Academic journal article Journal of Instructional Psychology

Student Response to Grading Incentives: Evidence from College Economics Courses

Academic journal article Journal of Instructional Psychology

Student Response to Grading Incentives: Evidence from College Economics Courses

Article excerpt

This paper aims to provide evidence on the response of various student types to the use of simple grading incentives. The results show that while the majority of students expend the effort to complete an assignment for credit, this response is not uniform. Using data from six semesters of college Economics classes, the study demonstrates that female students are more likely to submit assignments for credit, while nontraditional adult students and ones whose major field of study is not directly related to the course are less likely to respond to the opportunity of receiving course credit. This study highlights the degree of importance of extrinsic motivation for the above groups of students. For the student types that exhibit lower response to grades, alternative methods of motivation may be recommended.

Keywords: Grading, Incentives, Student Performance, Student Motivation


Grades are used extensively at the university level to provide incentives for learning, however, there is surprisingly little evidence collected in economics of education on how various types of students respond to grading incentives. Meanwhile, the response of different groups of students to the incentives created by the grading system may not be uniform. While the extrinsic motivation provided by the grading system may stimulate greater effort by some students, others may be motivated by intrinsic factors. The goal of this study is to provide new evidence on the importance of grades in motivating students to complete coursework.

Oettinger (2002) analyzes how a grading standard that allows only a small number of distinct grades (that is "A" through "F") affects student behavior in an introductory college economics course. Evidence is presented that course performance of students is clustered slightly above the boundaries between grade levels, and that students that were slightly below a grade boundary going into the final exam exhibit more effort even controlling for pre-exam performance. Thus, students respond to the incentives created by the grading system.

Cullen et al. (1975) look at the decision of high-school students on whether to complete an assignment under the three conditions of positive grade for submission, negative grade (penalty) for non-submission, or no grade incentive. Results show that the use of both positive and negative grades increases student effort.

These are the few examples of empirical research that look specifically at student's response to the use of grades as incentives. Other aspects of grading have been the subject of several empirical studies. For instance, Figlio and Lucas (2004), Betts and Grogger (2003) and Jacob (2005) look at the link between grading standards and student performance. The evidence from these studies generally suggests that stricter grading standards lead to better student performance. On the other side of the student-educator relationship, Jacob also looks at the teachers' incentive to increase grading standard in response to accountability policies. Faculty incentives leading to grade inflation were also a topic of academic research (such as Germain and Scandura, 2005).

On the theoretical front, there has been significant debate on whether learning is driven by extrinsic or intrinsic incentives that is by grades or personal desire to learn (see for instance Covington, 2001). Wynne and Ayers (1994) present an overview of both propositions. The empirical studies reported above, in general, demonstrate that grades do influence student effort. However, the data used in these studies is not rich in demographical detail to provide evidence on the relative importance of extrinsic incentives for various groups in the population.

This study attempts to complement the existing literature on several accounts. Firstly, it will demonstrate how students respond to grading incentives for specific assignments. It is distinct from the study by Cullen et al. …

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