Complicating the extrinsic motivation and getting good grades narrative

Faculty often cringe when students ask, “what do I have to do to get an “A” on this assignment?”  For most educators, this question feels more like an unsolicited back alley proposition than a genuine expression of intellectual curiosity.

Yet from the student’s perspective, grades may represent a very different kind of negotiation.  Not only have grades dictated their access to future educational opportunities, extra-curricular experiences, and sometimes even cash(!) since elementary school, but the categories of “A” student, “B” student, and “C” student have all too often come to represent individual worth and long-term potential – not just the quality of one’s work on a particular assignment.  Sadly, we’ve done a pretty good job of validating this conception.  Remember the “My kid is an honor student at ____ school” bumper stickers that still adorn many a late model mini-van or SUV?

Luckily, disentangling the relationship between our students’ perception of grades and their motivational orientations can be approached as an empirical question.  Last year we began a four-year study of the experiences that shape our students’ intrinsic motivation.  As a part of this study, we included a measure of extrinsic motivational orientation and a question that asked students to indicate the importance they place on getting good grades.

This summer, we tested the relationship between extrinsic motivation and the importance of getting good grades at the end of the first year.  We assumed we’d find a significant relationship between these two variables.  So we were quite surprised to find no significant correlation between extrinsic motivation and importance of getting good grades.  However, we found a statistically significant positive – and moderately sized (.332) – correlation between students’ intrinsic motivational orientation and the importance of getting good grades.  Hmmm . . .

At the very least, this suggests that we might need to think more carefully about the assumptions we make when students ask how they can earn an ‘A’ from us.  One student inquiry about earning a high grade might be an indication of the degree to which we simply have not communicated our expectations for an assignment clearly.  Another inquiry might reflect the degree to which a student considers the entire educational enterprise to be about jumping through hoops and collecting credentials.  Still another inquiry might only mean that the student has too many irons in the fire and is simply triangulating their available time, the expectations they perceive that you hold, and the grade they can afford to live with.

There are two additional considerations about grading practices and their relationship to student motivation that are worth noting.  First, letter grades emerged during a time in which the learning expected of students was primarily about content knowledge.  But as content has shifted from an end to a means – with colleges now focused on developing more complex skills and dispositions in addition to content knowledge, we have done very little to think about whether the traditional metric for assessing student performance might benefit from some reconsideration.

In addition, at Augustana we don’t impose a single definition of what a grade represents.  Does an ‘A’ mean that a student has met an externally defined threshold of competence?   Or does it mean that a student has improve substantially over the course of a term?  Or is it some combination of the two that shifts as the course progresses?  Or maybe it should depend on the role of the course within the larger curriculum to determine whether grading should be about improvement or competence.

Faculty employ varying iterations of these conceptions across the array of courses that they offer, and all three approaches seem entirely appropriate for different situations.  But from the students’ perspective, unless they actually understand that there are different approaches to grading, and that these approaches can (and probably should) vary depending upon the course, they are likely to feel blindsided when the conception chosen by the instructor differs from that expected by the student.  Any one of us would likely be frustrated by such a realization, and in that moment it seems entirely reasonable to ask the question, “How DO I get an ‘A’ in this class?”  Moreover, I think we would have good reason to be offended if someone responded to our question by challenging our motives for learning.

Since a large proportion of our students understand the impact of grades on their future prospects for graduate school or the job market, it is likely that many place great importance on getting a high grade regardless of their motivational orientation.  So, it appears that maybe – just maybe – the implications of a student asking, “How do I get an ‘A’ on this paper?” are, let’s just say . . . complicated.

Make it a good day,






Smile! Its the end of the academic year (almost!)

At this point in the term, there isn’t a lot of time for deep, contemplative thought.  Instead, it strikes me that a good laugh is the best source of that little extra fuel to get through the last week of the academic year.  So I thought I’d supply a little higher ed humor.  Here are links to some of the best spoof news stories about higher education in the past couple of years.  If nothing else, they’ll give you one more way to procrastinate grading!


Bard College Named Nation’s No. 1 Dinner Party School


New College Graduates To Be Cryogenically Frozen Until Job Market Improves


Area Man First In His Family To Coast Through College


There are so many more, but time is of the essence.  See you next fall!


Make it a good day!



Does a double major learn more?

