The backbone of a quality grading system: Autonomy, Purpose, and Mastery

I have watched the illustrated version of Daniel Pink’s talk How Motivation is Driven by Purpose – and not Monetary Incentives before, but as I watched it again, it brought up new thoughts on grades, which have been on my mind a lot lately. Here are a few quotes from the talk and my reflections.

“If you don’t pay people enough, they won’t be motivated.”

For teachers, I think the way we pay students is with our feedback.

If we don’t give any feedback, students won’t be motivated. They have no reason to continue working if they know their is no reward at all. If we don’t give enough feedback, students will feel like their work is undervalued.

Also, what does that mean for kids who know they won’t get a good grade. Lots of negative feedback may be worse than minimal feedback. If you know you won’t get a good grade, no matter what your effort level, what could possibly motivate you to put your best effort into an assignment. Some kids might work out of fear that a slightly worse grade (maybe a D compared to a C) will have worse consequences at home, so they might work hard enough to get the C. Surely that isn’t the motivator we want kids to have and it is definitely not going to spark the growth or creativity that we hope for.

“Once the task called for even rudimentary cognitive skill, the larger the reward, the poorer the performance.”

Assuming that our tasks in school require at least rudimentary cognitive skill (if you are teaching skills that don’t require cognition, you can stop reading now), this applies to our students. Again, if we think of payment to students as feedback, including grades, too much feedback will lead to decreased performance. When we give too many grades, provide too many comments on a paper, or simply overemphasize the importance of the grade, students can become overwhelmed.

“Pay people enough to take the issue of money off the table.”

It sounds relatively obvious that we should give the students enough feedback so that they feel their work is valued, which takes the issue of money off the table. This would also make the feedback more valuable to them, because they could use it purposefully, rather than frozen by the shock of too much revision.

Of equal or greater importance is Pink’s description of what people really need: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. What if we made these three goals the backbone of our grading/feedback systems. Our feedback would become more valuable to students and teachers. Feedback needs to give enough information to students so that they can use it (autonomy), the opportunity to use the feedback to improve (purpose), and the reward of accomplishing a new goal using that new information (working toward mastery).

Most teachers required to grade feel overwhelmed by the time consuming and often mind-numbing task of grading. With a new framework, less would be more, as long as less is enough to drive the student forward. It also makes student self-assessment more meaningful, taking the autonomy to a different level. I’m not talking about random or rushed self-assessments, but thoughtful tools that have been guided by teachers and allow students to gauge their progress.

What if we completely redesigned the grading/feedback system so that autonomy, purpose and mastery were the backbone of that system? If we started from scratch, as if we had never heard of letter grades or percentages or the bell curve, what would it look like?


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