Assessment: Providing Answers or Just More Questions?

Assessment has always and continues to play such an integral role in education. To educate is to not only disseminate information, but to ascertain if that knowledge has been absorbed and understood. I mean…what’s the point of teaching anything if it isn’t retained and used later? The present assessment system in place is the traditional grading scale. Students are given grades based off of their ability to “jump” through academic hoops (homework, quizzes, tests, etc.). Is this system truly effective? Does it give educators a full picture of that students academic comprehension?

In Alfie Kohn’s The Case Against Grades, the argument is made that grading is inherently problematic. Rather than motivating students to learn, it tends to have the opposite effect and can be rather discouraging. Kohn furthur argues that grading accurately quantify the quality of a student’s learning, nor does it reflect their true ability to achieve. To some extent, I agree with this. Not all students are the same, and the educational methods used to teach them aren’t equally effective for everyone. Some students will naturally do worse than other, which will be reflected in their grading assessment. Receiving a bad grade can prove very discouraging to students, especially for those whom this becomes a “norm”. However, a poor grade should not be treated as a point of shame. Rather, it can be a useful tool serving as a signal to educators that their teaching methods aren’t reaching particular students; educators can then reassess their approach and attempt to reach the student. Additionally, I will agree that grades are not reflective of achievement. Plenty of students are intelligent enough and capable of learning, but often that isn’t reflected by their grades. I recently went through a battery of tests to substantiate my ADHD diagnosis, and many of them were designed to assess my ability to achieve in certain areas (math, reading & language comprehension, writing, etc.). These tests revealed I was more than capable of achieving well in these areas, but by actual performance ability didn’t always match up.  I believe grades are the same way, a useful measurement of performance but a poor reflection of  achievement.

I want to go back to discussing  the topic of motivation. I loved the animated video The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Dan Pink and how it illustrated motivation. The part I found most fascinating from this video was the depiction of the traditional motivational system- the tiered system where the largest rewards go to the top performers and the the lowest performers are not or minimally rewarded. Though studies have shown this system works when solely mechanical skills were involved in performance, it had the exact opposite effect when rudimentary cognitive skills were involved. Academic performance consists of the combination of mechanical and cognitive abilities. Based off Pink’s logic, a traditional tiered motivational system where the highest performers are rewarded and the lowest are not (i.e. grading) is not a wholly effective motivational system for student academic performance. Academic performance is not a simple straight-forward task; it’s incredibly complex and high-stakes rewards don’t effectively motivate the highest level of performance.

Now, do I have an answer on how to best motivate students to perform better academically? No, I do not. Will there ever be a conclusive answer to my previous question? I highly doubt it. What can we do to better assess academic performance and motivation to learn? My best guess would be to constantly investigate and reassess motivation as it evolves with the evolution of studentkind.

3 thoughts on “Assessment: Providing Answers or Just More Questions?

  1. I really like your point that a bad grade isn’t necessarily a fault of the student. As teachers, we often forget that when students aren’t succeeding it doesn’t always mean that they are the ones failing, sometimes we are the ones failing them. It is essential that we continue to assess our own teaching practices to determine whether WE are “making the grade”.


  2. I agree with your last statement. We have to “constantly investigation and reassess motivation as it evolves with the evolution of studentkind.” Students can change even during a single semester. It’s important to remain vigilant and continually evaluate your and your students’ motivation and performance.


  3. Thank you for your post Elizabeth. I wonder, do you think if educators provide students with two types of grades – this is your achievement grade, this is your motivation to learn grade….would that make a difference or do anything as a matter o fact?! Could it work possibly?!


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