The idea that earning a good grade teaches life lessons about getting what you’re willing to work for may actually be working against students.
Researchers at the RSA Action and Resource Centre in London found that the traditional policy of starting students with no grade to work their way up to a good grade is incompatible with natural brain function.
The research was inspired by principles from the endowment effect, which is a result of what psychologists call “loss aversion.”
Owen Philips, of online publication New American Ed Central, while explaining endowment effect and loss aversion, said, "Researchers conducted a study to find out what people would pay to purchase an ordinary coffee mug. The average offer was $3. The researchers then gave them the same mug for free. When asked how much they would sell the mug for, on average participants said $7. Despite receiving the mug for free, they wanted much more for the mug than they were originally willing to pay for it. Simply possessing the mug induced participants to assign it a higher value.”
Other studies have found that loss is twice as painful for people than the rewards associated with gain. This remains true even when the loss and gain are of the same value, like in the case of the mug.
RSA looked at schools across the U.K. and Germany that used both methods of grading. When applied to students from kindergarten through college, the same held true: students are more successful when they are given an A to hold on to than those with a lower grade to build on.
“Imagine a classroom where everyone started off an academic year with an A grade and in order to keep the grade, a pupil had to show continuous improvement throughout the year,” RSA said about its study on loss aversion in schools. “In this classroom, the teacher would dock points from a pupil’s assessment when performance is inadequate, and pupils would work to maintain their high mark rather than to work up to it. How would this affect effort, expectations, performance, and assessment relative to current practice?”
Starting students with an A isn’t a new revelation for some teachers. For Maggie Tufts, a seventh-grade teacher in Sacramento, California, working within the brain chemistry associated with loss and gain has always proved more successful than expecting students to want something they may have never had and thus don’t understand the value.
Tufts explained in an interview with the Deseret News that she spent the first few years of her 26-year career trying to inspire students to work their way up from the bottom. She said it didn’t work. Students would more often than not become overwhelmed and assumed that they’d never get above a C anyway, so why try? Whereas students given an A were more motivated to maintain it.
“Learning is like any other series of tasks life throws at us,” Tufts said. “It’s easier to stay on top of things than to build something from nothing. Like it’s easier to maintain weight than lose weight or it’s easier to maintain a good car than it is to fix up a clunker.”
Critics of starting students with an A worry that it discourages hard work, but that doesn’t match up with the research. Because our brains naturally want to keep something good, we will naturally work harder to maintain what we have.
“Some students will give up when they feel like the odds are against them,” Tufts said. “But if they feel like they have a fighting chance, they’ll fight.”
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