October 20, 2011

Grades! Do They Help or Hinder Learning?

By Jennifer Yen, Pharm.D., PGY-1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, The Johns Hopkins Hospital

Students are taught to value grades at a young age.  Even from something as simple as a gold star to the A+, grades are viewed as an indicator of how knowledgeable one is on a topic.  But are grades really a good proxy for learning?   Grades do not necessarily reflect the knowledge a student has gained and may actually impede learning if a student is single-mindedly focused on achieving that A+. Grades might be necessary in order to efficiently classify a student’s progress; however, there is a fine balance between earning a grade and acquiring the knowledge.

Grades are traditionally seen as “the sticks and carrots of a classroom,1” which makes them nearly impossible to discard.  Many people believe that assigning grades cultivates self discipline and motivation, driving students to achieve higher marks because they either see them as rewards or as a sign of failure.1 However, grades are an extrinsic satisfaction: when the grades no longer matter then the motivation disappears. Students who are more intrinsically motivated are more invested in the outcome of their learning. For example, students who are expected to teach the material they learn may have an intrinsic motivation to understand the material. Having students actively engaged increases their focus on higher-level learning.1 According to a review by Lowman1 regarding motivational strategies, a way to de-emphasize grades is to avoid using them to penalize students. Instead, he suggested using formative feedback, having ungraded assignments, and stressing personal satisfaction. However this might not always be feasible or practical in a setting with a larger number of students. With a large class of students there would not be enough time or resources for a teacher to give everyone this kind of individual attention.

Another approach is to adopt a pass-fail system.  This system is often used by medical schools and in some pharmacy curriculum as well. A pass-fail system de-emphasizes grades, removing the external motivation for students to strive for that A+.  In theory, it encourages students to study to satisfy their intellectual curiosity. Gold and his colleagues2 studied college students who took all of their courses or one course on a pass-fail basis too determine how it affected their academic performance. Their findings showed that students who took at least one course on a pass-fail basis versus those who took all of their courses for a letter grade, tended to get significantly lower grades after returning to a letter-grade course.  While the results suggest that students may be harmed by pass-fail courses, it is not clear that the students in this student learned how learn for the sake of learning rather than for a grade.  Also, the study did not look into how invested these students were in their course of study or how subsequent course work related to their future professional goals.  Thus, the results may not be applicable to students who enrolled in health professional education programs.  A study done at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine3 showed that a pass-fail grading system significantly reduced stress and increased group cohesion in medical students. These benefits arguably improve their learning and professional careers.

Students with a strong interest in learning tend to see the classroom “as a context in which they expect to encounter new information and ideas that will be both personally and professionally significant.1” On the other hand, students with a stronger interest in grades viewed the classroom as something they had to endure “as a necessary evil”1 to achieve their professional goals.  Traditionally, teaching is often focused around the teacher, creating an environment where the essential motivator for students is getting good or avoiding poor grades.4 The classroom teacher has the opportunity to change this mentality and use grades as a tool for learning rather than the ultimate goal of learning, thereby encouraging students to use their intrinsic satisfaction to drive learning.4

Another approach to reduce a grade-oriented mentality includes developing a closer and more trusting relationship between teachers and students by abolishing the use of a syllabus.4  Proponents of this strategy argued that the large number of rules outlined in a syllabus convey the teacher’s mistrust of students. Others have proposed a student-centered model of instruction.  But such models often raise concerns about resources and minimizing the teacher’s role despite their considerable experience and knowledge.  Another model that de-emphasizes grades is the senior-junior partnership.  This model emphasizes collaboration between student while acknowledging that there is a hierarchical relationship. The junior partner (student) is required to respond to the senior’s instructions (teacher) and use the opportunity to learn. However, the senior partner takes responsibility for and is committed to the success of the junior. It is believed the mutual responsibility between the two encourages learning.4

There are several models proposed to encourage students to learn. Though, they all have their nuances, one theme is common: to encourage a better relationship between teachers and students where each invests in mutual success. Grades are practical in the sense that they define a certain standard that must be met and easily allows others to determine the qualifications of a student or applicant. Indeed, many pharmacy schools and residency training programs have a minimum GPA requirement they use in order to narrow the number of applicants they have to interview. However, in terms of learning, grades do not seem to be necessary and can take the focus off what’s most important.  There are methods teachers can utilize to de-emphasize grades and encourage deeper learning.

1.    Joseph Lowman. Promoting Motivation and Learning. College Teaching, Fall 1990,Vol. 38, No. 4  pp. 136-139.
2.   Gold RM, Reilly A, Silberman R, Lehr R. Academic Achievement Declines under Pass-Fail Grading. The Journal of Experimental Education, Vol. 39, No. 3 (Spring, 1971), pp. 17-21.
3.    Rohe DE, et al. The Benefits of Pass-Fail Grading on Stress, Mood, and Group Cohesion in Medical Students. Mayo Clin Proc. November 2006 81(11):1443-1448.
4.    Farias G, Farias CM, Fairfield KD. Teacher as Judge or Partner: The Dilemma of Grades Versus Learning. Journal of Education for Business. 2010. 85:6, 336-342.  

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