Do grades motivate students?

During the break, Graduate School of Public Policy of Nazarbayev University announced elective courses open to all graduate students for the spring semester. One of the courses offered was International Financial Policy which got me intrigued by its content. It did not take long before I decided to add the course to my schedule.

Like many students at the beginning of the semester, I shared my plans with friends and asked them to join me. However, instead of an answer, I received another question in response: “Do you really like to take a risk and choose the course in an area that is not your strong suit? The course that is not part of your graduation requirements, but still will count toward your degree?”. And this caused me to question my ambitions and eventually, hold me back from taking the course. But it was not because I was afraid of challenging myself to learn new things, I was simply conscious about my grades and prized them over education.

Grades are the most common example of an external or extrinsic motivation through which we can leverage learning. Many believe that grades can act as incentives to make students work harder and learn more, and harder the grading system is, the better the results are. But does this type of incentive motivate students to really learn more?

While I acknowledge that grades do serve essential functions as to evaluate student learning and performance, the grade-focused system can have negative effects on students’ motivation. Students can easily miss the point of education in the pursuit of desirable grades. This is because education is often cited as the key to “success” and “bright future”. With this perception of the importance of education, students often get obsessed with their grades, taking them as inherent values that indicate their ability, intelligence or even self-worth. As a consequence of being wrapped up in their grades, they may afterwards suffer from grade anxiety disorders and high academic stress. And sometimes, to take some pressure off themselves, students may be even tempted to cheat, as reported by Barbara Palmer.

Students can also be encouraged to select the easiest courses, the courses they are already highly proficient in or the ones with “kind-grader” professors- not the best criteria for judicious selection of courses, one might argue. But this was exactly what I did. I did not want to risk my grade point average (GPA) by taking that tough finance course. I was afraid of getting a grade that I would not be able to accept.

So, do grades motivate students to learn? I would argue that the answer is yes. But this motivation can diminish the amount of the material you learn. Most students will learn material only over which they are then tested.  They will choose the courses where the probability of getting good grades is high. While this is rarely the intention of anyone, this external motivation imbues students with the wrong motives for study.

To sum it up, grades have their place as a way of measuring student achievement. They are an essential part of education, but what they are not necessary part of is one’s self-worth. And even if there is a social pressure on you from your parents, teachers, do not ever make my mistake and place so much emphasis on grades. Instead think about the benefits (may be not always tangible, but valuable) you might get out of education.

Do good grades matter to you? Do they motivate you? Have you ever been obsessed with your grades?  Feel free to share your experience in the comment section below!


Photo credits to

4 thoughts on “Do grades motivate students?

  1. Great, Akmaral (5/5). Nice incorporation of links, images, and thought-provoking ideas in this post. I would love to see a classroom that didn’t require grades, but it seems so ingrained in our understanding of school itself. I look forward to seeing the comments from your peers. Feel free to discuss our course and the grading that you experience at NUGSE.


  2. I think that a lot of the students in NU suffer from the “Otlichnik” (A-grade student) syndrome, where we are used to recieving high scores in all subjects and this influences our outlook on a lower grade not as an opportunity to challenge yourself and an indication that there is room for improvement and progress, but as an outright failure. This is often ingrained in us from childhood, when you get praised for your grades and start to associate success with a grade, not the actual knowledge you drew from the experience of earning the grade. I think that to change this way of thinking we might need to challenge our unconcious and implicit beliefs and views on this matter, and to analyze our exact aims and purposes of studying at NUGSE or anywhere else.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Dear, Akmaral!
    To my opinion, all students study to acquire knowledge first of all, but of course everybody pays a lot of attention on grades. Grades and scores affect students’ GPA, stipend and even relationship with parents. What can be considered as the worst among all mentioned is situation when students start to compete or argue with each other because of grades. I like this policy, when grades information is hidden from everybody except of the student himself/herself. From my own experience, while studying for my Bachelor degree in Shakarim State University of Semey, I and my group mates knew everything about each other’s grades. We were a small group of 12 students and quarrels about grades happened sometimes. In that time I attached too much significance to grades and was sure that I needonly «A» scores. Later I understood that there never should be any reason to “fight for grades” or make a competition. Grades should be considered as a secondary objective, not primary. Students need good grades, but not always the highest ones. They do not need to chase numbers and letters, but knowledge.


  4. Thank you akalya77, for you thought-provoking post. Your post reminded me of the Ted talk about believing in improvement. The speaker of the talk also mentions that the students who give too much concern to the grades tend to cheat, avoid difficulties, and find someone who performed worse than themselves to feel better. Talking about the obsession of students over the grades they receive, she recommends teachers to grade wisely, to grade effort and process (their improvement) instead of intelligence or talent, developing “growth-mindset” in them. This means that grading students based on their hard work and effort can make them realize that there is still a room for improvement motivating them to become better. It made conclude that the problem is not about grading, but what we grade, and grading the right thing can motivate students. P.S you can find the talk here


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