What happened when I stopped assigning points to learning activities? 

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 assignments98.5%97%
Number of assignments not completed2039
Number of assignments not completed by bottom 10% of class (by final course grade)917

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.

  1. Does removing points have any effect on intrinsic motivation and/or actually foster a climate for curiosity?
  2. Does removing points have any effect on the quality of assignment submissions?
  3. 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. 

References:

  1. Cain J. School is a game: Faculty set the rules. Currents Pharm Teach Learn. 2017; 9(3): 341-343.
  2. 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.
  3. Ryan RM, Deci EL. Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemp Educ Psychol. 2000;25(1):54-67.

Author Bio(s)

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

7 Comments

  1. Thanks Jeff…very interesting reading first thing in the morning! One caveat we should probably keep in mind is that student pharmacists, as a whole, have a pretty high intrinsic learning level. They aren’t “average” learners in that we have competitive standards not only to get into our universities, but then our PharmD programs. We teach the same topic…which we know presents challenges regarding “desire/readiness to learn” when compared to other topics! Your results don’t surprise me…I saw some similarities when I moved by course to completely asynchronous/online during the pandemic. Students who performed well still completed all of the assignments, even without the structure provided by me and a classroom environment. But I also saw the same results as you did with students at the bottom of my course…the reason that they were there was often because they were not completing the unit assignments. When combining what we saw, it does cause me to be concerned for the students on the lower end of our performance spectrums. At least in my case, I could see that the students who were performing poorly in my course were also performing poorly in their other courses. While that gave me a sense of relief on a personal level (it wasn’t just me and my content), it does cause me to think about what can we do better to engage bright and talented students, especially in a world with so many distractions?

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thanks for sharing your similar experiences, David. This gives me hope that pharmacy education can start to move away from points/grades as a motivator. As to your question of what to do about the handfuls of students who are disengaged and distracted…..well, that’s another problem entirely that will take us all investing time to figure out and correct. 🙂

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  3. Hi Jeff. Great article! One aspect of competency-based education we’re working through are related to student professionalism issues. In the past, issues of professionalism are mostly resolved through a meeting with the student, a requirement for student written reflection, and overall using it as an opportunity for growth. In some instances, there are repeated issues of professionalism which then are tied to a grade penalty (e.g., reduction of 0.5 or 1 full letter grade). We have been working through other potential sanctions for repeated issues of professionalism in the context of a system where there is no grade, but are concerned that other sanctions may not be a deterrent. One could argue that failing to demonstrate competency in professionalism is a significant deterrent because it could impact course progression (in the hybrid model where we de-emphasize time but still have a hard stop date to a course). Personally, I have never delayed student progression for issues related to professionalism and given the subjectivity involved, I would imagine there is room for an appeal to such a sanction. I’m curious as to your thoughts. Thank you! Judy

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    1. Hi Judith. Thanks for reading and commenting! To be honest, your particular issue is one that I have mixed feelings about and struggle with. On the one hand, for many of the reasons you suggested, I do not think that reducing grades in a course for professionalism violations is the right approach. Ideally, grades in a course should indicate how much a student has learned (see my paper linked above with Medina, Romanelli, and Persky for further considerations about that.) But, at the same time, professionalism behaviors ARE crucial and it is important for pharmacy schools to help students build a professional identity. There are several people who have been doing work in the professional identity formation area who might have suggestions, but I am not one of them. Perhaps one of them can weigh in.

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  4. Thanks Jeff! This was a very interesting read and gave me a lot to think about. I have often wondered what would happen in my class if I removed grades from assignments and focused more on feedback and intrinsic learning. I teach introduction to patient care where students learn how to write effective SOAP Notes for the first time. I find that students can get so hung up on the points they miss and miss the point of the feedback. I have also found that at times they get discouraged when they do not get an A. Like David pointed out, pharmacy students are generally high achievers and expect As. How do you let them know it is okay to not know everything and to keep working on their skills? I have built more formative assignments with points to help offset lower grades on summative assessments, but maybe that is not the answer.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Kathryn, thank you very much for reading and I love how you’re thinking about the implications. And actually, your experiences are backed up by research — points/grades overpower feedback. Like you, I have had formative assessments in my course to ease the pressure of exams, but I’m very strongly considering dropping the points this year.

      I don’t have a simple answer to your question, because there are probably multiple factors at play – their long history in education that bases most things on grades; fixed mindset; trust issues; etc. Personally, I keep reiterating that I don’t expect them to have the right answers all the time and it’s okay. Is that enough? I don’t know?? What do you do? That’s the type of question I’m really interested in.

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      1. Jeff, Thanks for the response! The topic of removing grades and focusing on learning and outcomes is definitely something I love to think about. This upcoming Spring, I plan on allowing students to participate in peer-to-peer grading/feedback and then self-grading. The students will not know who they are grading (or who is giving feedback), but I am hoping this approach will lead to more lasting learning. I plan on not giving points to people who participate, but only that students who participate will be able to see how instructors approach feedback and be able to practice the skill themselves. Fingers crossed that this will help!

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