April 11th, 2012

Should Effort Count? Students Certainly Think So


In a recent study, a group of 120 undergraduates were asked what percentage of a grade should be based on performance and what percentage on effort. The students said that 61% of the grade should be based on performance and 39% on effort.

The importance of effort in their grade calculations was also demonstrated by how they graded hypothetical scenarios that depicted various levels of effort and performance. These results are consistent with previous findings which also identified faculty views on the contribution of effort in the calculation of grades. In one study (cited in this 2012 research), students thought 38% of the grade ought to be based on effort, whereas faculty thought effort merited just over 17%.

Historically, grades have been thought of as measures of performance. If students cannot demonstrate their mastery via an exam, paper, project or performance, then they have not mastered the material or skill. “Unless you can explain it or do it, you don’t understand it,” I remember one professor telling us repeatedly.

The problem, of course, is that most of the time it’s very difficult for professors to objectively assess effort, and students can make the case for effort with great passion and no small amount of pleading. “I studied hours for this exam.” “I have never worked as hard on a paper.” But the “I-tried-so-hard” claim cannot be independently verified. And for many of us it’s hard to imagine trying that hard and not mastering the material or producing a quality product.

I’m rather mystified by faculty thinking that effort should account for 17% of the grade. I suppose if it’s the course grade, and effort is equated with things like regular attendance, completion of the homework, asking and answering questions that, by the end of the course, faculty might have a sense of who’s trying hard and can be rewarded for doing so. But it still doesn’t make much sense. How could you be in class, do the homework, regularly participate and not master the material? What about the students who aren’t in class, don’t do the homework but still perform well, are they docked for not showing effort?

Even if effort could objectively be measured (some of you may have figured ways), that still leaves the question of whether it’s a viable dimension of the grade? Should you get credit for trying if you don’t succeed or just barely succeed? I always fall back on the brain surgeon analogy when asked if effort counts. If you have a brain tumor, do you want a brain surgeon who tries hard or one who knows how to deal successfully with brain tumors?

The authors of this study also wondered whether students’ perceptions of professors’ grading fairness and competence were influenced by whether the professor counted effort. Here’s what they found. “Findings appear to suggest that students judge professors as unfair when the perceived effort invested in the completion of an assignment does not compensate for actual poor performance . . .” (p. 58) Students also perceived the professor as a less competent grader under these conditions.

If students are coming to these conclusions, regardless whether we’re counting effort or not, it certainly is a topic that merits discussing with students. They should know what we are doing and why. They need to be reminded that assessing effort is all but impossible given that professors generally aren’t with students when they expend effort and many of us are cynical. We have been conned by students before. If effort counts, we should seek ways to make the assessment of it as objective as possible. Maybe discussion of that topic begins with a definition of effort, or a description of what it takes to learn something. As authors of the 2011 study found, students estimate they spend just a bit over 14 hours a week studying. Faculty reported they thought students spent a little more than 19 hours studying per week.

References: Tippin, G. K., Lafreniere, K. D. and Page, S. (2012). Student perception of academic grading: Personality, academic orientation, and effort. Active Learning in Higher Education, 13 (1), 51-61.

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. (An article highlighting these findings appears in the November, 2011 issue of The Teaching Professor.)

  • shawnpatrickdoyle

    I find the brain surgeon analogy problematic. College is not brain surgery. Errors are supposed to be a part of college because that's how we learn. Comparing students to true experts in the field creates this expectation that students should already be experts, which can create an unwelcome intimidation in those students who have had less preparation for the class.

    While it's tough to objectively grade for effort, I think there are ways to bring it into the conversation. When I have students who claim they've worked so hard on a paper, I use that as an opportunity to open up a dialogue about what that work consisted of. That not only lets me talk to them about how to work smarter, but it also lets me see where they started off at. When I see that, I can show the student that the hard work did pay off in the results because I can show progress. That lets me then note that if they keep up that hard work, they'll make even more progress the next time and more after that.

    • TJ Rivard

      I agree that identifying effort as a means of opening dialogue for the sake of student learning is an excellent tactic, but I wouldn't want to throw out the brain surgery analogy too quickly. Ultimately, in any discipline, we are striving to help students reach that level of mastery, and the danger is letting students fall into the trap of equating effort with success or of being satisfied with having "tried hard."

      Having said that, at the college level, effort carries different levels of weight in the learning process. Effort in math would be weighted differently, I would think, than it would in creative writing.

      • shawnpatrickdoyle

        An open dialogue about effort should eventually lead to rethinking the idea that equating success with effort is a trap. I think there are just as many potential problems with equating success with grades. After all, if students truly give their best effort, they should be in a much better place to develop their natural aptitude. Carol Dweck's work also seems to suggest that at least with younger students, focusing on effort helps students feel they have more control over their own learning and ultimately have more success when faced with challenges.

