4 Surprising Consequences of Giving Kids Grades

Consequences of giving kids grades

Many homeschooling parents follow the school system and grade their children’s work. Perhaps they think it will make their kids accountable, motivate them to improve, or get them ready for public exams later down the line.

But many research studies have been carried out on the effectiveness of giving children grades. Their results show that far from encouraging kids, they may be doing the opposite.

1.  Grades decrease learning enjoyment

Studies show that when children are focused on getting a good grade, they engage less deeply in what they are doing. Even really fun projects are less enjoyable when the prospect of being graded hangs over the student.

Grades tell children that extrinsic rewards are more important than the intrinsic value of learning itself.

Over the course of their childhoods, kids internalise this message  – until finally they’re ready to take their places among  the overpopulated ranks of deeply unfulfilled adults in “successful” careers.

2. Graded students choose the easiest assignments

When grades are given, the implicit message is that they are more important than learning.

When children are told that grades will be awarded for their work, and are then given a choice between an easy task and a more challenging one, almost all will take the easier option. Why choose the opportunity to learn new skills over the chance to “be successful”, when the grade is what counts?

In contrast, when there is no prospect of the task being graded, children will often choose the project they can learn most from, even if it is the most difficult.

3. Grades discourage deep and critical thinking

Children who know their work is being graded will inevitably focus on getting inside the grader’s head as they carry out the task, instead of bringing their own valuable, unique perspective to what they are learning.  Why waste time engaging with material on their own terms when what counts is what the teacher/examiner looking for?

Books are skimmed and memory techniques are employed as students take the shortest possible route towards the highest grade. Thinking is shallow and superficial – not deep, critical or lateral.

What’s the point in taking time to explore the connections between the current topic and what was learned last month, when your efforts won’t be rewarded in the all-important grade?

Consequences of giving kids grades

4. Grades encourage a fixed mindset

In Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential, Carol Dweck describes two very different mindsets.

People with a fixed mindset believe that talents and abilities are set and cannot be changed by effort. Failure is a sign of not being good enough.

On the other hand, people with a growth mindset believe that effort and practise help them improve. Mistakes are a natural part of learning – an opportunity to grow.

Dweck gives dozens of examples in Mindset of how a growth mindset contributes to happier, more successful living.

What’s mindset got to do with grades? Giving grades for achievement, good or bad, contributes to a fixed mindset. People tend to use grades to label themselves. Good grades mean students are less likely to opt for challenging learning adventures in the future – why risk slipping off the pedestal? And if you get a bad grade, it means you’re no good – so what’s the point in trying?

The good news is that mindsets can be changed – my kids have already begun to change theirs just by listening to parts of the book (which I highly recommend for all home-educating mums).

consequences of giving grades

As for grades – if they must be given, much better that they be awarded for effort. (Though can anyone other than the student really know how much effort went into a piece of work?)

Better still, instead of a letter to label themselves with, offer respectful, authentic feedback that helps kids along their learning journeys.

Consequences of giving kids grades

For more views on giving kids grades from experienced homeschooling mums, head over to:

Highhill Homeschool – Grades not required

Barefoot Hippie Chick – Passing grade

Every Bed of Roses – To grade or not to grade

One Magnificent Obsession – School without grades or tests?


I’m appreciatively linking up here:

Hip Homeschool Hop 12/11/2013

Collage Friday

Weird Unsocialized Homeschoolers

The Homeschool Mother’s Journal


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28 thoughts on “4 Surprising Consequences of Giving Kids Grades

  1. Fascinating…thanks for sharing all the background and research as well as your own commentary…:)
    I tried to link over last night from the post I rec’d by email but my comp was wonking out ( I really hope it’s not on its last legs…I have everything on here) so I was happy to see you at the HHM hop today as a reminder to click here.

    Great post…..I appreciate your vsist to my blog too! But if one does not come back, I’m not sure if she reads the follow up comments….I gues there;s a way to set that up.

    YES yes yes, do make a DW cake for your dd’s bday. In fact there aretons of other fun ideas out there on Pinterest too…we are doing a dalek cake, as I mnetioned, for my son’s…and I think the way we have it planned out, it should “work.” Otherwise, we;ll wind up with a mountain of cake and frosting slop……which is what we had for a TARDIS cake once when my kids insisted on stacking 7 8×8 pyrex baking pans of cake covered in blue icing for a TARDIC cake….I’ve seen vertical TARDIS cakes, but have not been able to make them!

    Be well and Have alovely day!
    God bless!

    1. Thanks, Chris. (By the way it probably wasn’t your computer wonking out last night, it was me making the mistake of blogging while mashing potatoes – I accidentally hit “publish” instead of scheduling it for this morning when the other Homeschool Help posts come out! That’ll teach me to try and do 6 things at once!)

