Why grades mess up our motivation

Jun 26, 2019 | 0 comments

When you took your very first, shaky steps, did your parents stand by and give you an Achieved grade on walking? We didn’t think so. 



We are all willing and able to learn to sit up, crawl, walk and talk without rewards or feedback like grades. So what changes when we start school and start getting report cards from teachers? Does this help our learning by giving us something to aim for?

Last week here in the Wednesday Wellbeing column we discussed how bad we are at knowing what will make us happy. We talked about how psychologists have found that we overestimate the ability of unexpectedly good and bad grades to make or break our moods. Grades actually make very little difference to how happy we are, even right after we get them back.


Grades might not make a difference to our happiness, but they do influence how we think about our achievements.


Psychologist Carol Dweck has found that when thinking about learning and achievements, everyone falls into one of two groups: fixed mindset or growth mindset



People with a fixed mindset believe that intelligence is a static part of who you are. They believe that like your eye colour, you can’t change how smart you are. The other group, people with a growth mindset, believe that intelligence ⁠— especially applied intelligence ⁠— can be developed. 


Fixed mindset suggests ‘talent is born not made’, while a growth mindset believes the opposite is true.


These mindsets have a huge impact on learning and life. Psychologist Dweck and her colleague Grant studied how the results of students studying for intense med exams differed between those with fixed and growth mindsets.



Fixed Mindset


Growth Mindset
Wants to be seen as naturally smart vs Wants to learn and improve 
The most important thing is getting a good grade rather than feeling you know the material vs

Important to learn the material well, getting a good grade only an added bonus

Grades are a reflection of how smart you are vs Grades are a reflection of how hard you worked on understanding the material tested
If it’s hard work, then I’m not good at it vs If it’s hard work, then I’m learning new things 
I won’t talk to anyone about the parts I don’t understand because I don’t want them to know I’m dumb vs If I don’t understand something, I’ll talk to someone who does so I can learn from them
If I come to a hard concept, I’ll give up because I’m not smart enough to understand it vs If I come to a hard concept, I relish the challenge and work to overcome mistakes


Intrinsically motivated learning = enjoying the feeling of learning something for its own sake E.g. we are intrinsically motivated to learn things like walking around and talking when we are babies

Extrinsically motivated learning = learning to do something for a reward. E.g. If you were locked alone in a jail cell and wanted to escape, you would have a strong extrinsic motivation to learn how to pick the lock (you would be free again).



Grades are an example of extrinsic motivation. Even if once, when we were little, we wanted to learn things because they were interesting, now grades come along and tell us that our value can be measured by how good our grades are.


Unfortunately, this causes many people to focus on getting good grades; they all but forget that it can be exciting to learn things for their own sake



This focus on extrinsic motivation can be especially damaging when we get to uni and/or a working environment.


Without our parents breathing down our necks every day, people with a fixed mindset might suddenly find that extrinsic motivation isn’t enough to get them studying every day.


The Dweck study also showed, the students spent a lot more time ruminating (e.g. ‘am I even any good at science’) and also had lowered self-esteem if they did poorly at the exam.



The earlier we can develop a growth mindset, the more likely we’ll continue to reach higher levels of achievement rather than plateauing when we meet new challenges like university.



In Wednesday Wellbeing column next fortnight we’ll talk about how you can develop this all-important growth mindset. If you want to revisit our last column to remind yourself why grades have little impact on happiness, read ‘You don’t know what will make you happy’ or check out what else we’re up to on Instagram and Facebook.


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