Grades are one of the most universally applied extrinsic rewards in higher education. Obviously, grades are often determined by testing. What, then, is the impact of testing and grades on students’ motivation and learning?

The research of Edward Deci and his colleagues sheds light. In one study, two groups of college students spent about 3 hours learning complex material on neurophysiology.  Half were told they would be tested and graded on their learning, half were told they would have the opportunity to put the material to active use by teaching it to others. Both groups were later tested and students who learned in order to put material to active use displayed considerably greater conceptual understanding of the material. Deci concludes, “It seems that when people learn with the expectation of being evaluated, they focus on memorizing facts, but they don’t process the information as fully, so they don’t grasp the concepts as well….  With both college students and elementary-school children, the research indicates quite convincingly that the strategy of giving tests is not necessarily productive if the objective is long-term learning.” –Edward Deci, Why We Do What We Do 

On the other hand….

“Teachers should not be afraid to use extrinsic rewards, but should use them in a way that makes them contingent on actual academic performance, not as ways to control general behavior or as bribes to comply with the teacher…. During mathematics instruction, [researcher Dale H.] Schunk found that giving students rewards commensurate with their actual performances enhanced motivation, self-efficacy, and skill whereas offering rewards for participation at the task led to no benefits.” –Paul R. Pintrich & Dale H. Schunk, Motivation in Education

APPLICATION: How can I structure the learning environment so grades don’t reduce students’ intrinsic motivation?

IP GRADES (Domain: Policies & Rules): One way to minimize the controlling aspect of grades while keeping the informative aspect is to provide an option for instructors to give an IP (In Progress) grade. An IP grade gives students information that they have made an effort but have not yet achieved the required level of subject mastery.  An “IP” lacks the controlling aspect of a failing grade because, by not lowering the student’s GPA, this grade lacks the threat of lost financial aid or other benefits tied to a GPA.  Students can stay in these courses until semester’s end knowing that, if they put in the effort, the worst that will happen is they won’t get a passing grade…but they will be better prepared to retake the course.

–Skip Downing, Facilitator, On Course Workshop,

Forum Image OptionGrades as Extrinsic Motivators Forum