A recent study by the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) argues that teachers should consider giving all students an ‘A’ grade at the start of the year on the basis that there is a natural tendency for people to be more motivated to hold on to something than when they are to try to achieve something. This is proposed (along with a number of other unremarkable suggestions like praising effort rather than ability) as a way of closing the socio-economic gap in academic performance.
This suggestion is based upon work by Tversky and Kahneman on decision making which uncovered that we are much more likely to take risks when we have a chance to gain something, but much more risk averse when there is a chance of losing something we possess. To put it simply; fear is more motivating than greed.
So, is there any merit in the idea of motivating students this way?
Aside from the ethical issues (should we manipulate our students by generating a fear of loss?) and the practical problems (how will we explain this to parents?), there’s broader evidence to suggest that this strategy might potentially have a negative impact on student outcomes.
One reason this idea doesn’t work is that manipulating students through extrinsic motivators typically backfires. For example, Daniel Willingham outlines various reasons why giving praise can demotivate students in his article How Praise Can Motivate or Stifle. Giving an ‘A’ might simply be dismissed by students as unrealistic (especially if they have a fixed mindset) or be interpreted (correctly) as an attempt to control the student (i.e. when you encourage them to try to hang on to the ‘A’). Trying to manipulate students through extrinsic motivators tends to have the opposite effect; students become less motivated and put in less effort.
But surely a student would find starting the year on an ‘A’ grade a positive boost to self-efficacy? The RSA suggestion would mean all students would enjoy that satisfying ‘glow’ of achieving an ‘A’. There’s evidence that students who expect to do well in school earn higher grades than students with like ability who expect to fail.
However, it seems that when we deliberately try to manipulate students in order to boost this sense of self-worth, it can have the opposite effect. For example: Exploding the Self-Esteem Myth. Jan 2005 Scientific American.
Each week, students in the first group received an e-mail message designed to boost their self-esteem. Those in the second group received a message intended to instil a sense of personal responsibility for their academic performance … By the end of the course, the average grade for students in the first group dropped below 50 percent — a failing grade.
Lastly, “maintaining an A” involves a performance orientation that cognitive theories suggest undermines motivation. Here’s a good summary of the research into cognitive theories of motivation: Tollefson, N. (2000) Classroom Applications of Cognitive Theories of Motivation. Educational Psychology Review, Vol. 12, No. 1, 2000. Evidence suggests that when students become fixed on performance goals (rather than the process of learning) their effort levels and outcomes tend to suffer.
Surely we want them to try their best despite the risk of not getting the top grade; isn’t that what we mean by ‘character’, ‘resilience’ and ‘grit’? Some of our students suffer from a learned helplessness as it is – when they have everything to gain. Fear of losing the grade may encourage students not to even attempt assessments. Generally though, is it really a good idea to encourage students to become more risk adverse in their learning? Relying on fear of failure will do little to close the socio-economic learning gap – indeed there’s a strong possibility it would just make it worse. Perhaps the Royal Society should stick to arts, manufacturing and commerce!