Should Student Effort Count?

We’ve all had conversations with students who want effort counted in their grade: “But I tried so hard … I studied for hours … I am really working in this course.” The question is, should effort count? Less commonly asked, however, is whether it should count in both directions. Students want effort to count when they try hard but their performance doesn’t show it. But what about when an excellent performance results without much effort? Should this lack of effort lower the grade? Beyond these theoretical questions are the pragmatic ones: Can effort be measured fairly, objectively? If so, what criteria are used to assess it?

Using survey research, a faculty team explored these questions. Their study builds on earlier work by J.B. Adams, and some of their findings replicated those reported earlier. Faculty respondents in the Adams study reported that in a situation where student effort was high but performance was low, approximately 17 percent of the grade should be ascribed to effort. Students in that study thought that in those circumstances, 38 percent of the grade should be based on effort. In this study, the percentages were similar. Faculty thought 13 percent of the grade should be given for effort and students thought 39 percent was appropriate. A bit surprising, though, was the fact that students were more willing than faculty to penalize students when their effort was low but the performance was high.

These overall averages were looked at more specifically in terms of the type of course: Should effort count more or less in a required general-education course, a general-education elective, a required course in the major, an elective in the major, a minor requirement, or a medical course? Faculty thought the kind of course did not make a difference. Effort should count the same regardless of the course. Students reported that course type should make a difference.

The survey also included some interesting questions that pertained to study habits, such as “For a 3-credit course, how many hours of studying a week would indicate outstanding performance?” Students said 6.73 hours (SD 4.41) and faculty said 8.53 hours (SD 3.72). They also asked about typical study patterns—cramming, weekly study and review, or daily studying. Faculty estimated that 68 percent of the students studied by mostly cramming for exams. Students chose cramming as the typical study pattern 53 percent of the time. That difference is significant. Perhaps more important is that cramming remains a common approach to study for many students much of the time. Finally, students estimated that on average students spend 14.10 hours a week studying. Faculty estimated weekly student study time at 19.10 hours. That’s another significant difference.

As for measuring effort, both students and faculty agreed that it is a difficult construct to measure. Can it be measured by class attendance? Regular participation in class? Self-reports? Both faculty and students agreed that effort is best measured by performance on assigned work. If the student is working hard, that will be seen in the work they produce and on their exam performance. Both agreed that the least accurate measure of effort are those self-reports.

“These results suggest that students and faculty may benefit from communication about grading procedures and policies, as well as [from] a frank discussion regarding what faculty consider to be ‘outstanding effort’ in a class. Students likely do not know what workload is appropriate for college-level courses and often struggle because they do not know how to direct their effort.” (p. 15)

Reference: Zinn, T.E., Magnotti, J.F., Marchuk, K., Schultz, B.S., Luther, A., and Varfolomeeva, V. (2011). Does effort still count? More on what makes the grade. Teaching of Psychology, 38 (1), 10-15.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 25.9 (2011): 4.