Why an overemphasis on grades kills motivation for students

We need to get over our obsession with straight A’s and focus on more important endeavors. More than 35 years of scientific investigation suggests that an overemphasis on intellect or talent leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unwilling to remedy their shortcomings. In my experience, an overemphasis on grades produces similar results along with unnecessary stress and a negative effect on motivation for students.DSCF8430

Data on the effects of grades reveals that grades tend to diminish student’s interest in whatever they are learning, leads students to choose the easiest task possible, reduces the quality of student’s thinking, and promotes a fear of failure even in high-achieving students. The more students are led to focus on how well they are doing, the less engaged they tend to be with what they are doing.

Whenever I ask a room full of parents how many of them were “working their hardest” and “working to the best of their abilities” and “working to their potential” in grade school, middle, high school or beyond, I typically get about 25% of them at each stage of education. The overwhelming majority says that they didn’t really get invested in their education until after high school or once they were out in the work force. So why do we expect any different from our own children? Most kids hear the above three mantras constantly from their parents, causing some to rebel and do less, some to get stressed out, and others to perform for their parent’s approval. None of these motivations is healthy because none of these is driven by what the student wants, what they have decided is right for them. I want them to find their own motivation for learning and achieving.

What do straight A’s really mean? For some students, it means showing up at school and breathing; they have a knack for knowing what’s going to be on the test and breeze through school with little effort. Other kids work their tails off just to get C’s, overcoming learning challenges and frustration along the way. Employers would much rather hire the latter, because they have the developed grit and resilience needed to be a successful adult.

I tell high school students that better grades means more choices and options after they graduate. I encourage them to check out colleges and training programs for any interests they currently have so that they have an idea of what it might take to gain admission there. I also dispel the myth about needing to attend top-tier colleges to relieve some of their unnecessary stress and angst. Also encourage them to try new activities that interest them vs. just doing things to pad their college résumés. Most importantly, guide girls to not let their GPA or ACT score define their worth; too many girls become depressed and feel less than because their marks are lower than their friends. They actually believe that their future is less bright because of these numbers.

As the start of the school year approaches, I encourage you to focus less on results and more on process: i.e. effort, learning strategies, and each child’s unique intrinsic motivation. Research has found that a focus on effort can help resolve helplessness and engender success. Ask your children what their intentions are for the academic year and why. Push them to discover what is right for them, their own reasons for going to school each day. Turn over more responsibility for their schoolwork to them so that they can gain the confidence that they can succeed on their own merits and really own the victories. Do not let grades define your daughter or your relationship with them.



2 thoughts on “Why an overemphasis on grades kills motivation for students”

  1. Love the article Tim!!
    Kim and I didn’t get a chance to chat when we picked up Nicole at camp. Nicole had an amazing time and I have noticed her being calmer and more self reflective since she got home. She will be back for more camps for sure!!
    Also Lauren had an amazing time and learned a lot about herself too. Thank you for allowing her to be part of your camps!
    Take care and enjoy the rest of your summer!!

  2. Excellent perspective Dr. Tim!
    I have noticed that pressure from the school is felt by kids as well. The ego of the school is at stake if kids don’t do well on the tests.

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