        You are right of course to be suspicious of students who simply tell themselves that they've tried hard and are content to give up before recognizing the progress they can make through continually trying hard. I'm sure there are many students who do this, but of course, the causes of that are a different discussion.

      • David

        It is almost impossible to measure and evaluate effort. One student who is gifted might devote relatively little time to a class yet turn in superior work. Another student might spend hours and still produce only average work. People in life are not rewarded for effort but for results and products.

    • Algebra Instructor

      I think it is definitely necessary to help students who say that they are trying. Many times I have students tell me that they studied for hours and yet could not pass their Algebra test. Generally, they are not studying in the right manner. Or they are doing it for six hours the night before the test, and doing nothing the rest of the week. They certainly "feel" like they are trying, however it would depend on the perspective.

      When we give a student a grade in a class (which is necessary!), it MUST signify that they know the material. If we begin passing students because they "tried", their degree simply means that they tried in college. It no longer means that they know the material necessary to enter the work force.

      • music professor

        I agree completely. We cannot be in the business of giving university degrees in "trying hard." If a student of mine practices "really hard" but still hasn't mastered the skills necessary to perform a piece convincingly, in tune, musically, etc. (nevermind all the right notes at the right time) then the information that they are actually trying is crucial to me as a teacher. It tells me that the solution is an adjustment of practice methods, not practice amount. For me, it's actually helpful for students to know that their grade is NOT based at all on how hard they try. They will exaggerate the number of hours they practice, when asked, if they think it is based even a little bit on effort, and then my teaching of them and their learning is compromised since I will not accurately be able to determine the best course of action for them to improve. In the end though, it really isn't about how HARD they try (how many hours they practice) but how WELL they try (what practice methods they employ).

    • Marya

      The point is not that college is brain surgery. School is where you learn to do brain surgery, or social work, or teach kids. So, if you don't learn how to do those things–as evidenced by performance in school–I don't want you doing brain surgery, working with vulnerable populations, or teaching my children.

      Talking to the students is essential. But also note that students tend to overestimate the time they do take on the work they do. An hour of concentration is less effective when it's punctuated with Facebook, texting, chatting with friends…. but folks (even professors!) sometimes go by what the clock says–an hour has passed–than what they've achieved. Last, ten hours of effort that take place in the ten hours immediately before the class start to get something turned in is qualitatively different than ten hours of thoughtful reflection and thinking critically. Students who get high marks know this; students who know this don't complain about how hard they worked but didn't get the grade they wanted.

  • G Kane

    "How could you be in class, do the homework, regularly participate and not master the material?"

    Students who struggle to overcome poor foundational knowledge, culturally reinforced misconceptions, or ineffective study skills can complete all of the homework, attend class regularly, participate, and still not master the material. Nontraditional students with work or familial obligations competing for their time and mental attention can complete all of the homework, attend class regularly, participate, and still not master the material. Students distracted by tragedies in their lives can try hard and still fail.

    Although I don't believe in bumping up points for effort, I do believe in distributing a lot of opportunities for points throughout a course: free participation points (for example, through clicker questions or in-class assignments), extra credit, and repeatable, online quizzes. That way, if a student completes all of the homework, attends class regularly, and participates, then s/he'll acquire enough points to raise a D to a C.

    But I see college as a cumulative effect: dim currents from previous courses collectively illuminate the bulb in future courses. Providing the student sustains that level of effort, a D-level understanding in my course might help the student reach an A-level understanding in the future. My not taking student effort into consideration in the design of the course might discourage those who tried but failed from ever trying that hard again.

    • A Bentley

      G Kane, I believe you are right in your first paragraph, but only when homework and activities in class are poorly developed and could be equated with "busywork"–work that has no solid foundation in learning theory.

      If an instructor designs his or her course in a way that homework and in-class activities result in active engagement with and critical thinking about the subject, then real learning should be occurring (if the student truly does the homework and attends/participates in class). Thus, in these cases, Weimer's question of ""How could you be in class, do the homework, regularly participate and not master the material?" is valid.

      I always hope that grades earned are a true reflection of course learning objectives achieved.

    • K Fara

      Who says that students are qualified to judge if they have expended and extraordinary effort in a final product (paper, assignment, exam)? Some students judge attending class as a stupendous effort. Different diciplines need to handle this differently. If intermediary products (rough drafts, homeowork assignments) have weight in the grade, one can objectively grade on effort. The finished product will be better. Thus effort is rewarded.

      We do ourselves a disservice if we assume the body in the seat is learning. Instructors need to plan active learning opportunities to keep the student engaged rather than simply warming the seat.

