Failing to Motivate

My concern was that the D would send him from the front row to the back row, where he would turn his baseball cap backward and scowl at me for the rest of the semester.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. That D motivated him to come see me about his next paper, and the one after that, and just about every other one in the four subsequent courses he took with me over the next three years…..

That same semester, in that very same class, I had a student who made her home in the back row, along with a friend or two who apparently shared her lack of interest in the course. With this student — who spoke rarely and eyed me with a look of bemused indifference — I had little hesitation about stamping a D on her second assignment.

What she needs, I thought to myself as I dropped her paper grimly on her desk, was an intellectual kick in the rear, in the form of a grade that would scare her into better behavior in class and more effort on her written work.

She was absent the next class. When she showed up for the one after that, her attitude seemed — if possible — worse than before. She didn’t come to see me about her next assignment, as I had suggested she do, and it was as poor as the previous one.

In both of those D narratives, I had my pedagogical expectations overturned. —Failing to Motivate (Chronicle)

These anecdotes are a prelude to an argument against using grades for motivation. Lang isn’t suggesting that we abolish grading; rather, that the grades always be “transparent” — that is, “Convey clearly to the students the criteria for your grades, and ensure that they have the tools and opportunity to meet your criteria.”

Students often say “thank you” when I hand them a paper with a good grade on it. I always respond, “You’re the one who did the work, you earned it. Thank you.”

It’s always pleasant to hear those magic words, but I don’t want to foster the attitude that I am responsible for what they choose to do with the opportunities I set up for them in the classroom.

Great headline, by the way.