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,






One thought on “Complicating the extrinsic motivation and getting good grades narrative

  1. I knew it . . . they do want to learn! My favorite column is now my favorite blog. I’m really enjoying your insights and the poetic voice you always bring to the numbers.

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