August 13th, 2014

Motivating Students: Should Effort Count?


I’ve always said no, effort shouldn’t count. When students pleaded, “but I worked so hard,” or “I studied so long,” I would respond with the clichéd quip about people with brain tumors not wanting surgeons who try hard. Besides if students try hard, if they do their assignments, come to class, take notes, ask questions, and study on more nights than the one before the exam, that effort will pay off. They will learn the material, and their grades will reflect that learning.

That’s what I’ve always believed, but here’s what’s troubling me. Most students want to get grades with the least amount of effort. If they can get an A or B with an hour or two of studying once a week, or by doing nothing until the night before the exam or paper is due, that’s how much effort they’ll make. Unless students fall madly in love with the content, most won’t expend any more energy than they need to.

Then there are those students who aren’t well prepared for the rigors of college—the ones who need to exert a lot of effort—and who really don’t believe that effort will make a difference. They think learning is all about natural ability and maybe they just don’t have what it takes.

In both cases, the question is the same: how do we motivate students to put forth the effort—to go beyond the minimum in the first case, and to try, multiples times and in multiple ways, before concluding that effort is always trumped by ability in the second.

A small institution with open admissions and a student body with low graduation rates instituted a unique grading system for first- and second-year courses. Students got two grades in each of these courses: one for content knowledge (measured in the traditional ways with exams, papers, projects, etc) and one for effort (measured by things like attendance, meeting deadlines, participating in class, etc). Content knowledge was weighted at 40% of the course grade and effort at 60% for first-year courses. Those amounts were reversed for second-year courses and no effort grades after that. Professors were allowed to define effort so long as the definitions were clear and communicated directly to students.

The paper reporting on the system analyzed the effort-learning-grade relationship differently than previous research (more robustly, according to the researcher who offers justification for that claim). The finding is as we’d expect: “the effort grade affects the knowledge grade positively and significantly. This is strong evidence that more student effort does lead to increased learning.” (p. 1182)

That’s not surprising to faculty, but it probably was to these low-achieving students who discovered that effort did make a difference. When they tried hard, they got results.

Of course, a system like this is using grades to motivate effort, and that’s much like trying to cure obesity with more food. Students are already way too grade oriented. I used to try to challenge those students who were doing the minimum by trying to make them aware of how much more they could do. “If you put the pedal to the metal, how fast could you go? You’ve got a big brain motor why are you always running it half speed?” I’d suggest really studying for an exam in a course with content they cared about or spending time on a paper for three days instead of one evening. I’d try to make them understand it was about something beyond the grade. “You get decent grades without a lot of effort so you’re not doing this for grades. You’re doing this because you need to know what you can do.” Some took me up on this; a lot more shrugged shoulders and smiled, albeit somewhat sheepishly.

Every now and then, a student excels – or maybe it’s a handful of students who surpass all expectations. They write a truly memorable paper, get a perfect exam score, or produce an amazing project. We are stunned by their success and even more importantly, so are they. They can’t believe what they accomplished. But this doesn’t happen nearly as often as it should, and the challenge remains as to how we can get more of this kind of success in the classroom. Should we try grading effort?

Reference: Swinton, O. H., (2010). The effect of effort grading on learning. Economics of Education Review, 29, 1176-1182.

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  • Daryl Close

    I argue that using grades instrumentally is generally unethical. This includes using grades to motivate, punish, or reward students. See Close, Daryl. “Fair Grades.” Teaching Philosophy 32 (2009): 361-398. John Immerwahr argues against my thesis in Immerwahr, John. “The Case for Motivational Grading.” Teaching Philosophy 34 (2011): 335-46. I respond to my critics in Close, Daryl. "Reflections on Fair Grades," in Emily Esch, Kevin Hermberg, and Rory Kraft, eds., Philosophy Through Teaching. Charlottesville, Va.: Philosophy Documentation Center, 2014.

  • Felix L Rodriguez

    I am skeptical. This might work to push students to make an effort if that could really be well measured; which I doubt. When giving more weight to one thing over another(E/G) distort a little bit the essence of being successful. The effort should be awarded when there's accomplishment. Weakening assessment by simply trying only creates a sense of futility if the higher goal of getting the knowledge is overshared. The mystery of discovering something new is simple in itself but harder in the attempt. Yet, it is only compensated and recognized when that is a fact.
    Felix Luis

    • Daniel Braun

      At the risk of being branded a troll – which is certainly not my goal – I have to take issue with your implications that trying is 'simple', that knowledge is something one 'gets', or that trying and learning are somehow separable. Whatever you want to call the process through which learning happens, it always involves trying and never resembles 'getting'. Learning is a process, not a gestalt switch.

  • Joan Deppa

    I do something similar, but not the same. I've developed a grammar course required of all freshmen and transfer students in our communications school, and I give points for completion of self-diagnostic work: a multiple choice test taken independently via Blackboard; a preliminary writing assessment that requires them to tell a story about something they've experienced or witnessed —while demonstrating their knowledge of grammar terms such as complete sentences, active and passive voice, etc.; and what we call a Brief Writing Sample that asks about their previous training in grammar, their reaction to a dialect map exercise in The New York Times and the best book they've ever read in English. They also receive participation points for their responses to formative assessment questions in class, which are recorded via the Top Hat system. This provides information to them and us about what they need to work on, as well as giving them experience for graded in-class work: two exams and a final writing assessment all administered via Blackboard. We also give points for completing chapters in the interactive online book. This approach provides a cushion so we can use college-level exam material and grading standards on the writing assessment. In other words, we are rewarding effort but we don't label it as such. Most of the students who keep up with the work do well, and if students who try but are still struggling at the end of the semester are given the option of taking an incomplete and repeating the course.

    • KAY9758

      What is the TOP HAT system?


      • Joan Deppa

        Top Hat is a student engagement system that lets students use anything from a cell phone with texting capabilities to laptop to respond to questions in several formats. It's based in Canada and you'll find its website at

  • T. Kroll

    The central insight here is that students are "way too grade-oriented". They are, and grading them for effort won't change that. And they are that way for a reason: it's the very system that we live off and sustain that made them that way. Unrelenting testing since first grade, GPA-based competition for entry into grad school, plus crushing piles of debt to corroborate their impression of being in a rat race–take all that out of the equation and maybe then we'd have a chance to get at the natural motivation and joy of learning that I believe can be found in anyone.

  • Daniel Braun

    I appreciate a lot of this post and its main points, but can't help getting frustrated by comments like 'students are way too grade oriented'. How is that any different than the obviously ridiculous claim that anyone who 'chooses' to work for a living is too paycheque oriented? Grades are tender; knowledge is not. Until academics convince banks to accept published articles as mortgage payments, they have no business criticizing students for setting high grades as goals. Post-secondary professors should drop the elitist hubris of preferring 'memorable papers', and get better at rewarding the grunt work of just showing up.

    • T. Kroll

      In the real world, knowledge is tender. And passion for a subject and active application of information are too. Grades are tender only in our convoluted academic system (for which I accept responsibility insofar as I am a part of it).

      Also, in the workforce you find the same difference between people who "just show up" for the paycheck, and those who actually care about their job, ideally even find some purpose in it, and are willing to stay a little longer than 5 to finish something that needs finishing. I've worked with both kinds of people–at different times, I have BEEN either kind of person–and while I can't blame anyone for just showing up, everybody benefits whenever work/learning/life is more than that.

      • Daniel Braun

        Thanks for your reply, T. Kroll. I strongly disagree with your idealistic rendition of the real world. In the real world knowledge is not tender that pays the rent, money is. Paying the rent is what you do to survive, and getting good grades is how you survive the convoluted academic system. We have no right to criticize students who want to make sure, first and foremost, that they survive academia – ie we have no right to criticize high grades as goals.

        We'll have to disagree about what 'just showing up' means, in any context. To me, it's the fundamental first step to anything more, be that effective learning or job success. Therefore, one of the things that absolutely should be rewarded. In other words, if in the real world showing up is what gets you paid – though not promoted – then why should that not translate to academia? Why should showing up not contribute at least something to your acquiring some tender? That other elements should also be rewarded does not correctly lead to the conclusion that showing up shouldn't be.

    • ScienceProf

      wait, you want to reward "the grunt work of showing up"? talk about hubris!
      I never got paid just for showing up! Did you? The only time anyone gets fed "just for showing up" is at a food bank (family dinners excluded, of course).

      • Daniel Braun

        Can you explain your understanding of hubris, ScienceProf? I don't see your point.

        While T. Kroll seemed to understand what I meant by 'just showing up', maybe I didn't make myself clear enough. 'Showing up' doesn't mean, as you seem to be picturing, coming to class to sleep, chat, etc. It means basic effort of attending class regularly, doing readings and getting through the course, as opposed to the extraordinary effort that is rewarded by top-end achievement on assessment. The latter is always rewarded, and I'm trying to argue that the former should be worth something, too (so is this article).

        I'm also 100% sure that you, like everyone else, have indeed been paid for periods when you 'just showed up' without putting in your maximal effort the entire time. You, like your students, are human, and everyone coasts sometimes.

        • ScienceProf

          You obviously haven't worked a job where every second of your performance counts, Daniel; "coasting" gets you fired on the spot. Lots of real people without higher education spend their days like that. You should try it!

          I am definitely interested in conducting this conversation as a civil discourse, but it's not easy to do so when commentators like yourself simply b.s. their way. Rather than focusing on the definition of hubris, why don't you explain to us your newly expanded definition of showing up? How do you measure "doing readings" and "getting through the course"? At least showing up can be objectively measured.

          Trying to argue that "effort" is worth something on assessment is like proposing that prayer intensity can be measured. Haven't you heard your students say that they prayed hard to pass your course? Well, maybe not hard enough, or not with enough EFFORT!

          • Daniel Braun

            Whoever you are, your understanding of 'civil discourse' seems about on par with your understanding of student effort, performance and, as far as I can tell, the definition of 'hubris'. Lucky me, no effort needed to quit interacting with you.

  • T. Kroll

    We may not be on completely different pages. I agree that showing up is the first step to success, and I do reward my students for doing so (or rather, I penalize them for unexcused absences). I still insist that in the workforce, money is just a symbolic representation of one's contribution. If you don't have any knowledge or skills–or if you don't show up–you don't get the money. Knowing and doing comes first.

    We do seem to be on different pages regarding our world view. I do believe that human life is about more than just survival. If that makes me an idealist, so be it.

    On a side note, I appreciate your civility while holding strong disagreement. That's a rare trait on discussion forums.

    • Daniel Braun

      Thank you again, T, for your reply and your civility (I can't see a way to reply by email). Apologies for the name-calling earlier ('idealist'). But I just can't agree that salary is a representation of contribution. CEOs, etc., do not contribute that much! I get frustrated at the idea that students are held to a different standard than how I see the real world working, when that standard becomes punitive (i.e. 'showing up doesn't matter, only how you perform on assessments'). Glad to hear we agree that showing up deserves some formal recognition.

      I of course agree that life is about more than just survival. I just find it upsetting when life and an undergrad degree get conflated, because an undergrad degree is one small piece of a life, and each class is one tiny sliver of that piece. Seems to me that students' lives outside the classroom are just as important as inside the classroom, and that professors do themselves and their students an injustice when they refuse to recognize that just making time to attend class isn't always the easiest thing.

      • T. Kroll

        Daniel, I fully agree. (Including the part about CEOs.) And I've had students for whom, for very good reasons, it was a major feat just to come to class, and I've tried to honor that while still being fair to the other students.

        I guess as teachers we're frustrated because we usually care about what we teach and about what our students learn, while students give us a vibe as if they only cared about their grades. (Which isn't completely true either, of course.) And the burden to bridge that gap is on us–and that's a tough call, since we usually don't get taught how to teach, much less how to be inspiring and motivating. Seems most teachers either struggle until they get there, or give up and succumb to perennial frustration.

        • Daniel Braun

          I agree, T, that the total lack of training in teaching students (let alone inspiring or supporting them) that is available for/ required of professors is a huge and sad part of this problem (and many others).

  • T. Kroll

    Sorry, I meant to reply to you, Daniel Braun, not post a new comment.

  • Fran

    I work with both Adult Basic Skills and Developmental Ed students. One of the skills we work on, aside from learning academic objectives, is learning behavioral skills for college success. It is absolutely for me to consider participation in the growth and development of these adult learners, who may never have had successful learning behaviors explicitly expected. Participation if a big part of what I do. The reality for my ABS students is that they continue to need the class until they get the academic skills necessary to pass a their GED tests. Certain participatory behaviors make that happen faster.

    If your intent is to teach certain behaviors to students, not only in showing up and participating in class activities, but also in any online course where discussion is a component, for example, then grading on participation is necessary.

    All this, assuming grades continue to be part of the discussion. At this point, so far as I can tell, grades are still a part of the picture. Once we go to objective-based or competency-based grading, participation may or may not be part of the discussion.

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  • Gonzalo Munevar

    The rewards for effort can be built into the class structure. I make attendance mandatory. Papers not turned in on time are not accepted, save a medical excuse or the equivalent. Students must read the material beforehand and come prepared to participate — in some classes by answering my questions and in others by asking them. After the first half of each session I being to ask questions directly to students who have not raised their hands yet. They must defend their claims and point to the exact place in the text they are referring to. 20% of the final grade depends on the quantity and quality of class participation. If after a couple of sessions it looks as if a student is not coming prepared, I take him aside and tell him that he has two choices: make a true effort or drop the class. Most choose to make a true effort. Electronic gadgets are completely forbidden, of course, unless students are required to use their laptops for a very specific task. The results: great improvement in quality of work and often a great atmosphere. I have had many hitherto mediocre students who discovered great potential in themselves once they had no choice but to make a great effort.. This approach has worked well for me, and my students, in philosophy, mathematics, evolutionary biology, psychology, and neuroscience.

