Everyone starts with an ‘A’: Is fear a better motivator than aspiration?

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.

RSA report: Action and Research Centre

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!

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3 Responses to Everyone starts with an ‘A’: Is fear a better motivator than aspiration?

  1. thom says:

    An interesting post on a subject that I have thought about before. On a personal level, when I was completing my Masters, I had a tutor who told us all at the start of the course we started with an ‘A’ and would work to keep it. His reasoning was that he did not want students thinking about grades but instead learning. I found it refreshing and it certainly focussed on me getting the learning – I never bothered again to look at the criteria we were be assessed against as I was no longer reaching for a grade or obsessing over the grade, which I saw was a common occurrence in other modules on the course. It isn’t a scientific example but as anecdote I suppose it has merit. Given the reference to the Tollefson research it would be interesting to know what types of personality response in both positive and negative ways to such a strategy?

    Regarding self-esteem I think there is a need to be very careful not to conflate self-esteem and mindset (growth or fixed). Self-esteem is more about perception of oneself overall (at least it seems to me that is what we mean). I cannot remember where I read the study but in the early 70s (I think) California went down the road of making self-esteem part of the curriculum. What it produced was a large swath of people who had such a fragile, extrinsically developed sense of self-esteem that they could not cope with situations that might lead to question that self-esteem. Whether effective or not I suspect that the intention of the RSA research it to take the focus off grades.

    There is also the research related to happiness which discusses the concept that people ascribe more value to something they already possess rather than something they do not yet own. Put simply if I am give a mug worth a dollar for free I often will be unwilling to give it up for less than its original price. It is a curious psychological effect and I suspect the RSA research is based on the premise that once given the grade a person will work harder to keep it. Unfortunately that is counter-intuitive to the concept of losing focus on the grade for learnings sake.

    There is a lot of talk and writing currently about how to apply educational psychology to the classroom. My personal perspective is that what needs to happen is we need to start taking responsibility for knowing what is out there and then be judicious and wise in the application in the classroom. There are very few times I think that something works across all situations and all student/teacher relationships – the craft of teaching is to take the science of teaching and apply it for the benefit of our students. What works one year may not the next.


    • Thanks for your comments – glad you found the post thought-provoking.

      I’m sceptical of trait theories of personality, to be honest, and wonder whether it is more helpful to consider the attributions (i.e. the sets of beliefs) held by students towards their education rather than invoke invariant behaviours across contexts (i.e. personality) to explain differences in student response. Students might possess a highly inflexible set of ideas (e.g. they have fixed ability, that anything less than a top grade will make them appear a failure, etc) in one area of their education (e.g. maths) but hold an entirely different set of attitudes (e.g. they can get better with practice, failing isn’t a disaster but an opportunity to learn, etc) towards a different subject (e.g. sport). The Tollefson article reports some of the major theories on how these beliefs and attributions form.

      The issue is what to do about the attitudes towards education that undermine student aspirations / efforts at school. I agree the RSA’s aim is to help children move away from fixed ideas of ability and a performance orientation to school. My point was that their headline suggestion (create a fear of loss to encourage more effort) would actually undermine that intended outcome. By exploiting our in-built fear of losing something we possess (a grade ‘A’) they will encourage those children to focus more on performance than learning, make them more risk averse in their learning (rather than willing to risk failure – and learn from it) and because a ‘grade’ is an extrinsic motivator, risk undermining children’s efforts and motivation in lessons. Their suggestion isn’t counter-intuitive – it is contradictory!

      I agree whole-heartedly with your last point. I’d like our profession to employ a lot more scepticism towards the advice they receive and demand ever higher quality of evidence to support proposed initiatives. As a teacher with a background in psychology, I think psychological studies into learning and motivation are potentially very useful – but implementing / evaluating such ideas in the ‘messy’ environment of a real classroom absolutely requires professional judgement and experience.


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