How Do You Motivate Students to do their Best Without Focusing on their Grades?

I was really good at the game I called school once I hit the seventh grade.  I figured out what my teachers wanted and so I gave it to them.  It wasn’t about learning for me, it was about jumping through hoops and meeting the expectations my teachers set.  My English teacher, for example, liked it when students used lots of adjectives and descriptive words in their writing and so I made sure to do just that in each and every written assignment.  For me, the focus was on grades.  My parents bribed me to get good grades by paying me for every A and B I received.  So, I made sure to complete work that would earn me high marks in all of my classes.  It worked.  I earned a spot on my school’s National Honor Society and spent every term on the Honor Roll.  I kicked butt at school because I focused on the grades.  Unfortunately though, if you asked me what I learned back in those days, I would have very little to say as I didn’t retain much.  I was a passive learner.  I regurgitated facts and information and then erased them from my mind.  I wasn’t actively looking to learn as I was so focused on earning high grades.  In retrospect, I wish I had been more interested in the information and skills my teachers were trying to teach me as I feel like I would have gotten so much more out of my school experience.

Learning from my mistakes as a student, I make sure that as a teacher, my students don’t just go through the motions to complete work and earn high marks.  I want my students to see school as a journey and an adventure, not a game they are trying to win.  To do this, I craft meaningful and relevant assignments that allow the students to think critically about the content and skills learned to answer questions, reflect, make or construct something, or simply write.  These engaging, hands-on, and creative assignments force students to think about information learned in new and unique ways that prevent them from simply restating what was discussed in class or learned on a website.  The next big piece that helps me be sure my students see school as an exploration is grading and assessment.  Students don’t earn letter grades or percentages for assignments as we utilize the objectives/standards-based grading system in the sixth grade.  Each assignment may be graded on more than one objective and so they are earning more than one grade for most every assignment.  Our grades are as follows:

  • 4: Exceeds the Objective
  • 3: Meets the Objective
  • 2: Working Towards the Objective
  • 1: Insufficient Data to Assess Ability to Meet or Work Towards Meeting the Objective

The students learn, early on in the academic year, how our system works.  We don’t talk about As and Bs in the sixth grade, we talk about objectives and skills.  This puts the focus on school as a journey towards understanding rather than a game to win.  We also make use of the redo process in the sixth grade.  When a student earns an objective grade that he feels does not display his best effort and work, he can redo it in a timely manner to be reassessed.  This allows the students to strive for success and their best effort in the class at all times.  This restructuring of school by using the objectives-based grading system and making assignments meaningful and challenging for the students helps us change the perception our students have of school.  School then is no longer about jumping through hoops and completing busy work; school becomes a learning process for the students.

Today in Humanities class, the students participated in a writing activity in which they had to write about a picture that showed a woman or women from the Middle East region wearing some sort of head scarf.  The writing task was very open ended: They could write a story explaining what they believed to be the woman’s story; they could write a poem explaining the picture or their thoughts about the picture; they could describe what the image shows; or they could explain their thoughts and feelings about the picture and what it depicts.  The paper on which they were using to record their writing included questions to inspire them as they reflected on the picture.  The students had ten minutes to complete this activity in class.  We want our students to learn to be able to sustain their writing stamina for a long period of time while writing about one topic or idea.  This activity is yet another way for them to practice this skill.  My co-teacher and I had no expectations for what would come from this activity as we just wanted to provide the students with an opportunity to write and reflect on their prior knowledge and perception of women who wear a headscarf.  We didn’t know what would come from this activity.

The result was inline with what we’ve observed from our students during the past few months, and so we were not surprised by the outcome.  Those students who put forth their best effort in everything they do in the classroom, did just that again for this assignment.  They filled at least one page with meaningful and reflective words.  They stayed focused for the entire ten minutes and worked diligently to write as much as possible so that they could showcase their ability to meet or exceed the graded objective.  For these students, doing their best work is just how they live their lives.  They like to be challenged in order to demonstrate their strengths.  We don’t need to discuss the importance of working hard in and out of class with these students.  They get it.

Those students who struggle to process information, had the same trouble with this task.  They wrote nothing on their paper despite helpful hints, ideas, and reminders.  They were so stuck in one way of thinking or processing the information, that they couldn’t write anything at all.  While we have seen much progress from these students since September, tasks like the one we did today in Humanities class do still challenge them.  To help motivate these students, we work with them independently, ask them questions, provide them extra support outside of the class day, and remind them of the graded objectives they need to meet or exceed.  In some instances, these strategies we employ work and the students are able to showcase their best effort and work.  On some tasks though, like the one we did today in class, the two students who had nothing written on their paper aren’t motivated by the typical strategies we use.  The only way to motivate these two students to work and display their best effort on assignments that challenge them is to focus on the grade they will receive.  “If you don’t complete this task, you will earn a 1/4 for this graded objective.  This low score will cause your overall Humanities grade to go down quite a bit,” are the the lines we are forced to use from time to time with these two students.  As my co-teacher and I don’t like to focus on grades in our classroom, we don’t like having to stoop to this level.  However, it seems to be the only way to inspire them to work.

Are there other strategies we could be using that would not focus on grades and help motivate these two students to accomplish a task they find quite difficult?  Are we missing something?  We know that they can write and be creative as we’ve seen it in the other courses and on many other assignments they’ve completed this year.  So, what’s the issue?  Should we just let them fail at the task if it means we have to focus on grades to motivate them?  I don’t have an answer to this question, but it does make me wonder how I can inspire and motivate students to do their best work and put forth their best effort without focusing on grades.  Is it possible?  In a world driven by grades, money, and success, the way we have organized our class to not focus on these big ideas seems as though we are creating a counterculture within the classroom.  Is that okay?  Should we be trying to break free from the constraints society places on people or fall in line like every other school or classroom around the world?  As I have always strived to be a bit different from the mainstream, I’m completely okay going against the norm if it means I can help my students grow and develop into free-thinking adults who see life as a journey.


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