Grades or Goals? How We Talk With Our Students About Achievement Matters

Grades or Goals? How We Talk With Our Students About Achievement Matters

Grades or Goals?
How We Talk With Our Students About Achievement Matters

by Andrew Hutton, English Team Leader


As we approach the end of the year, many conversations will soon be had about student performance. In my experience, more often that not these conversations will be based not on specific goals setting but on overall levels of achievement as outlined in end-of-semester reports or numbered grades highlighted on criteria sheets. Many of these conversations will be held with the best of intentions in helping our students succeed. Unfortunately, an overemphasis on these numbers may actually have a counterproductive effect. 

In the 1930s, psychologist Karl Duncker created a conceptual problem-solving experiment that asked participants to find a way to attach a candle to a wall using only a box of tacks and some matches. In his book Drive, the Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Dan Pink outlines how this experiment was subsequently used to evaluate the beneficial effects that extrinsic rewards could have in terms of conceptual problem solving. In this case, more money was given for faster completion of the problem. Surprisingly (at the time), it was found that extrinsic rewards actually had a detrimental effect on the efficiency of conceptual problem solving. 

Extrinsic motivation can be defined as an outside reward, obligation or demand. On the other hand, intrinsic motivation refers to behavior that is driven by internal rewards and gives a natural sense of satisfaction. In the schooling system, grades clearly fall into the ‘extrinsic reward’ category. We also largely talk about student learning and achievement by referring to such indicators.

For example, I’ve often heard students reflect on disappointments by saying, “I didn’t get an 8!” or set goals like, “I want to achieve 7s in all my subjects!” Such thinking is problematic because it creates a disproportionate sense of disappointment, can negatively affect motivation, does not reflect true progress, and is too vague or broad to be helpful.

All of this is not to say that numbered grades have no place in our educational system. They do provide a necessary tool for university entrance or job applications and other such practical measures. They are still an essential tool to help students improve as learners. However, to actually achieve better results, it might be better to push the discussion of these into the background and focus more on goals, not grades.

Reflections on performance and goal setting for the future should specifically evaluate concrete areas for improvement and identify transferable strategies that would enable one to achieve this. There are two main reasons for this.

First, such a conversation would provide a more specific and individualized assessment. Rather than compare the student to other students, it would be better to acknowledge that student’s unique areas of growth or strength, thus building a sense of achievement and confidence. This would in turn provide a pathway for progress that is most relevant for the individual.

Second, discussions centered on goals rather than grades better enhance metacognition. Conversations that focus purely on numbers do not help students understand how they learn best or develop their thought processes. Talking about learned knowledge, conceptual understandings and skills helps reinforce those mental processes. In addition, students can also develop transferable strategies that may help them learn better in other subjects or other areas of their lives.

So what could a conversation focused on goals, not grades, sound like? How about a simple, three-part conversation that looks like this:

To start, instead of asking, “Why are you not getting 7s in this subject?” or “Why didn’t you achieve an 8 in this assignment?”, we could instead identify an area of strength and so help build confidence and affirm achievement. For example, “What do you think you’ve improved in this subject?” or “Where do you think your strengths lie?” 

Following this, we could then ask the student for a specific and concrete area they would like to work on. For example, “Tell me about a skill you still need to work on.” 

Finally, we could then help students identify transferable learning strategies that would achieve these goals. For example, “What are you going to do differently the next time you do this type of assignment?”

With these types of conversations, focusing more on goal-setting rather than grade-getting, hopefully we can create a more effective culture around assessment and in so doing help our students attain greater academic success.