By Mark Nepper
Final exams use to cause students extreme stress. Many would start studying weeks before the exams arrived. They would lose sleep during exam week as the prepared for the tests. They would look haggard as the week progressed.
When I started my educational career students showed me they place great stock in how they performed on these assessments. They viewed it as a representation of what they had learned in the class. So they studied. Really hard.
Much of that has changed.
Students in a writing class I teach at West High school in Madison, Wis., admit freely that they only study if the exam will affect their grades. They have all kinds of tools to determine how much they have to study. One of their most important tools is the Final Grade Calculator, which you can find through any search engine.
When I first learned of the calculator recently, I asked all my classes if they use this tool. Every student admitted quickly that they did. Every student. The calculator determines what grade you need on your final exam to get a certain grade in the class. You enter your current grade, the percentage you want to get in the class and the percentage value of the final. The calculator does the rest. Students then decide whether to study or how much to invest in the effort.
If you want a break in your own efforts to grade all of these final exams, dig into the comments on the calculator site. I guarantee you will chuckle.
“My gpa is quickly choking and dying….”
“104 percent to get an A? Only God can help us now” — proving again that prayer does exist in all schools.
“When you have to get a 75 Percent to get a 100 percent in the class.”
“Anyone wanna skip finals and do another crusade?”
Many students thank the creator of the calculator, who regularly responds to comments and questions.
Final exams now present an entirely different picture.
My students don’t stress or study unless they have to.
Students’s honesty shocked and distressed me. If the calculator showed that no matter what, their semester grade wouldn’t change, they typically won’t bother studying. So what about learning the material? What about intellectual curiosity? What about the pride that comes from really knowing something?
Blank stares and crickets.
I asked students to write and share their thoughts on school, grades, finals, studying, etc.
One called school “day care.” What happens in school doesn’t matter. All the matters is the grade. School is just flaming hoop after flaming hoop that they have to navigate.
One girl said, “I don’t like school. I’m not taking a single academic class that I consistently like to go to and enjoy what I am learning. So I only do it for the grade.”
My class had to be part of that mix.
Another student said, “Grades are about 99 percent of how my parents, counselors and friends measure success in high school. I care about balancing my grades with a minimum amount of work because there are more consequences for bad grades than bad learning.”
“Grades motivate students to play the game of the American education system but not to truly learn for the sake of intellectual enlightenment.”
This student doesn’t usually seem this cynical.
Only a handful of students said they enjoyed learning.
What matters most to most students is the grade, and if the grade won’t change, they don’t bother studying.
Students bristled when I showed the temerity to suggest that they should still study and that they should study as hard for essay tests as they study for tests in any other realm. The general belief they hold strongly suggests that you don’t ever have to study for essay tests. They attacked me because I wanted them to hold themselves accountable to higher standards of learning, to continue to seek understanding and knowledge not matter what their grade might be.
After this class, I wept.
Some might argue that all this simply proves that kids just play the school game for grades. If we remove grades from consideration, we can get back to learning for learning’s sake. Intellectual curiosity will triumphantly return. Schools will effervesce with learning.
Sadly, that has not been my experience either. Without the incentive of a grade many of my students have shown a listlessness. They coast.
They admit that grades become their motivator. They wouldn’t know how to react without grades.
They wonder in a competitive world, where grades and test scores determine their futures, how they will make it to the next step without grades as a marker.
While grades drove this conversation off the cliff, it made me take my thinking in a different direction. How can we alter a system that creates this malaise among students?
This question leads me back to a question I have wrestled with for years now. I have lost match after wrestling match. Somehow educators have to figure out how to motivate students to find the joy in learning again. We need to find attainable means to motivate.
Wouldn’t it be nice if students wanted to learn for learnings’ sake?
That will be a question I will wrestle with again next year.
Right now I’ve got to grade these papers.