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

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The Characteristics of High-Quality Formative Assessments

As we explore different theories of learning, two points seem salient: that students’ understanding of intelligence affects their self-perception, their determination, their motivation, and their achievement (Dweck, 2002); and that a students’ ability to self-regulate learning, to be metacognitive, ensures more successful learning and achievement (Ormrod, 2012, p.352-3).  As instructors plan curriculum and assessments, they ought to consider how to use these points as guides to ensure student learning and success.

Word cloud created from the text of the blog post.Formative assessment, understood as both a tool for instructors to gauge student learning and a teaching method, works iteratively with student understanding of intelligence and learner-regulation.  That is, formative assessment is based on the idea that learners should learn to take control of their learning, and that intelligence is a malleable quality.  In turn, formative assessment improves self-reflection in students and reinforces the idea that intelligence can be increased as opposed to it being a fixed entity, reflecting Carol S. Dweck’s important work on growth mind set, discussed in a recent the Innovative Instructor post.

An understanding of just what formative assessment entails highlights the recursive relationships of formative assessment, self-reflection, and a malleable view of intelligence.  Lorrie Shephard describes formative assessment as a process through which an instructor and a student come to better understand both the learning goals and the student’s work towards those goals in order to “alter the course of instruction and thus support the development of greater competence” (2005, p. 67).  This definition identifies formative assessment as a process of feedback that improves student learning.

Using formative feedback as a teaching method means that a classroom becomes the locus of ongoing dialogue that helps students measure and improve as they work to meet goals, expectations, and objectives.  The instructor takes in information about student progress and understanding, which creates the opportunity for a feedback loop that the instructor can use to shape teaching.  It is the moment when student progress shapes instruction that formative feedback becomes formative assessment.

When practiced effectively, this iterative relationship between instruction, feedback, student adjustment, and instructional adjustment maps onto self-reflection and a view of malleable intelligence.  As instructors provide formative feedback to students, they give students the tools to assess their own progress toward learning goals. Over time, students learn self-reflecting strategies (Shepard, 2005, p. 69; Wiggins, 2004, pp. 2-3, 6), allowing for moments such as Black and Wiliam noted when “one class, subsequently taught by a teacher not emphasizing assessment for learning, surprised that teacher by complaining, ‘Look, we’ve told you we don’t understand this. Why are you going on to the next topic?” (2004, p. 36).  As students reveal their learning progress, either directly (as in the example above) or indirectly through tasks that foster formative feedback, instructors have the opportunity to adapt their instruction. As teaching becomes more closely aligned with student progress, students are given increasingly refined opportunities for comprehension or alignment with expectations. As students chart their own progress, they implicitly buy in to the idea that they can improve their performance by making changes in their approach (Black & Wiliam, 2004, p. 30; Shepard, 2000, p. 43; Wiggins, 2004, p. 5). They come to understand, either overtly or tacitly, that their achievement is based on effort, not an unchanging quantity of intelligence (Shepard, 2005, 68; Lipnevich & Smith, 2009b, 364). When formative assessment works, students become self-regulating learners who practice self-reflection and learn a malleable view of intelligence—and are more motivated and more likely to achieve (Dweck, 2002).

Given the value of formative assessment, how can instructors use the characteristics of exemplary formative assessment as they plan their courses?  As opposed to inserting a few well-crafted formative assessments into the curriculum, instructors should understand that the adoption of formative assessment is the implementation of a course-long instructional approach.  Specifically, instructors can use formative feedback in every class through effective questioning strategies that elicit information about student understanding and help students monitor and adjust their learning (Black & Wiliam, 2004, pp. 25-7).  Instructors can assess students’ prior knowledge and use “knowledge-activation routines” such as the K-W-L strategy, to “develop students’ metacognitive abilities while providing relevant knowledge connections for specific units of study”(Shepard, 2005, p. 68). Comments on work, marking of papers (Black & Wiliam, 2004, pp. 27-31; Lipnevich, 2009a; Lipnevich, 2009b), peer-assessment, self-critique exercises (Black & Wiliam, 2004, pp 31-3), one-on-one tutorials, small group remediation, instructor and student modeling, analysis of exemplars (Wiggins, 2004), and revision exercises can be used throughout.

Although methods may be similar across disciplines, the precise use of formative feedback will naturally vary between disciplines (Black & Wiliam, 2004, pp. 36-37; Shepard, 2000, 36). Nonetheless, Black & Wiliam and Shephard (2005) stress that adopting formative assessment as an instructional approach requires a cultural change within a learning community. Because students activate and practice self-reflective strategies in an effective formative feedback loop, they ought to be given a chance to develop and hone these skills in every classroom.  Since formative assessment relies on students understanding clearly what the expected outcomes of their learning and work are, they need exemplars. If instructors within a department, discipline or, ideally, school can agree upon the characteristics of exemplary work and learning, student self-regulation is more natural and more likely to be accurate.


Black, P. & Wiliam, D. (2004). The Formative Purpose: Assessment Must First Promote Learning. Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education103 (2), 20-50.

Dweck, C. (2002). Messages That Motivate: How Praise Molds Students’ Beliefs, Motivation, and Performance (in Surprising Ways). In J. Aronson (Ed.), Improving Academic Acheivement: Impacts of Psychological Factors on Education (pp. 37-60). San Diego: Academic Press.

Lipnevich, A. & Smith, J. (2009a). “I Really Need Feedback to Learn:” Students’ Perspectives on the Effectiveness of the Differential Feedback MessagesEducational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability , 21 (4), 347-67.

Lipnevich, A. &. (2009b). Effects of Differential Feedback on Students’ Examination Performance. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied , 15 (4), 319-33.

Ormrod, J. (2012). Human Learning (6th Edition ed.). Boston: Pearson.

Shepard, L. (2000). The Role of Classroom Assessment in Teaching and Learning. CSE Technical Report, University of California, Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, Los Angeles.

Shepard, L. (2005). Linking Formative Assessment to Scaffolding. Educational Leadership, 63, 66-70.

Shute, V. (2008). Focus on Formative Feedback. Review of Educational Research , 78, 153-89.

Wiggins, G. (2004). Assessment as Feedback. New Horizons for Learning Online Journal, 1-8.

Sarah Wilson is the co-director of the Upper School at Laurel School in Shaker Heights, Ohio. She has a B.A. (English) from Kenyon College, and an M.A. from Teachers College, Columbia University. She has taught middle and high school English for 13 years.

Image Source: Formative Assessment Wordle created by Macie Hall