Sunday, January 22, 2012

SBG kills motivation.

I've been testing out a new grading system this year in my classroom, and I'm really excited by it.  I used to pay kids $1 per percentage point on a test (e.g. 75% earns you 75 bucks) but I realized that this was encouraging kids to pay attention to the wrong information. I didn't want them to see that they only earned $60 and think, "Well, I bombed that test." I wanted them to dig into the feedback that I was giving them and figure out what their strengths and weaknesses were, what it would take for them to get better.

This year I've changed the way kids get paid in my class. I give them 35 skills, and they get paid $20 for each skill that they can show me that they've mastered. This has radically changed the way that my students think about grades. Instead of focusing on indistinguishable blobs of assessment they are able to get laser-focused feedback about what they need to work on. I can customize assessments for each student. It's great.

Enough coyness. Here's what I'm getting at: let's say you're you've read Dan Meyer's version of Standard Based Grading and you're about to adapt it to your classroom. You might think some version of this:

Mistaken Hypothesis #1: "I'm going to see way more motivated kids in the classroom. After all, their incentive is now to do things that lead to more learning because they're aligned with points."

You're not going to see more motivation, at least not in the ways that you want. Consider the slanty-word classroom at the top of the page. Would those kids be thinking about money or learning? Will some kids try to cheat the system for more money? Will kids check their bank accounts constantly? Don't kids see good grades as rewards?

Are points significantly different from payment?

Mistaken Hypotheses #2"That's why you shouldn't use grades to motivate kids. Instead you should create an environment where students are intrinsically motivated to do the learning. I can adapt the grading system so that it's meaningful as a feedback system, and that will transform grades from rewards into feedback. Yeah, kids are going to be addicted to points, but I can break them by teaching them this new way of thinking about assessment."

If you think that this you can break your student's points addiction while still rewarding them with points, you should read Drive, by Dan Pink. The second chapter is called "Seven Reasons Carrots and Sticks (Often) Don't Work." Here are seven reasons, culled from psychological studies, why extrinsic motivators backfire:

  1. They can extinguish intrinsic motivation.
  2. They can diminish performance.
  3. They can crush creativity.
  4. They can crowd out good behavior.
  5. They can encourage cheating, shortcuts, and unethical behavior.
  6. They can become addictive.
  7. They can foster short-term thinking.
Points aren't just a distraction -- they can actively undermine our students' intrinsic motivation. In "Drive," Pink reports on psychological research that identifies the most problematic types of rewards as "if-then" rewards. These sorts of rewards are exactly what gets proliferated in an SBG classroom. Should we be worried that SBG kills intrinsic motivation?

Hypothesis #3: "But SBG is a huge improvement on the old system." 

Maybe. Kids definitely like it more. I definitely like that it helps me guide student learning. But there are still tons of extrinsic motivators, and they're way more in-your-face than before. The extrinsic motivators are way better aligned than in the old system, but the proliferation of "if-then" rewards can be corrosive to intrinsic motivation. On the other hand, maybe the old system was killing intrinsic motivation as well.

SBG is probably still better, but points are bad.

Let's sum things up:
  • Extrinsic rewards kill intrinsic motivation. Fact.
  • In an SBG classroom that grades students there is a proliferation of "if-then" extrinsic rewards. This should make us really freaking worried.
  • The old points-based system might be way worse.


Let's assume that Dan Pink's recommendations for businesses can be easily adapted to schools. Let's assume that kids : points  ::  grown-ups: money, and that you're at a school that uses grades. What should you do?

"People have to earn a living...The best use of money as a motivator is to pay people enough to take the issue of money off the table." 

So, if you're interested in motivating your kids give them a good grade at the start of the semester, tell them that you won't think about grades unless you're forced to, and then don't talk about grades ever again.

In 95% of classrooms this isn't feasible for a million different reasons, but, hey, here it is.


  1. So... How do you fix it?

    I know you're being provocative but aren't you missing the best part about sbg? How the student have the opportunity to fix their deficiencies? That is a motivator for some students.

    Interesting take though.

    1. If grades motivate kids in the same way that money motivates adults, then we're making the same mistakes with SBG that bosses make when they provide monetary incentives. It seems that we're motivating students but we're probably getting worse results overall as a consequence.

      So what's the fix? I don't know. To be clear, I'm running an SBG classroom for the second year.

      Here's what makes sense to me, if you want to maximize intrinsic motivation:

      If you can do it, take grades off the table completely.
      If you can't, refuse to reward kids with points. Obscure the connection between the final grade and assessment by using English language for feedback and numbers for the grade. Don't use a formula to calculate the grade. True, you lose some "clarity" and "fairness" this way, but you'll get complaints at the end of the semester. But, you know, the English teacher that I sit next to just grits his teeth and deals with those sorts of complaints, and maybe we should too.

    2. Yeah, I've written before about how "clarity" and "fairness" are often over-valued at the expense of value and meaning. The thing is we need professionals in situations where judgment is needed. Assessing understand requires judgment, so we need professionals in there

      I also agree about trying to distinguish assessment and grading. I try to be heavy on written feedback when possible, and in classes where I've done all written feedback (no points or grades on assignments), I've gotten some complaints at the end.

  2. Did you *have* to post this just as I'm heading into my third week ever teaching with SBG? It's not like I had a surplus of confidence that needed draining…

    1. Best of luck implementing SBG -- I think that overall it is worth it, as compared to traditional grading.

      I think that take-away from this post shouldn't be anti-SBG. It's that you shouldn't expect a meaningful change in your students' motivation, and you might even see a small reduction in motivation. Use SBG if you care about fairness, about transparency, about more specific feedback and about meaningful rewards systems.

      The goal should be creating classrooms where students are intrinsically motivated, but in the context of most classrooms this might be impossible. So the argument for SBG could be that it's the best available option.