      LOL about your family’s cake-making adventures! I haven’t made a birthday cake for some time but you have definitely inspired me to give it a go. I’ll get the bags of icing sugar ready for plenty of frosting slop. 😀

  2. I’m in two minds (again!) about this. As a child I was highly, highly motivated by grades. At school we were always taught exams were something to really look forward to and a chance to show off! Well, I couldn’t resist a fully endorsed and acceptable chance to show off could I? I ended up with 13 GCSEs. I’m sure I wouldn’t have bothered to take any had it not been for the competition I had going on with myself! T is the same, exactly. So I grade his work for all I’m worth, fully understanding his motivation. The girls are another matter. They could be destroyed by a bad grade so I choose not to grade them and just keep an eye on what they understand or not, as the case maybe.
    I guess I’m saying (in a typically long winded Claire fashion) is that it probably depends on the child. I’ll stop now.

    1. I’m back! I was just contemplating what I said and actually I only grade maths, nothing else. I think that is because maths is only ever right or wrong in terms of the final answer and T likes to try to better his last score. I wouldn’t dream of marking writing or history.

      1. Aha! Yes, I know what you mean about the challenge of improving one’s score. There’s a huge intrinsic reward in achieving mastery of something we’re interested in. I love climbing up the Duolingo scoreboard for German!

    2. Claire, I’m so glad you brought this up. I’m also in two minds about the value of competition.

      Like you, at school I thrived on it and did well academically. However… one of my biggest reasons for home-educating is that the exam-success conveyorbelt led me to a very (high-paying yet) unfulfilling job. I alluded to this in point (1) of the post. In my experience, ending up in the wrong career is a real danger if we get into the habit of doing things for the extrinsic reward rather than the intrinsic enjoyment.

      But I do agree with you that it depends on the child, and also the values of the family in which they are brought up. I can’t imagine anyone brought up within the warmth of the AngelicScalliwags brood going far wrong! 🙂

  3. I love the way you wrote this. Great points.

    When I was a student I definitely chose the easy way over challenging learning. After all, if I got a good mark, I was praised and if I tried something challenging and didn’t do well I had to do it over……. more work.

  4. I totally agree with all your points in this post, Lucinda. I’d like Tiger to love learning for its own sake rather than to chase after any extrinsic reward. Besides, grades are somewhat arbitrary anyway and may not be a true assessment of what a child knows. Moreoever, for a naturally competitive child like Tiger, encouraging him to be even more competitive is probably going to do more harm than good to his overall well being in the long run. Hence, we don’t do grades either. 🙂 We just try to do our best each time.

    1. Thank you, Hwee. I know exactly what you mean. C(9) is also quite competitive. I’m sure if she were still at school she would be quite driven by it, but I’m not sure that would take her in the direction of fulfillment. I just need to hold my nerve over the next eight years or so! 🙂

      1. LOL. I share your sentiments about “I just need to hold my nerve over the next eight years or so”! I get pricked by the same doubts of whether I should be pushing Tiger more everytime we go to chess club, which is populated by very competitive private school children and their very driven parents. 🙂 It’s a weekly test of my nerves and resolve, going to that chess club.

  5. I do not and have never really been into grades with my kids but they continually asked for them. I explained that they don’t really mean anything but they really like me to give them a grade. I made an agreement that I’d only grade their math-u-see tests and that seemed to make them happy. I haven’t done it in recent times and they haven’t commented on it so hopefully they are over that period. I have noticed they do have a competition thing going on with themselves whether they are graded or not. They LOVE to get everything right.

    Sometimes I wonder if it’s because we homeschool that they are so competitive at other events, ie out to prove that homeschoolers are just as smart as regularly schooled kids. They have come across the occasional bit of discrimination amongst their peers at events, as though they spend their days watching TV, etc. Gracious knows what these kids think we do all day. Thankfully both kids are bright and well-mannered so it generally shuts the kids and their parents up!

    1. Hi Lisa! I’m glad you stopped by, you reminded me to visit your blog which really brightened my day!

      A few years ago my kids often used to ask me to judge which was the “best” out of various things they’d created. Like I could possibly compare two different paintings! They got frustrated for a while with my refusal, but now it wouldn’t occur to them to ask.

      It sounds like your girls are very well-balanced and do homeschoolers proud. With the various issues in our family unfortunately we don’t have the trump card of “good behaviour” IYKWIM! That makes me have to work hard at knowing what’s right for us without worrying too much about other people’s opinions… it’s definitely work in progress, though! 😀

  6. I’ve not really graded my kids, except in math. Then it’s more of you missed these problems go back and fix them. I’ve used rubrics for some reports so they know what I want them to do, but they also don’t particularly enjoy reports or writing, so I need some kind of standard for them to know what’s expected.

  7. Lucinda,

    My younger kids have no idea what grades are. Of course, the older ones discovered them once they started university. Imogen now has one eye on the grade and one on the joy of learning. She needs to get a certain grade to pass each unit so grades are important.

    I prefer the system at the university my husband attended when he did his Masters. There are no grades. The students have to ‘master’ a topic. If they fail to do this first time round, they have to ‘improve’ their work. If they are still having trouble, they are given an extra task to help them work on their skills. No one fails.

    This is certainly a topic and a post that has attracted a lot of discussion!

