Are grades hindering learning?

dwight studying

Part of learning how to educate involves learning about teaching and course styles that we have never encountered before. I prefer to make decisions based on facts, yet I have a quick, knee-jerk reaction to the idea of getting rid of grades. I feel profoundly uncomfortable – both as a student and as an instructor- with the idea that more students excel where they are not graded.

A premise behind getting rid of grades is that students will always choose the easiest tasks and take the fewest risks when in a graded environment. When freed from the confines of the traditional course structure, students will actively engage in the learning process. Students can and will learn without the threat or treat of a grade.


We can discuss how course structure impacts students, but a large component of student engagement comes from the students themselves. 

My struggle to accept the premise stems from my own experiences. As an undergraduate, I went to a college which emphasized not discussing grades with other students to avoid a competitive, grade-focused environment. It almost seemed like we didn’t have grades, because we were given our grades without any context. But for me, being freed of the competition of grades did not make me embrace creativity in all of my classes. Instead, I did minimum effort in courses that I thought were boring, and I poured more-than required effort into courses that interested me.

paid attention in classAs a graduate student, my habits became more refined. When I started taking courses that I knew would be useful my career, I made serious efforts at studying terms, taking thorough notes, and connecting information within and between courses. Content I did not believe would be relevant to me or I perceived as busy work received the minimal effort, and work that seemed relevant to my learning and my future career received more time and focus. When possible, I would choose paper and project topics that interested me or allowed me to pull in ideas from other courses. However, I simultaneously found myself motivated to earn good grades.

The two objectives did not exclude each other, though they were not always the same. When doing work just for grades, I did the minimum amount possible to earn the grade required. This could be taken as a comment about how grades distract from learning. But the issue was not grades, but that I did not desire to put any effort into work I considered a waste or my time or irrelevant to me. I would have felt the same even without grades. I would argue that the issue is instead that the required course work was not well-crafted to encourage learning or that the class was of no use to me, and I should have skipped it (the two concepts are not mutually exclusive/overlapping).



“The typical structure of lectures and exams may simply prolong the time during which a learner continues to think like a student rather than an apprentice practitioner.” Lombardi 2008

The above quote stuck with me as I read Lombardi’s paper. I whole-heartedly agree with the intent: in undergraduate education, we should be focused on creating and fostering apprentices not throwing information at and evaluating students. We should be developing the skills and knowledge base required for students to be successful in their future careers. Some of this development requires the hard work of being a student; even master practitioners should be always learning new techniques to gather and analyze data, getting feedback their work, and learning from other people. The second portion of this development is on the educators- we need to treat students’ undergraduate experience as preparation for their future and help students recognize it as such.

Course work itself can burden students with work that does not help students learn.
As a graduate student, where I have had a lot of freedom to choose courses, the conflict between me wanting to earn good grades and learn led me to take busy work-heavy courses pass/fail or audited. With professors’ permission, I sat in on classes that seemed relevant instead of taking them for any credit. Courses do not need get rid of grades in order for students to be engaged with the course work, though they must not be so focused on evaluating students through grading that they don’t give students the ability to learn.

As instructors, we should be thinking about our objectives and student time. Can we test in a way that fosters thinking and not just regurgitation? If we need some memorization, can we evaluate students’ learning in ways that don’t require hours of simply retyping definitions?


8 thoughts on “Are grades hindering learning?

  1. Your meme game is so strong. 🙂

    I think you bring up great points about busy work. As students, we hate it. We know it is not helpful. Why do we do it? To get the grade. This entire premise proves that we are motivated by grades–not academic knowledge or success.

    It’s interesting to flip this idea around, too. Why do teachers give busy work? I think the answers are more diverse, but they stem from the same issue: not enough meaningful teaching. Busy work is usually done to fill time when a teacher is out of teaching content and needs more filler. It can also be done to give more grades in a course because there is a pressure for a quantity of assignments.

    Imagine if all assignments were meaningful. That could revolutionize education, but it would also take a revolution to get us there.


    1. Ha- it’s a fun time for me to search for memes/images before I post. I was actually struck how many “teaching” memes/images I saw that were about sleeping in lecture- especially morning lectures…

      That’s a good point- teachers with only a few assignments are going to get those students who don’t do them (well) and complain. It’s easier to give them multiple opportunities to fail. Then you can say: “Of course you failed the course, you turned in 3/10 assignments and got a 50% on the midterm where you were tested on the exact course content,” not “you didn’t turn in 1/2 assignments that is requiring you have the additional skills of reading comprehension, writing, and synthesizing information.”

      I like the assignments that build on each other- where there are stages-or assignments- throughout the semester that can ensure that students have the skills to complete the big assignments. And can provide chances for students to check in to be sure that they’ll get the grade they want at the end of the big assignment.


  2. “The second portion of this development is on the educators- we need to treat students’ undergraduate experience as preparation for their future and help students recognize it as such.”

    While I am aware that much of the work presented in the course I teach can be seen as monotonous and busy, my aim has always been to help students understand that there is a purpose to it. Although they might not see it at the time, the work and the way it is taught is to create stepping stones from one unit to the next so that by the end of the semester they have completed the “path,” so to speak. However, while I aim to do this as a TA, sometimes I do not make it known so explicitly to my students. With that being said, I appreciate you pointing out this little tidbit, as much of the responsibility of student development starts with us!


    1. I think that telling students why they should do an assignment/learn something is important for them not to put the minimum effort into it. But, like you, I haven’t explicitly done so in the past. I think to us (the educators) it often seems ‘obvious’…


  3. There is clearly different dynamics in work in grad studies than undergrad. Maybe it’s attributable to less sensitivity to GPA in grad school, beyond minimum requirements, and caring more about learning. But, I don’t think the interplay of grade and motivation is the the Only issue. I think, fundamentally, there is something not quite right with a mentality obsessed with “Measuring” success in predefined terms. The more detailed we draw the map of how we are going to give points to student, the more we implicitly ask them to conform to our way of navigating the course. And ideally, I would like to give my students a lot of latitude in choosing their way of learning. I see a bit more (negative) correlation between grading and authentic learning.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Aren’t people measured by predefined terms for their entire lives? When you’re applying for jobs, doesn’t the writing in your cover letter impact whether you get interviewed? Doesn’t your understanding of engineering terms and ability to apply them impact whether people would want to hire you as an engineer? Doesn’t your ability to write reports for contractual requirements rely on your ability to read/understand/ask for clarification/write clearly/research/analyze data?

      Shouldn’t we teach students useful information, teach them how to meet expectations, and try to give them the skills to meet future expectations? I think education should prepare students for real life, and knowing how to meet expectations is a skill. Not providing students feedback about what is acceptable/unacceptable or providing positive feedback that they are improving seems detrimental to them.


  4. I like how you presented your idea. Yes, students tend to do a little on the courses that are not relevant to their field/future career. But the question is how did they know their future career? Are they sure they would get what they expect? Are they sure they never need this course in their entire work life? I really doubt it. To me, every single course we take it will definitely add something to us. During my undergrad studies, I was taking Match courses are not relevant to my future field, but now my plan has changed and I’m doing my PHD which requires a strong background in Math!


    1. Good point! I think this is why we should teach life skills within our courses (critical reading, writing, synthesizing information, etc.)… And try to convince folks that the course content may be relevant to them at some point.


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