Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Pluses and minuses

Another non-budgetary story, this one perhaps a bit less contentious than the racism story (for which I got to write my first harsh anti-comment comment).

The Faculty Senate has voted to change SIU's grading scale to include pluses and minuses. Here's the DE lead-in story, here's their brief story with the results. Passage of this measure certainly reflects the view of the majority of faculty I've talked to about this. I'm less sure myself.

I worry about excessive reliance on extrinsic motivation. This may sound naive, but my understanding is that at least under certain conditions extrinsic motivation actually undermines intrinsic motivation. I know of one such study (and only one--to make my lack of expertise clear: I'm sure many social scientists on campus know of lots of studies on this topic). In it participants were given an impossible task to complete. Some were promised a reward for completing the task, others were not. Those not promised a reward worked on it considerably longer than those who were promised a reward. They came to view it as a challenge they had some investment in solving, not just a way to earn $25 or whatever the prize was.

I learned of this study from Ken Bain's What the Best College Teachers Do, which I found a very impressive book (though I don't necessarily follow all of his suggestions, since I'm not one of the best college teachers*). One thing Bain argues is that the best teachers promote intrinsic motivation in their students rather than relying on things like grades. Their assessments through the course of the semester are designed to help students improve, including in their understanding of their own progress, not to motivate them to turn in assignment X on date Y; they assign cumulative grades at the end of the semester based on their final judgment of students' overall progress, not how many hoops they've jumped through en route, or some average of how well students did on weekly assignments.

Grades are an extrinsic motivation, and the more finely we tune our grading scale, the more cases this sort of motivation will apply to. That's an argument made in favor of the change, but if extrinsic motivation can sap intrinsic motivation, then it's not a good argument. Intrinsic motivation in academia is of course the desire to learn something for its own sake, not solely because it will win one a grade, degree, or job, or please a teacher or parent. We may, of course, in our real world, often count ourselves lucky if we can discover any motivation whatsoever in our students. But all of us tend recoil at the student favorite "Will this be on the test?" (though of course sometimes that question is perfectly warranted if you have not been adequately clear). If you vote for plus/minus grading to motivate students, though, you should consider if your recoiling at that question is consistent with your other views on grading.

My guess is that our current grading system strikes a reasonable balance between the practical need to assign grades given academic norms and many students' need for an extrinsic motivating force, on the one hand, and a decent recognition of the limits of our judgement about precise levels of student achievement and the dangers of obsession with extrinsic minutiae, on the other.

With the new scheme we will also, of course, spend more time making decisions about grades at the end of the term, and have more student complaints—and more justified complaints at that, as with three times as many grade distinctions, there will be three times as many faculty errors in calculation and judgement. So grading and arguing about grading will take time away from other things.

Finally, I wonder why the majority of students appear to oppose this change. The DE notes this as the finding of a student forum on the topic but doesn't speculate on why students feel that way.

Mutatis mutandis, the same argument about extrinsic motivation applies to merit pay and differential teaching loads for faculty. But that's another story . . .

* My parenthetical remark isn't only a joke: Bain's lessons are drawn from the best teachers, mainly teachers at high-end schools, and may not universally apply to the rest of us elsewhere.

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