  • Pingback: Quality vs Effort — Which is more important? « SandraCoswatteSpeaks()

  • Gary

    I am not a professor, but the idea that 'effort' counts as any part of grading disturbs me; I agree with A Bentley's comments regarding effort being simply (unproductive) busywork. While I appreciate serious and appropriate' effort', the problem is that the end result is what counts…the 'outcome'….mastery of the subject….competency. As a business person who has owned and operated three companies with as many as 21 employees, I can say that 'effort' ranks very low in my world. I hire for a person's mastery of their area of knowledge and ability to create results. Grading for 'effort' is akin to saying all you have to do is show up and I'll pay you some part of your pay. Sorry, but it doesn't wash and I believe it sets a very bad precedent for students as they move from school to the workforce. Once you are out of school, produce or expect to be fired.

    • seejayjames

      I can understand where you're coming from, but college is not the real world, nor is it a job. That's why it can be a great opportunity to have effort count for *some* of the final grade. If designed into the course properly, it can help students who have difficulties achieving at the same level as their peers. This can help with persistence and retention, which are far more important overall than going from (say) a D to a C in one class due to effort. In other words, you're not "fired" from college in the same way as you are from a job, which is how it should be. It takes a lot more poor performance to be dismissed from college than from a job, and there are ample opportunities to make up for low grades.

      I would also say that those students who can "breeze" through their courses (for whatever reason—probably they have parents who value education highly, went to a good high school, have unusually high natural aptitude, etc.) could have trouble down the road if they don't have any courses which account for effort, for the opposite reason: they assume that their natural abilities will always be enough, and if they have to put in a lot of effort, they might not think it's worth it. When they run into challenges down the road, like at a job, they may not have cultivated the effort ethic that other students have.

      And besides, if the courses really are attuned to effort, they can require different students to perform at different levels. This way, the high-achievers won't be able to breeze through…they'll be expected to do more. Is that fair? In one way, no, because students are held to different standards. But in another way it's MORE fair (because students are at different ability levels already) and more effective at promoting learning, because all students are challenged just the right amount.

      Bottom line: What do we want students to get out of their college experience? It's complex!

  • schooliskewl

    I would have to say that no matter how much this is discussed the number one problem is administrations unwillingness to actually listen to what students are saying. I don't believe that the leadership of a school should follow what students say or want verbatim but they way it seems now is that leaders within schools "listen" to students to the extent of just physically hearing the words they speak and not taking their messages. It seems there is an attitude of "we hear you, we just don't think that what you're saying is worth listening to."

  • I've experienced this phenomenon. Puzzling. Until you realize it's a symptom. The disease? Students don't believe they need to know what we're teaching. If you accept the premise that students believe it's a status ritual in which they must bestow the requisite respect and attention to earn the credit … then the idea of being rewarded for effort irrespective of performance on the content makes perfect sense.

  • Bernard

    I put a great deal of effort into painting the walls of my home but they don't look professionally painted. Heck! I think I deserve an A for effort, don't you? Thank you,. Now those walls look much better… Don't they? They do, don't they? Don't they?

  • Terri

    I think one area worthy of some reflection is the perception of effort by students with their reading assignments. I have witnessed students reading and reading but often wonder- is there learning there? So when a student says he or she has read for hours and still failed a test or assignment, I often will ask, "Yes I am sure you did, but what did you learn?" As faculty, we need to develop learning activities that are engaing; not that reading cannot be engaging but many texts were not designed that way. I can remember reading texts that would put the most engaged reader to sleep and it was effortful and hard work but I don't think I learned a thing. To learn, we have to put the material in context using the WIFM principle. When students see what is in it for them, then maybe the effort put forth will actually have a better pay off. Take readings and put them in context and use other engaging activities with them. Just a few random thoughts …. took a lot of effort 🙂

  • Eriwila

    I got 100% for an assignment I expended very little effort on. No one – except me – knows how long it took me to write it or how much I sweated over it. I truly hope that I didn't get any marks for effort. In this instance I understood the brief and I produced. If I had a mark for effort that could well mean that I didn't really understand what was asked of me (there is deficit in my learning/understanding) but because I put in some effort I was give some extra marks. However, there are some assignments I do where I have put in much more effort and have not got such a good grade. Actually, I don't have time to put in hours and hours worth of effort. It is my responsibility to find and obtain tools to help me do the job at hand to the best of my ability. I seem to have a greater ability to write about concepts than hard facts. i.e. less effort and greater effort respectively

