Grades AREN’T Motivating.

Check out this tweet that landed in my Twitterstream, y’all:

Brett’s right, isn’t he?  

We SHOULD barf every time someone makes the argument that without grades, students can’t be motivated to tackle meaningful tasks.

More importantly, we should stop using grades to sucker kids into completing assignments in our classrooms:


Slide - If It's Not Graded

(click here to view original image on Flickr)

So how SHOULD we motivate learners?  

Easy:  By rethinking the kinds of work that we are asking them to do.  Any task that is worth doing should be relevant and interesting.  Learners should be hooked by our assignments and should be convinced that every task will strengthen their knowledge and skills in important areas.

Any task that is worth doing should also be challenging.  Create assignments that are too easy — or that seem completely impossible — and learners tune out.  But create assignments that require kids to stretch just outside of their comfort zones, and they will invest completely in the work.

Finally, any task that is worth doing should help students to drive meaningful change beyond the walls of their classrooms.  The simple truth is that today’s students want to be influential.  They aren’t satisfied with work that has no clear purpose beyond filling their report cards.  But if you can show your kids that the questions they are asking and lessons that they are learning can improve their families, communities or countries, and they’ll tackle anything.

Now don’t get me wrong:  You CAN use grades to try to influence the kids in your classroom — and most will probably respond.

The vast majority of our students still want to earn passing marks.  And they still feel pressure from their parents and their teachers to score highly on classroom assignments.  After all, they’ve been buried in messages like “you’ll never get into college with those grades” and “for every A that you make, I’ll give you $20 bucks” and “make anything less than a C and you will lose your phone for a whole quarter” for most of their lives.

But don’t mistake those reactions with motivation.  

If anything, what you are seeing when students put effort into assignments simply because they are being graded is compliance.  Motivation begins when our classrooms become places where interesting, relevant, challenging, and powerful tasks become the norm rather than the exception to the rule.


Related Radical Reads:

Celebrate Your TEACHING Geeks, not your TECH Geeks

Are Kids REALLY Motivated by Technology?

Are YOUR Students Doing Work that Matters?

8 thoughts on “Grades AREN’T Motivating.

  1. Peter Booth

    I 100% agree with you BUT…..

    there’s a current reality that right now high school involves lots of educational experiences that kids do not intrinsically enjoy. As a math teacher who tries to make my class interesting and engaging, it still often, for students, comes back around to “What can I do to improve my grade?” or “Can I retake that Summative?” (as the student is handing in a Summative assignment.)

    I’m on board with intrinsic motivation, SBL and creating authentic learning opportunities for kids, but I’m feel burned out with students wanting infinite opportunities to reassess until they get the “4”.

  2. Pingback: Compliance ≠ Motivation. |

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  4. aubreydiorio

    “If anything, what you are seeing when students put effort into assignments simply because they are being graded is compliance.”
    This is huge! Compliance is not motivation!
    Thanks for another though provoking read!

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      You got it, Aubrey. When we mistake compliance for motivation, we end up with some pretty crappy learning spaces!

      Here’s the hitch: It’s a more common misunderstanding than people realize! Teachers — and their bosses — dig them some compliance!



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