How to get students to focus on learning, not grades

Here at Johns Hopkins we have a significant number of undergraduates who are pre-med students majoring in a range of mostly STEM disciplines. For many, their undergraduate studies are a milestone to be marked on the way to a degree in medicine. Getting into medical school is the goal, and grades are seen as critical to their success in meeting that objective. Of course, it’s not a problem just for pre-meds, we see it across the board. Instructors understand that grades are important, but do not necessarily equate to future success. It’s the learning that counts. So how do we get students to focus on the learning not the grades?

Students watching demonstration of frog dissection.An editorial from Inside Higher Ed Too Smart to Fail? (August 16, 2016), by Joseph Holtgreive, Assistant Dean and Director of the Office of Personal Development at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering, summarizes the challenges that face faculty and students. The “fear of failing to be perfect, ideally an effortless perfection, versus the joy of learning” creates situations where students opt for an easy grade as opposed to challenging themselves to learn. Holtgrieve has found this to be a problem particularly for students who did well academically in high school with little effort. Such students come to college focused on the “wrong outcome”—a high GPA—thinking “they’re keeping their eyes on the ball, they are actually just staring at the scoreboard.” While this affirms their measure of performance as long as their grades exceed their efforts, it can create a problem when their efforts exceed their grades.

Holtgreive points out that “[f]ocusing on the measurement of our performance reinforces what researcher Carol Dweck calls a fixed mind-set. If students believe that how they perform at one moment in time exposes the limits of their potential rather than serving merely as a snapshot of where they are in the process of growing their abilities, feelings of struggle and uncertainty become threatening rather than an opportunity to grow.” Focusing attention on grades may limit learning. On the other hand, when students can be convinced to “…set their intention to be genuinely curious and authentically excited by the challenge of finding connections between their current knowledge and new opportunities to understand, they experience the true joy of learning and all of the spoils that attend it.”

To find ways to help students “…reposition thinking about grades and learning,” Maryellen Weimer, PhD, offers some practical ideas in Five Ways to Get Students Thinking about Learning, Not Grades, from Faculty Focus, April 12, 2017.

  1. Position assignments as learning opportunities by discussing the “knowledge and skills” required rather than as something they are doing to “please the teacher.” Ask students to consider what they will learn in doing the work.
  2. Help students reflect on learning experiences throughout the course. Ask them to think about their professional ambitions and the skills and knowledge they will need. Have them make a list of those and use the list after every assignment or activity to write a short reflection on how the work they completed furthered their development.
  3. Create evolving assignments rather than one time tasks or activities. “One-time assignments don’t illustrate how learning is an evolving process and they don’t teach students how to do more work on something they have already done.” Instead, have students write a paper one step at a time (research a topic and create a bibliography, submit a thesis statement and an outline, write a first draft, revise, etc.), complete a multi-phase project, write a series of reflections and responses on a subject. Provide feedback but not grades for each phase.
  4. Encourage peer collaboration by structuring group learning and making sure that students are asking the right questions of each other.
  5. Change the conversation by talking about learning with students. Help students see how learning, not grades, will relate to their future professional goals.

Shifting the focus from grades to learning requires faculty to go against the tide of today’s prevailing academic culture. But making a few changes in how you think about teaching can go a long way to improving student perceptions of the importance of learning.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com

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