Published on 2012/03/02
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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Readers Comments

Joe Beckmann 2012/03/02 at 11:13 am

What is – quite literally – incredible (what reduces your credibility) about these observations are your verbs. You “feel,” you “believe,” and then you tell students what they need. And then, good grief, you talk about teaching “without effort,” that quality trumps quantity. Maybe that’s because your piece is short.

Sometimes it takes substance to make quality more apparent. And that substance has to do with neither effort nor it’s lack. It has to do with insights, with knowledge, and with an awareness of consequences.

The best metrics of student achievement are or should be framed by the students themselves, but so few teachers – at any level – ever ask them. A good teacher, as opposed to a time server who likes to tell people what to do, might begin a course by asking students to set their goals and objectives, and then, with some regularity, explore how or if those goals were realistic, realized, or naive and requiring revision.

It’s not what you pour into their empty little heads, after all, since they’re neither empty nor little nor do you have any great substance until its actually engaged by, for, and in a student’s goals, skills, and aspirations.

Patricia Bowman 2012/03/02 at 1:26 pm

I vehemently disagree with you, Joe. How can students give us metrics to assess them when they don’t know what they’re being assessed for?

Joe Beckmann 2012/04/10 at 9:23 am

Give ’em categories, it’s easy and obvious. Every time a “teacher” complains that students can’t do things it reflects a “teacher’s” ignorance of what the students are already doing, perhaps ineptly, perhaps accidentally, and perhaps invidiously. (and who taught you to end a sentence with a preposition!)

One example of this is here
Another is here

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