One of the arguments raised repeatedly throughout the calendar discussion was the importance we place on multiple majors.  While there were numerous rationales in support of double majors, one of them was that increased access to gaining a double major reflects our commitment to a fundamental principle of liberal arts education and the emphasis we place on becoming more well-rounded intellectually, culturally, and personally.


Although this argument sounds wonderful, I heard less data to support the core claim that a double major was somehow preferable to a single major or a major and a minor.  This might well be so in terms of employability and flexibility in an uncertain job market.  But do students who double major make larger gains on the educational outcomes of a liberal arts education than those who do not double major?  Does earning a double major somehow produce greater broad-based learning gains?


I examined the Wabash National Study data from the 2006 cohort.  Furthermore, I restricted my analysis to students at the eleven small liberal arts colleges in that cohort. I didn’t investigate whether certain combinations of majors were more advantageous than others primarily because I didn’t hear anyone seriously advocate for one combination over another, although there seems to be a second claim floating around that truly interdisciplinary double majors are somehow better than intra-disciplinary double majors – an assertion we can test if this first analysis holds much water.


The table below shows nine educational and developmental outcomes of a liberal arts education and whether being a double major correlates with a larger gain between the first year and the fourth year.


Double Major Status Had No Impact

Double Major Status Had An Impact

Critical Thinking

Intellectual Curiosity

Moral Reasoning

Intercultural Maturity

Attitude toward Literacy

Civic Engagement

Academic Motivation


Psychological Well Being

Based on these findings, it initially appears that double majoring provides some educational benefit, impacting two of the nine outcomes.  However, the size of the effect on intellectual curiosity and intercultural maturity is actually quite small.  Furthermore, in the two cases where an initial significant finding appears, the impact of being a double major vanishes once I introduce student experience such as diverse interaction (in the test of intercultural maturity) and integrative learning experiences (in the test of intellectual curiosity) into the equations.


Based on this evidence, it’s hard to make the case that double majoring – by itself – is necessarily significantly beneficial in the context of learning outcomes.  Again, this doesn’t mean that it couldn’t be beneficial in the very important context of job acquisition.  But it appears that this cow’s sacred status may require a bit more scrutiny before we summarily celebrate our embrace of the double major.


Make it a good day!



One course just won’t do it

From time to time, Augustana lets me out of my little cave so that I can attend a conference related to higher education research or assessment of student learning outcomes.   A few weeks ago, a paper was presented at the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE) that I found fascinating and particularly germane to many of the conversations we have at Augustana about the effects of particular curricular emphases on broader student learning outcomes.

This particular paper examined the influence of required diversity courses on students’ inclination toward civic engagement.  At many institutions the general education curricula is organized around a series of categories from which students choose one or two courses to meet the institution’s requirements.  This paper hypothesized that perhaps one course on diversity issues was not enough to influence substantive, lasting learning.  The authors examined data from about 500 students, gathered at the beginning of the first year and at the end of the fourth year.  The authors also had access to student transcripts that allowed them to identify which courses the students took to fulfill their general education requirements.

Students in this study had two options in fulfilling the diversity requirement.  They could take a domestic diversity course or a global diversity course.  In some cases, students took both – especially since some courses within the diversity category also fulfilled other requirements necessary for graduation.  Thus, the researchers could test the effect of taking one domestic diversity course, one global diversity course, or both courses on students’ gains in attitudes toward civic engagement.

The study found that the only students who made substantive gains in an inclination toward civic engagement were those who took both the domestic and global diversity courses.  Conversely, students who took only one course focused on either domestic or global diversity had not unique effect on attitudinal gains.

The take away from this paper, and the discussion that followed really honed in on the tendency for us to think that substantive learning can be accomplished by a single course – a “check the box” approach.   Of course, as we think about designing a new curriculum these findings might be useful to consider.  More broadly, however, I would suggest that this paper reinforces the idea that substantive learning is a function of a series of related experiences rather than any one experience.   We are the ones who can help our students engage in related experiences and help to point out those connections.

Make it a good day.


Complicating the “over-involvement” complaint

Last week I promised that my next column would be short and sweet.  And in the context of the time crunch that inevitably wells up during week ten of the term, I am all about short and sweet.  So consider this data nugget as you bounce from commitment to commitment this week.

