The 3 Biggest Dangers of Using Grades as Motivators


One of the fundamental issues with most teachers’ grading schemes is that they continue to treat each grade as a reward or a punishment, rather than simply as a measurement.  It might seem like a trivial difference, but the way we look at grades (and use them) has big effects on our classrooms.  Whether you seek to encourage work habits by praising high grades, or prevent laziness and lack of attention by criticizing low marks, you aren’t doing yourself or your students any favors.

Now, before I dive into this short list, an important point.  We must teach and encourage resiliency, responsibility, and work ethic.  The skills are critical to the success of our students.  But, the key is to provide this instruction and reinforcement separate from grades.

#1: Losing Sight of Student Learning. Once we acknowledge that grades work best when they communicate student mastery, we are forced to admit that giving and taking points for reasons other than mastery is a bad practice.  When we penalize students for late work or incorporate zeroes for non-submitted work into their average, we are saying that their grade represents what they know AND some other stuff.  With this veil over the meaning of the number (or letter), it becomes much less useful for grouping, identifying weaknesses, and gauging improvement.

#2: Encouraging Cheating. I have seen firsthand the panic and desperation that sets in when students get stressed out about their performance on an assessment.  Most teachers can recall a time when they were shocked to learn that a trusted student had cheated on a test.  The driving force for this behavior is the importance that we (including teachers, administrators, parents, and students) put on marks that should be just as stressful as having your temperature taken at the doctor’s office.  Assessments provide useful information.  That’s it.  Doing well on a test just shows that a student has mastered the curriculum.  We need to lower the stakes.

#3: Mistaking Extrinsic Motivation for Intrinsic.  All teachers recognize the value in helping our student develop internal reasons for wanting to succeed.  We know that to become lifelong learners and to value the process of education, we need our students to want to learn.  What we don’t realize is that when students work hard to earn a high grade, they are not exhibiting intrinsic motivation.  Rather, the grade (and perhaps the rewards that come with it) is acting as the motivator.  Those who criticize modern grading practices as not preparing students for the world outside school often fail to see this point.  Teaching students to perform well when they are being graded does not make them ideal citizens or employees.  We need to help them become more aware of the reason behind assessment, and help them develop self-assessment skills.  That’s the path to truly intrinsic motivation.


Grades need to lose the high-stakes baggage that they have picked up over the years.  We need to begin to see them as they really are, and encourage families and organizations to join us.  A student’s grade needs to tell his family, his teachers, and himself how well he understands what he needs to.  When we make “good grades” the goal in and of themselves, we muddy any usefulness that they have for improving learning.

What do you see as the problem with grades as they stand today?

5 thoughts on “The 3 Biggest Dangers of Using Grades as Motivators

  1. Such a brilliant bit, Paul.

    I think the biggest problem with putting your points into action is convincing parents that grades shouldn’t be used as a motivator. That’s a tried-and-true pattern in most families — didn’t you get $5 for every A on your report card?

    Several years ago, I was working to separate work behaviors from grades and I started using a separate report card for work behaviors. I wrote about it constantly on our team website. I presented on it at open house. I put it on top of the report card along with a letter asking parents to celebrate the scores their kids earned on work behaviors as strongly as they celebrated report card grades.

    And I still had kids tell me to my face, “My parents don’t care about that. All they care about is the report card.”



    Most teachers that I know could get behind everything that you write about here. But when parents push against the notion, change dies.

    Does that make sense?


    1. I totally agree with you, Bill. But, that’s such a frustrating situation, isn’t it? Where does the change start?

      Does it require a strong school leader willing to weather the parental storm?

      Does it take committed educators pushing and educating parents until change sticks?

      Does it take open-minded families willing to put the growth if their children ahead of tradition?

      You guessed it. It takes all three.


  2. I enjoyed your post, very much. It brings up 3 very important dangers of being too focused on the grade. I have two things that I’d like to add.

    First, the psychological impact of grades on students concerns me. I focus on growth, effort, and differentiation in my practices; however, I have students who internalize every grade as a personal judgment on their self worth no matter how hard I try to combat it.

    Which brings me to my second observation, grades as extrinsic motivators is a systematic issue. Through marketing, money, and more, we’ve placed a $ figure on each one that far surpasses the $5 per A concept. The marketing concept of good grades = a good job that schools of all levels are now touting adds to this in a very unhealthy manner. The well intentioned academic scholarships contribute too as they provide access to “better” schools who are marketed as increasing students’ chances at better paying jobs. The list goes on. But it will take more than a few parent-teacher conversations to change a cultural misappropriation of grades.

    I know this sounds like a buzzkill and I didn’t intend it to as I am committed to doing as much as I can to shift student, parent, and community focus away from grades and back to the learning. Do you have any tips that I can share about more ways to combat this issue?


    1. Chris,

      Thanks for the feedback. I completely agree with you on both points. Students are so wrapped up in our culture of “high grades = success” that it is challenging to get them to develop an intrinsic drive to learn. Is there anything that individual teachers can do to push back?


  3. John Wooden’s definition of success as “having peace of mind in knowing that you have given the very best of which you are capable of” resonates with me and drives my belief about learning and teaching ~ installing a system of continuous improvement within the classrooms of my school is a key mission of my job as principal.


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