  • ScienceProf

    So, talented students who acquire skills and knowledge "effortlessly" should be be failed for not displaying sufficient effort?

    THAT is one of the primary problems with US K-12 education, which seems to be spreading roots in higher ed: we have conditioned our kids that they are promoted in school just for showing, going through the motions and making "the effort".

    Philosophical discussions about the nature of knowledge aside, the overarching goal of education is for students to acquire higher level skills. An ability to discuss Plato or to discuss resource exploitation in Africa, to write a coherent essay or to read foreign language , to recite poetry or to build a robot, to paint or to dance, to solve a math problem or to properly construct a testable hypothesis – those are all based on developing knowledge and skills. Showing up is not a skill. Maintaining perfect attendance is not a skill. "Participation" is not a skill unless it's meaningful participation. Meeting deadlines is a low level skill.

    Effort can't count because we can't "count" it!! Just like religious prayers – you can't tell when someone is praying hard (whatever that means) and sincerely vs. pretending to pray, so you can't assess someone's "effort".

  • Steve Markoff

    The classroom is not unlike any other area of life. It is a process. If you do the right things initially, eventually, that increases your chances of obtaining success. At the start, say in business, only effort matters. Gradually, people expect more and more and finally, if you become CEO, it is all about results. Nobody cares about effort. Same in education. By the time they get to college, some results are expected, but effort still can be stroked. By the time you get to a certain point however, grades can only be given for results – grades.

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  • marianlly

    As a high school student I do think we should be graded for effort. Stop and think, there's people that have to spend hours and hours studying while there's others that have the ability to retain the lesson or content given in class, those who retain passed the test what about the ones that study for hours and got -B or a C in the worst of the cases and they did study; shouldn't they get at least a good grade for the effort and now I'm talking if you took it for a second time or did corrections. But instead you kept the same grade or even lower. Is not that you're not trying is that the effort that you are putting into is not being worst to it; or is it? I mean you're trying right, then what's going wrong (nothing) is not with you then you should either talk to the teacher and let her know or something because at the end is only affecting us.

  • Gretchen Del Bianco

    Many students have not or do not know how to study or what quality effort may look like so I do think it needs to be taught or modeled. I think it is fair to set up two standards and provide two grades; one for content and one for effort as long as both are clearly laid out at the beginning of the course. I think this is a more accurate way to assess student work of content and effort. If we can teach students at a younger age what quality effort and study skills look like they should all be equipped to handle more rigor as they go through school.

  • Becky Hines

    I am an elementary teacher, and students do get a grade for effort – separately! Effort is not graded into subject areas. My students are still learning 'how' to work. Even so, motivation and getting students to connect effort with outcome is difficult. I have never shown my students how their effort grades connect to their subject grades. This is a point I will make, along with challenging those students where high grades do seem effortless.

  • Ethan Simonson

    On one hand I think grading for effort is unrealistic and harmful to students. In the "real world" if I've been assigned a task, lets say I'm and electrician and I was supposed to wire a house in a week but it takes me two weeks, my boss won't care that I worked really hard, only that I've failed and cost him money. On the other hand I agree with the authors assertions that too many students will do the minimum required in order to get what they deem acceptable. If schools teach kids what is considered effort and teach students to give greater effort then I think it's a good idea. Hopefully it would teach them how to work harder in that "real world" they will someday be in.

  • Sarah W.

    Thank you for sharing this article. I teach at the primary level so grading looks a little different for us. We have two portions of our report card: Academic scores and Conduct/Effort scores. The conduct/effort are not factored in to honor roll for the older students but it helps to track progress students are making in behaviors, respect, preparation, etc. This separation allows effort to be monitored but does not directly play into a student's academic record.

  • Ben Pischke

    I do understand where the author is coming from. Grading on effort goes against standards and knowledge grading systems. We want to create motivation within our students other than just a grade so that the only reason that they work doesn't become the grade.

  • Seth

    Grading effort should be part of the equation. More importantly, educators need to constantly figure out new/better ways to improve motivation of their students throughout the school year. Students seem to be more concerned about their grades at the end of the semester or grading period. If this concern extended throughout the period, there would definitely be more effort without the need to emphasize it as much with the grades.

  • Andrew

    I think effort must be considered when assigning a student a grade. As your example pointed out, if students connect effort with success, shouldn't we reward the effort that will lead to that success?