Do Grades Eliminate Competition?

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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. Alfie Kohn, author of The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and “Tougher Standards” and Punished by Rewards, writes extensively about the influence of grades on learning. We asked him to articulate how grades impact a student’s education, as well as what adults can do to minimize the negative effects. What effect does handing out grades have upon the student when it comes to motivation and learning outcomes? Kohn: 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,...
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