I think many of us seem to accept the campus narrative that our students are too busy.  If we were portioning out blame for this phenomenon, I suspect that a large proportion of it would fall on co-curricular involvement.  This claim isn’t entirely without merit.  We have legitimate evidence from our National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) data that our students spend more hours per week involved in co-curricular activities than students at comparable institutions.

But rather than debunk this narrative, I’d like to complicate it.  Because I am not sure the real question should be whether or not our students are over-involved or under-involved in co-curricular activities.  Instead, maybe the question should be whether each of our students is involved in the right amount and array of experiences that best fit their developmental needs – a very different question than whether we should be managing our student body to an “average” amount of co-curricular involvement.

In addition to NSSE, our participation in the Wabash National Study (WNS) also provides insight into our first-year students’ behaviors and allows us to compare our first-year students to those at a number of comparable small liberal arts colleges.  While the WNS utilized the identical NSSE question regarding co-curricular involvement, it also asked students to report the number of student organizations in which they participated during the first year.  I wanted to know whether or not our high rank in co-curricular involvement would be replicated in our students’ organizational memberships.  Essentially, I wanted to know more about the nature of our students’ involvement.

Interestingly, the average number of organizations in which our first-year students participated ended up in the middle of the pack and did not mirror our high rank in amount of co-curricular involvement.  This suggests to me that our students are not bouncing around from meeting to meeting (as the “myth” might imply) without having the time to meaningfully immerse themselves in these experiences.

That is not to say that this contradicts the claim outright.  Instead, I would suggest that this finding might provide some insight into the nature of purpose – or lack of purpose – that drives our students’ co-curricular involvement.  I’ll let you chew on the implications of this possibility for our own work in between meetings, grading, teaching, and every other little thing you have to do this week.

Make it a good day – and a good end of the fall term!


Is grade inflation just a bunch of hot air?

I suspect that almost everyone has heard the “it was better in the good ol’ days” claim …if we haven’t even used it ourselves from time to time.  I would suggest that we have an academic version of this claim at Augustana.  The claim argues that there has been substantial grade inflation over the past several decades.   Apparently, this claim has carried some weight over the years, because we have created multiple mechanisms to prevent grade inflation – or at least stem the tide.

Luckily this is a claim we can test.  But before looking at the data, let’s make sure we share an understanding of this claim.  An assertion of grade inflation boils down to two points.

1)      Grades have been creeping upward.

2)      This is because faculty have shifted expectations for performance downward.

Grade inflation doesn’t just make an observation about changes in GPA; it also attributes the change to the failure of colleagues to hold the line on academic rigor.  In the context of a small college, it’s sort of a less physically damaging version of a circular firing squad.

So, testing this claim turns into two questions.  First, have grades gone up over time? And second, can we conclusively attribute this change in GPA to faculty grading practices?

Have grades gone up over time?    


From about 1991 to the present, the average GPA of each class went up by about .15 of a grade point, whether you look at each entering cohort’s end-of-year grades from the first year to fourth year or you look at each subsequent cohort’s end-of-year grades from 1991 to the 2010.

Can we conclusively attribute this change in GPA to faculty grading practices?


First, the increase in average GPA for each cohort from first to fourth year is predominantly explained by the departure – voluntary or otherwise – of students who struggled academically.  If you slice that group off the bottom of a class at the end of each year, and you recognize the likely influence of maturity and motivation for the students who remain, we would fully expect that the average GPA of a particular cohort of students would go up over time.

Second, from 1991 until 2010 the average ACT score of our incoming students improved by a full point – from 24.5 to 25.5. Since the ACT remained constant during that period, we can test whether the increase in GPA might be explained by the increase in students’ incoming academic ability.  It turns out that this increase in average test score explains virtually all of the change in GPA over the twenty year period in question.

The Verdict:

Faculty grading behaviors may well have changed over time – maybe for worse, maybe for better.  But we have little evidence to suggest a relationship between those behaviors and an increase in overall GPA.  In addition, we have better evidence to suggest that a change in our students’ pre-college academic ability might have influenced this change in GPA.  Interestingly, if faculty grading behaviors had changed in the way that the grade inflation claim suggests, ACT scores would have likely not been as powerful a predictor as they turned out to be.

So the next time you hear someone mention the good ol’ days in the context of academic standards and grades, you might remind them that there are other – and maybe better – explanations for this phenomenon.  You might also remind them of the relative trade-offs of a circular firing squad.


Make it a good day,