    1. Sue, You are a real inspiration. I love the thought of my children learning free from grades for as long as possible, and you have done it. I expect that if my children choose to do GCSE’s (the English public exams taken at about 16) they will need to do some exam preparation, but I hope they can stagger that over a few years so it doesn’t interfere with their learning too much. 😉

      Andy’s Masters university system sounds fantastic! Was that a Masters by research? I was just asking my husband about his Masters; apparently his was half-and-half Masters by Research/Masters by teaching so there were exams.

      Yes, this seems to be a hot topic! I probably wouldn’t have chosen to write about it if it weren’t on the Homeschool Help schedule, but as often happens with Homeschool Help, I’ve enjoyed it. It’s nice to be pushed slightly outside one’s comfort zone sometimes!

      1. Lucinda,

        Homeschooled students in Australia aren’t eligible to take the school leavers’ exam and get the resulting certificate, the Higher School Certificate. In a way this is good because we aren’t tempted to push our children towards the HSC syllabus with the intention of them getting good grades. My older children have all done several university units instead of the HSC. This gives them some results which can be used if they want to apply to a university. In my opinion this is a more effective, less stressful and quicker way of getting some kind of grade to prove they are capable of working at a tertiary level.

        We are very fortunate that our homeschooled children are never tested as part of the homeschooling registration requirement. I have only ever once given my kids a test. I tried out a maths test on Sophie and Gemma-Rose. Never again! Just in case you are interested in what happened, I will leave the post link: http://www.storiesofanunschoolingfamily.com/2012/10/giving-my-unschoolers-maths-test.html

        Andy didn’t have to do any research for his Masters of Teaching, but there was a practical component. I guess if he hadn’t been able to achieve ‘mastery’ in all his units he would have had to retake them and try again. He actually did very well and finished up as a Dean’s medallist which was exciting. He was a mature age student going back to uni after many. many years working in a completely different industry. When we heard Andy had won a medal, we didn’t believe it. We went to the awards ceremony fully expecting to be told a mistake had been made. Andy didn’t even know there was such a thing as a Deans medal until he won one. I suppose he did so well because he loves learning. It certainly wasn’t because he was trying to get a high grade!

        Great to chat!

        1. That is such a funny – and lovely – story about Andy’s Dean’s medal! (Maybe you will share it on your blog one day?)

          I was very interested when I first read on your blog about how homeschoolers aren’t eligible to take the Australian HSC. (I know about the Aussie school system from my days long ago watching Home & Away!) I enjoyed your post about what Imogen did instead. It’s great that you have made a positive out of something which could be seen as rather unfair.

          I also enjoyed your post about the maths test. I recently found a website containing all the UK SATS papers (the tests UK schoolchildren take). The children and I occasionally sit down and go through a maths one for fun. We do it “buddy style” on the sofa together. It’s another way for me to see what most interests them, what kind of puzzles they like best, etc. I suppose it does also identify “gaps” but they’re usually fun to fill, another day!

          Yes it’s lovely to chat – thank you for coming back!

  8. Hello Lucinda
    Raising my head in what has been a bit of a turbulent time to say ‘hi’ via the comments section of your blog! That’s where my head is at. :))
    Such an interesting and juicy article! I plan to re-read it at a more reasonable hour but I loved the discussion and it was relieving for me to find that i agree with much of the argument behind not grading – seeing as we don’t! Love the concept of the almost short circuiting that potentially goes on when we require a stamp to be put on our children’s thought process. That we cannot just let them explore and make mistakes and step outside parameters for the sake of it and if they don’t keep an eye on the prize (grade)..that fear rears it’s head – that they might miss the point. It might have a huge impact if children were free to explore the full scope of their thinking rather then just seek personal rewards in terms of grades. Oh dear.. time for bed when i get this philosophical. Thank you very much anyway for such a thought inspiring piece! X

    1. Hi Lovely! You’ve been in my thoughts this week, so it’s lovely to hear from you. You’re welcome to wax philosophical over here any time … I always love reading your thoughts. 🙂 Love to you all x

  9. Food for thought. I hadn’t really thought about it prior to this post but I guess I really don’t grade much of their work the only thing I grade is Math. For the most part we work on a mastery system. You make a mistake (they self check their work) and you correct the mistake and if you continue to make that mistake we work on it together until you understand the concept. However, my children are so naturally competitive that I have seen them strive more for excellence in a graded piano competition, sports match or for the better math score. Of course for us the better math score is attained through a better understanding of the math concepts and the review and discussion there of. I think for different reasons. I jettisoned most grading because I don’t care what their “grade” is on this or that I want them to understand and appreciate the things & concepts we are learning. I think we have come to nearly the same conclusions just from two different angles. But I think I see your points…:D Great post, though it’s rather upseting to have to think so late at night 😉

    1. LOL, I know what you mean about late-night thinking! I appreciate you taking the time to share you thoughts, though. (And the trivium resources you’ve recently shared on your blog look very interesting.)
      It’s funny how some children are “naturally” competitive, isn’t it? I’d love for my children to strive only for mastery for their own benefit, but mine too like to be the best!

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