By: Jeff Cain, EdD, MS
A former dean once told me that the classroom is my laboratory. As such, every semester I tinker around with some aspect of teaching to see what I can learn. Sometimes the experiments are formal and sometimes they simply fall under the umbrella of scholarly teaching.*
In spring 2022, I employed the latter while trying to get a better grasp on how points (or ‘marks’ for those outside the U.S.) influence student learning behaviors. I have been intrigued for a while about the effects that grades have on students’ motivation to learn. In 2017 I published “School is a game: Faculty set the rules” after spending a significant portion of 2015 and 2016 thinking about it, mulling ideas, and discussing it with students, residents, and faculty.1 In that article I make the case that a faculty member’s approach to points, grades, and grading determine how students approach studying, attendance, and course assignments.
I still stand firmly by that, but if you read my latest “grades” article with Medina, Romanelli, and Persky you might discern a slight shift of thinking.2 Drawing upon extensive research from the field of behavioral economics, I was swayed to believe that grades do indeed affect students’ approach to a course, but not necessarily in the best way. Yes, they may influence students’ behaviors by incentivizing them to complete a learning activity. However, when an extrinsic motivator such as grades is introduced to an activity, they can actually “crowd out” the more desirable intrinsic motivation that has repeatedly been shown to be better for learning.3
This left me to grapple with whether I should remove points to foster intrinsic motivation, with the risk that students may not complete the activities at all.
What I did
I took a chance.
An underlying philosophy for my Pharmacy Operations and Financial Management course of 132 students is that I first need to stimulate curiosity about the topics. For students with a background and interest in the health sciences, topics like “Human Resources Management” do not naturally engender enthusiasm! One way that I try to foster curiosity and interest is through asynchronous assignments with personalized feedback that approach topics from a non-typical and more interesting direction. For example, one assignment pertaining to managing employees involves watching two short Ted™ videos about workplace drama and romance and then answering a few reflective application questions.
In 2021, all those asynchronous assignments (N=10) were worth a modicum of points (14% of total grade) to incentivize completion. Based on my new knowledge of the crowding out effect, this semester I kept the assignments the same, but accepted the risk and removed all points from assignments to see what would happen.
Did students complete the assignments?
The simple answer was “Yes. For the most part. At least there were no meaningful differences.”
A basic comparison of the last 2 years (Table 1) showed that the number of non-completed assignments basically doubled, but it was actually only an additional 19 non-completions out of 1320 total possible submissions. One interesting finding was that in both years, the worst performers in the class were responsible for just under half of all non-submissions, which probably reflects their general overall lack of engagement with course materials.
Table 1 Comparison of activity completion rates with and without points
|2021 (points)||2022 (no points)|
|Overall completion rates for the 10 assignments||98.5%||97%|
|Number of assignments not completed||20||39|
|Number of assignments not completed by bottom 10% of class (by final course grade)||9||17|
What it means
Honestly, in the grand dialogue about grades and motivation and curiosity, this little experiment does not prove much. However, what it tells me (and hopefully other instructors) is that under the right conditions, assigning points to learning activities may not be necessary to entice student completion.
What I still do not know
While I was able to determine that eliminating points from the asynchronous activities did not have a major effect on completion rates, there are still some further difficult questions to answer.
- Does removing points have any effect on intrinsic motivation and/or actually foster a climate for curiosity?
- Does removing points have any effect on the quality of assignment submissions?
- Would completion rates be worse if the assignments were different in nature (ie, less interesting, take longer, etc.)?
What I found this past semester provides a talking point in the budding conversations across the Academy about points and grades and grading schemes. I am not the first to try something like this and would like to hear perspectives from other pharmacy educators who have tinkered around with their grading system. Have you taken a similar risk that paid off? Please share your experiences in the comments.
*University of Kentucky IRB deemed this a quality improvement project.
- Cain J. School is a game: Faculty set the rules. Currents Pharm Teach Learn. 2017; 9(3): 341-343.
- Cain J, Medina M, Romanelli F, Persky A. Deficiencies of traditional grading systems and recommendations for the future. Am J Pharm Educ. 2022: Publication ahead of print.
- Ryan RM, Deci EL. Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemp Educ Psychol. 2000;25(1):54-67.
Jeff Cain, EdD, MS is an associate professor and vice-chair in the Department of Pharmacy Practice & Science at the University of Kentucky College of Pharmacy. Jeff’s educational scholarship interests include innovative teaching, digital media, and contemporary issues in higher education. In his free time, he is dad to a pole-vaulting daughter, an obstacle racer, an extreme trail ultramarathoner, and is president of For Those Who Would, a 501(c)(3) charity in the adventure and endurance racing communities.
Pulses is a scholarly blog supported by Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning