The Pressure of Grades and Success

I presented a scenario to each of my classes a few weeks ago. They had to imagine they were taking a test in math; a subject they struggled in. They had studied for the test and felt confident. Everything was going well until the last problem (worth 20% of the test). They blanked and couldn’t remember how to solve it. Luckily, the answer was right in front of them in the form of a someone else’s test. This someone else was a math wiz, so they knew the answer was right. I asked how many would cheat if no one would ever find out?

Most of my students raised their hands. I appreciated their honesty.

“Why cheat?” I asked.

“Because no one would know.”

“Because it could be the difference between a good grade and failing grade.”

“But can’t you revisit and retake any quiz or test if you don’t do well?”

“Yeah, but still, we don’t want to fail.”

A student who hadn’t raised their hand chimed in, “But I wouldn’t feel good about the grade because I didn’t really earn it, and plus the teacher would think I understood something that I didn’t really know…”

With their responses focused on failing and grades, I asked them the same question, but this time I told them the test wasn’t worth a grade. It was for the purpose of seeing how well they understood certain concepts. Only 1 or 2 students raised their hands.

“So why the sudden change? Why not cheat anymore?” I asked.

“It’s not worth a grade anymore, so there’s no reason to cheat.”

“Yeah, we wouldn’t feel the pressure of failing the test and getting a bad grade, so why cheat?”

“So comparing these two scenarios, what’s this tell us about cheating?”

Awkward silence.

“That we tend to cheat when there’s a grade involved. We’re afraid of failing, so if the answers right there and no one will know, might as well cheat.”

“But if there’s no grade and we cheat, then we’re showing the teacher we understand something that we really don’t know.”

“Exactly,” I said. “So the pressure of failing, or getting a low grade tends to cause us to cheat.”

I went on to share my opinion on cheating. Every single student was focused on me, no fooling around, no side conversations, they were locked in. They were listening to every word I spoke because it was a topic they were a part of.

Cheating is something that most students will do, regardless of their status. Some studies have even shown that high achieving students are more likely to cheat due to the pressure of succeeding. I told my students that I cheated in school as well and for the same reason. Luckily, most of them understood the negatives of cheating: it’s misleading and doesn’t lead to actual learning.

What stood out to me the most, is that all of the teachers on my team allow for retakes if a student does poorly on a test or quiz. Despite this, students still feel the need to cheat. It shows just how crippling a low grade or failing can be. Students don’t want to fail. They’d rather steal someone else’s answer than make a mistake because of a numerical value.

But can we blame them for wanting to succeed so badly in a world that values A’s and 4.0 GPA’s above all?

The purpose of an assessment is to measure or check a student’s understanding. I don’t give tests or quizzes. I don’t like them as a form of assessment. I know firsthand how stressful they can be. I know how misleading they can be, especially if a student cheats.

Instead I give an assessment and ask students to show me what they know or how well they can perform. I explain the purpose of it and how making mistakes shows us where we can grow. It removes the temptation to cheat. Not entirely, but for the most part. There’s little reason to cheat when a grade isn’t involved. In fact, I asked my students earlier in the year if they ever cheated in my class and the consensus was “No because we don’t really have tests or quizzes; there’s really no reason to cheat.” While I’m sure some still cheated at times, I believe it’s far less than other classes.

As an ELA teacher, another common form of cheating that comes to mind is fake reading. When students read for a grade, especially a piece of text they could care less about, they tend to fake it. They’ll seek out answers online or read summaries rather than the actual text. I know because I fake read my way through high school.

Failing or making mistakes is unavoidable and for good reason. It’s how we learn. Students need to understand how to fail, reflect and grow. Unfortunately, the fear of failing still paralyzes our society. We treat failures harshly. Students are expected to pass a test the first time or else they feel dumb or stupid. They’re expected to say the “right” answer the first time. They’re expected to pass everything ever given to them.

As evident from our discussion, part of the problem is grading. We don’t need grades to learn. This isn’t anything new. We’ve know this for a long time. Remove them from education, and yes things get more difficult for us as teachers, but the end result would be a shift towards more learning and less “So how do I get an A?”

Grades are an easy way to label a student’s effort or ability. I cringe every time I have to assign a numerical value to student writing. Grading has never felt right or natural to me. Grading has never felt like an accurate reflection of a student. Not to mention everyone grades differently. An “A” student isn’t the most intelligent. Often times, they’re the one playing the game of school correctly, the one cheating, the one doing the extra credit, the one studying until 1AM the night before a test.

Instead of wasting time on grades, we should be giving students more feedback. Showing them how mistakes allow us to grow, how they shouldn’t be avoided. Most things I try in the classroom only get better over time. I reflect on what went well and what needs to change. Without this reflection, I would be the same teacher I was during my first year.

Removing grades takes many teachers out of their comfort zone. It requires more than adding up points on an assessment. We rely on grades far too much. Remove them and you’ll have parents and students still ask what their grade is. They’ve been a measure of success for far too long.  It’s unfortunate. It’s crippling. It’s wrong and it needs to change. Not tomorrow, not next week, but right now. I don’t care how much effort it requires. I don’t care if grades are how we’ve always done it. I do care that grades cause high levels of stress and unnecessary cheating. Worst of all, it labels students inaccurately and in extreme cases brainwashes them into believing it’s who they are.

Let’s face it, education isn’t about learning, it’s about the grade and that’s a huge problem. Because now more than ever, students need to know how to learn, not how to obtain an A.



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