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Should Effort Be Graded For College Students?

Should Effort Be Graded For College Students?
It doesn’t matter how hard you’re trying if you can’t lift the weight. Photo by Jon Tunnell.

I don’t believe in grading effort on the College level. I believe that in higher education, what matters is performance and that students need to learn to take responsibility for and control over their own performance. Once out of college in the real work world, effort usually isn’t rewarded. I feel it would be a disservice to students not preparing them for authentic professional life experience. Students need to learn that what counts most in life is their outcomes, not their efforts.

What newspaper would want to hire a journalist who got good grades in journalism school because he tried very hard, even though he’s not a good writer or reporter?  Colleges generally don’t grant professors tenure or promotion because they try to be scholars, only if they actually succeed! Who would want to be operated on by a surgeon who passed medical school because of effort, even if their outcomes were not up to par?

However the absence of grading for effort doesn’t mean that college students’ efforts are unimportant. Quite the contrary.One concept to consider, and to teach students about effort, is that the emphasis should be on the quality of their efforts – not the quantity. I often tell students that sometimes the key to improving their academic performance is studying smarter rather than harder. Students won’t benefit from spending more time using the same learning and study strategies that have been less successful than desired in the past. Instead, students can benefit from trying different learning and study strategies, and finding out which ones work best for them and under what circumstances. A strategy that is effective for performing well on a history test may not be the best strategy for performing well on a physics test.  And, a strategy that was successful for performing at a high level on an essay test in history may not be successful for doing well on a multiple choice test in history.

One of the key principles related to students’ efforts is to teach them to link their specific efforts to the outcomes obtained by these efforts. This is an important dimension of attribution theory of motivation and a basis for developing self-efficacy.  A wonderful teaching method, Links to Success (Alderman, 1990), was developed based on these ideas. Although developed for “high risk” students, who get into patterns of helplessness and hopelessness, the method is a sound instructional approach with more general applicability. The method involves working with students to set short-term goals, providing them with learning strategies for achieving these goals, structuring learning experiences in which students can apply the strategies to achieve the goals, and attributing success (or failure) to the use of these strategies. Thus, the quality of students’ efforts are directly linked to their outcomes.

So college professors should help students not only learn the content of their discipline, but should also teach students how to think like experts in their content areas, including how to use effective strategies for subject and task-specific academic work. Developing effective learning and study strategies will help students improve their academic performance, and attributing their success to their own, smarter efforts, will help students more in the long run that simply rewarding them for their efforts. Subsequently, students are likely to take more responsibility for themselves as learners and feel more control of their own educational destiny. And they’ll be more successful in college and beyond!

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