I understand it much better - and have even used the same line in class. However, when I'm in my student role, grades are important to me. They definitely act as external motivation. As I started to read your comment I started preparing (in my mind) to say that grades and testing were useful (if not optimal) in providing external motivation (but not for all students). But the quote says exactly that (if not in a positive manner).

    I agree that there needs to be a better way to motivate, and that there is nothing wrong with doing away with ranking. Truly success can be a binary thing - either good enough, or not good enough - pass/fail - etc. and I would argue that in the non-academic world it is even more binary: you get the job/promotion or not, the girl falls in love with you or not, etc. but the problem is bigger than how one evaluates a class (and I choose the word evaluate to differentiate from assessment) because such an approach might very well require the ability to modify curriculum, course direction, etc. on the fly. In many (most?) cases the teacher does not have the freedom to do so (and the linked article also alludes to that). In that case the teacher is faced with a directed curriculum and maybe even scripted content which it might be extremely difficult to motivate students to engage with. They then need some sort of stick (as ugly as the metaphor is) since they are restricted from providing a carrot.

    I have three perspectives on this: 1) as a student; 2) as an instructor; 3) as the father of a student who is often unmotivated by content but emotionally reactive when it comes to grades.

    Lastly, for anyone not familiar with the difference between assessment and evaluation I leave you with this (which is just one opinion):

    James Ronholm June 19, 2013 - 9:26am

  • Yes - learners need feedback and we (both learners and teachers) need to know what works, but grades for learning are deeply harmful. By making success dependent on and measured by extrinsic factors you don't just take away the value of doing things for their own sake, you actively demotivate the very people you are trying to help, whether you give good grades or bad ones. Worse are the life-lessons we take away from it: we learn to work within such a system so grades become important to us (often the most important things) and drive our behaviour. And, for many of us, similar reward processes occur in a lot of workplaces with equally awful effects. Hard to think of anything other than physical punishment that could do more damage! It is an endemic sickness in our educational and business systems - although I do what I can to reduce the damage in my own courses, I am as guilty as anyone of fitting in with this terrible system, because the pressures to conform are intense. And yes, I feel proud when my own kids get good grades and concerned when they do not. It's a vicious system.

    For unequivocal proof of the problem as well as some fairly good ideas about solutions, I very highly recommend Alfie Kohn's brilliant book, Punished by Rewards. It was written in 1999 but is as relevant today as when it was written. I challenge anyone who reads it to go away unaffected: it piles on layer after layer of meticulously researched and overwhelming evidence from decades of experiments and studies across education and business sectors that conclusively demonstrate the harm grading can do.

    Jon Dron June 19, 2013 - 10:41am

  • I was taking a break from filling in report cards when I happened on your posts - seems I can't get away from the questions report cards and assessment raise.  Yell

    Kohn's idealistic view of school overlooks the culturalization aspect of public education.  Ideally, schooling and education would allow people to pursue their passions and talents but those who pay for the privilege of education demand accountability.  So, in a tax funded system, everyone has opinions about how the education system needs to be accountable.

    Education has different purposes for different parts of society.  For many parents, it's a daycare and education is a nasty side-effect that brings back the anxiety they suffered in school - a detrimental effect of assessment.  For seniors, it's a drain on their tax bill (the school tax) but it does keep kids off the street. (We were reminded of this by peoples' reactions when we had the kids in Jasper on a field trip.)  For businesses, it's a means of developing tools (employees) they can hone to improve their production and profitability.  So the unspoken belief that the person who pays is entitled to direct the process has a greater influence on education than is evident.

    I understand the sense of ownership in education that comes from paying a share of it and I'd like to see an equally sustained effort at coming to a concensus as to just what the purpose of education is. Parents - at least those I work with - want their children to be happy and to not have to work too hard.  Employers want graduates with a work ethic and basic skills.  Alberta Education wants students with a work ethic, solid character and a good grasp of literacy, numeracy, technology, science, a bit of history and geography and exposure to fine arts.  Having said this, they maintain a policy that the parent is the primary educator and has the final say in their child's education.  With so many masters, it's no wonder that there are conflicting views of grading and testing.

    At the risk of exposing my end of June cynicism, I find most telling part of your quote, Jon, states that grading and tests are  "devices whereby those with more power induce those with less to do something."  That often is a large part of teacher "conversations" with students. One of the original purposes of public education (in Canada at least) was to inculcate the dominant culture into the less dominant cultures e.g. original proposal for English only education in Quebec and the residential school systems for First Nations students. In the 21st century, our masters are large corporations, so we try to measure education in terms that can ultimately be measured in dollars and cents e.g. the recent funding changes in post-secondary education in Alberta.

    Until educators claim expertise in learning and teaching and become masters of our destiny and the learning of our students, we will continue to be serving too many interests to be truly effective.  In a perfect world, Alfie Kohn is right.  Unfortunately, we're not in a perfect world yet.




    Mary McNabb June 22, 2013 - 10:43am

  • @Mary - yes, a very imperfect world and the educational system serves a great many other purposes that have nothing whatsoever to do with learning. But wouldn't it be a great idea if it was about learning, given that it seems a fairly important part of the definition of it!  When things are wrong, though, we need to fight them and change them, wherever and whenever we can.

    We might not be able to bring about immediate revolution but we can make little changes here and there that will slowly change mistaken, counter-factual beliefs. Getting rid of grades when they cause nothing at all but harm is one way to start. Even if we do accept that something like them is occasionally needed for now, that doesn't mean we should apply them to every piece of work our students do. Killing off performance-related pay is another -  given overwhelming evidence that it actively reduces productivity, job satisfaction and retention, even (in fact, especially) for those that are rewarded, it is hard to see why anyone would object to that. When people see higher profits and more motivated staff, it is difficult for them to argue for continuing the same counter-productive methods in schools and universities. Disseminating the evidence of the harm extrinsic motivators cause is another.  The more we do such small common-sense things and tell people about them, the more we can change attitudes so that, eventually, when we finally get round to doing something about the big stuff, no one will find it very odd.

    Jon Dron June 22, 2013 - 3:17pm

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