Why Overemphasizing Grades is Harmful
I caught myself doing it again. The story went something like this.
Me: You’re so smart!
Alexa: I’m not smart.
Me: Why do you say that?
Alexa: Because I failed a division test today.
Every Monday night for the last two years, I’ve tutored the most amazing, brilliant, and talented girl. For anonymity sake, we’ll call her Alexa.
My heart sank as I watched Alexa’s normally joyful presence diminish into shame. I caught my Fixed Mindset comment and immediately went into a dialogue about how grades don’t define her, nor are they a good measure of intelligence.
Unfortunately, she didn’t buy my arguments. Five years of school had already instilled a belief that grades accurately measure learning and intelligence. Her failure on a quiz made her question her ability to learn and destroyed her confidence.
Alexa is not alone. According to a study at the University of Michigan, 80 percent of students surveyed based their self-worth on academic performance. I know Alexa well enough to know her learning is often impacted by her fear of failure.
Contrary to popular opinion regarding the importance of grades in evaluating student performance, decades of research reveal three negative effects of grades on learning.
1) The fear of failure is a serious hindrance to learning. A study from the University of Cape Town showed a connection between stress and fear of failing tests with symptoms of procrastination, confusion, and low self-esteem.
2) Students’ willingness to take risks decreases with grades. The more students are told their scores count toward a grade, the more likely they will choose the easiest possible way to complete the task. As Alfie Kohn says, “Grades tend to reduce the quality of students’ thinking.”
On the other hand, when students are allowed to direct their own learning, they pursue more challenging problems.
3) Grades reduce students’ interest in learning. Young children are naturally curious and demonstrate a true joy in learning. However, grades tend to diminish the intrinsic motivation.
People will be most creative when they feel motivated primarily by the interest, satisfaction, and challenge of the work itself—and not by external pressures.~Tony Wagner, Creating Innovators
Grades are intended to provide feedback, communicate progress, and evaluate learning. Unfortunately, grades are the least reliable method of accomplishing any of these objectives.
The more we want our children to be (1) lifelong learners, genuinely excited about words and numbers and ideas, (2) avoid sticking with what’s easy and safe, and (3) become sophisticated thinkers, the more we should do everything possible to help them forget about grades. ~Alfie Kohn
Given the deep value placed on grades by society, we must strive to help children keep their love of learning.
Parents can reduce the negative impact of overemphasizing grades by assuring children of their value, no matter what grades they earn.
Regularly assure children the following:
- Grades don’t define them.
- Effort matters more than winning.
- They are worth far more than the sum of their GPA.
- Your love is not conditional upon their performance.
- Smart is not equated with good grades.
- Many valuable life skills can’t be measured.
As a parent, I admit I’ve been guilty of sending the wrong message to my own children. However, it’s never too late to change habits. During my kids’ high school and college years, I started focusing less on grades and shifted to characteristics they could control, like effort and perseverance.
I can attest to the positive effects of my change of focus on my children’s self-esteem and motivation. Recently, my daughter shared an experience during an especially challenging exam in school. When she started to struggle and panic, she silently repeated the words she had heard from me about how grades don’t define her. As a result, she was able to earn an “A” on her exam. Although, she was quick to say the grade didn’t matter as much as her ability to manage her nerves.
I know it’s challenging to let go of the desire to push children to strive for high grades. But, the research is clear. The overemphasis of grades interferes with learning and motivation.
Take a risk. Worry less. Encourage more.
Would you rather have earned a 4.5 GPA in high school spending hours and hours doing homework; or, would you rather have earned a 3.5 GPA and built a high emotional IQ, lifelong friendships and discovered a passion for music or art? Please share your comments below.