Do you learn more when you have to get a good grade?

A study concludes that the benefits of evaluating with grades "are scarce"

3 min
Baccalaureate students at a high school in Barcelona

BarcelonaAlthough it is considered the gateway to university and one of the key moments for students, the Catalan university entrance exam is a test that the vast majority of those who take it will pass. It is, therefore, a mechanism to sort students who want to do a university degree and, therefore, it is not so important to pass or fail but to get a high enough grade to enter into a desired career. Sometimes, students who want to study highly sought-after degrees (and, therefore, with higher cut-off marks) put everything on the line for a few tenths, which causes them to put pressure on themselves to become self-demanding in order to memorise content that they end up forgetting. Now a group of researchers have found that the benefits in terms of the knowledge acquired in an evaluation with grades are "scarce" and "very short term", while with a pass or fail system students gain in mental health and satisfaction.

The group of researchers, including Guillem Riambau, professor of Economics at the University of Barcelona, has evaluated whether getting a numerical grade provides sufficient incentive to improve student learning. The conclusion is that it does not: although it is true that students get better grades when the grade is exact, the margin is marginal, only five percentage points (the difference between a 7.5 and an 8). On the other hand, they "gain much more" in mental health and time management if the result is a pass or fail.

They have checked this using internal data from a university in Singapore where in the first year all students have to take an introductory course in statistics. Until 2017, students had a grade of A (excellent) to F (fail), but thereafter this module was only assessed with a pass or fail. "All the materials and weekly exams remained the same and this has allowed us to compare learning and see if a change in the grade affects the knowledge acquired", Riambau explains to ARA. The conclusion is that, although it does have an affect, the difference is minimal, even for the best students in the class, who do not lose motivation whatever the grading scheme: according to the researchers, there are always 5 or 10% of the students who get excellent grades, whether there is a 10 on the transcript or simply a pass. "Students who get an A, regardless of the grade, are either innately talented or they make the maximum effort because they want to learn a lot or because they want to prove to themselves that they are capable of getting good grades", says the researcher.

Although it is difficult - if not impossible - for such a system to be implemented for the university entrance exam, the researchers do see it being applicable to very heavy core subjects in the first years of university. "Having part of the subjects pass or fail would be a good way for students to devote more time to the subjects that most motivates them", says Riambau.

Passing doesn't mean not failing

Grades, then, are not enough to fully explain either the knowledge acquired or failure at school. A report by the Observatory of the Fundació La Caixa on early school leaving and social inequalities has concluded that not all failure is the result of low academic results: about six out of ten young people who leave school have grades higher than 5. "The grades do not fully explain educational dropout", the document states, but rather the type of center (in complexity centers the probability of dropping out is doubled) or social inequalities (vulnerable young people have twice the chances of dropping out). New evidence that shows the importance of evaluations.