  • DrEvel1

    Part of the problem is that in most courses, there are two largely separable objectives: (1) to master the CONTENT of the field (usually a matter of learning to use the specialized vocabulary of the field correctly, or at least convincingly; and (2) to master the PROCESS of the field – its methods and practices, its definition of problems, and its approach to solutions. There may be other objectives, but most of them can be easily classified into one or the other of these categories. Regarding Objective Set 1, effort is irrelevant – either you succeed in talking like a ___, or you don't. Assessing success is more or less accomplished by a sort of "Turing Test" – can you sound competent to participate in the field? Assessing Objective Set 2 is more complicated, and effort probably ought to be rewarded here. Accomplishment here is a matter of degree; total competence is virtually never achieved in one course, and success is always approached asymptotically – there's always room for improvement, even among those of us who have been doing (whatever it is) for oodles of years. In fact, it's a sign of professional accomplishment that one recognizes that one still has things to learn. A course that culminates in a grade is inherently time-bound – the grade is an attempt to categorize the degree of success in approaching the learning objectives/outcomes within a defined time interval. Most grades represent an honest attempt by the instructor to apply some explicitly or (more often) implicitly weighted combination of Objective Set 1 and Objective Set 2. In general, I would suggest that instructors formulating course objectives/outcomes might be well advised to be more explicit in their understanding and expression of the differences between the assessment criteria in Set 1 and Set 2, and how they apply in the case of the particular course under discussion. I've found it helpful to think in terms of the categories in my own course planning, and the students seem to appreciate having these issues discussed directly. At the least, it reduces the potential for drama in the student/teacher relationship, at least be a little, and every bit of reduction here helps!

  • Hello Dr. Weimer:

    This was another very informative post.

    As a college instructor, on-ground and online, I’m always interested in articles like this – and this leads me to my first question. Why did the study focus on performance and effort? In other words, why was effort part of the equation? The reason why I ask is that most students (from my experience) know that points are earned and I emphasize that through the use of a rubric.

    You’ve asked: How could you be in class, do the homework, regularly participate and not master the material? – There are many reasons for this and it comes down to this: effort does not equal mastery. Students may lack reading comprehension skills and have other under-developed skillsets.

    Perhaps instead of a “discussion of that topic begins with a definition of effort, or a description of what it takes to learn something” we should focus on skills needed to learn?
    Dr. J

  • Dr RB

    I give zero points for effort. If you master the material, you get the grade, If not, you don't.

    • J Marie

      Then I wouldn't take your class. No room to take anything into consideration that would allow you to be flexible.

    • Kyle

      I agree. If I go to a surgeon for a heart transplant I dont care how much effort they put in. Perform the surgery correctly or not there is no in between.

  • Philip

    When it's time to assign a grade for the class, I can give either an A, B, C, D, or F. Even if I'd like to give students an E for effort, there's no E bubble for me to fill in when I submit final grades.

  • Bob

    Depends on the subject. If the goals of the class are x,y, and z and a student needs to know x, y, z to move on and go to the next level or nursing school or whatever, sure, they need to know xyz. I teach creative writing and acting. Every student comes in with a different background and amount of experience. I've never felt it was fair to judge the person who has been writing since age 5 on the same scale as the person who was trying something out for the first time. I grade on how much effort the student makes in doing what I asked for. They may not do it very well, but if they give it the best effort they can manage at the level they are now, I'll give them close to full points. But the stakes are different from a lot of other classes. My priorities are to give them exercises that expand their native talents and challenge their creativity, but in grading it is to 'do no harm.' We never know when an artistic person will get it, will find the form, the voice, the character, the path … and for me to nip an artist in the unrealized bud is a crime way worse than not holding every student to some standard. In my field, I wish I didn't have to grade them at all.

    • Bob-II

      Then you are part of the problem, Bob.

      A. It's silly to grade "creativity" in the first place. Your courses should be pass/fail, based on your subjective evaluation of the student's creativity as you define it, instead of being GRADED (i.e. different levels of competency).
      B. If you assign the same value to the writing of someone who has been writing since age 5 and who is producing writing worthy of the New Yorker as the writing of someone who has applied tremendous "effort" and who writes at 2nd grade level, you are doing a disservice to both individuals, your institution and the society.
      C. A great actor is evidently great, even if he/she has a shitty attitude, Give them an "F" for effort/attitide, if you want. But a bad actor is still a bad actor, even if they earn an "A" for their affort.

      • seejayjames

        I don't agree. You are part of the problem. Creativity can in fact be evaluated on a number of scales, and it can be taught and practiced, just like any other skill. Do some research on it before you dismiss it out of hand.

        Assigning the same value to two vastly different outcomes can be totally fine IF you've made it clear to the student what their strengths and weaknesses are. I don't see how that's doing a disservice to the institution or the society. Education is there to better individuals…if both these students got better during the course, then you have succeeded. You cannot grade them on the same standard and hope they will keep their love of learning, because the second-grade level writer will fail and may not want to continue in their education as a result. What have you achieved in that case? You've nipped a learner in the unrealized bud. That's not the reason for education in the first place.

        I can understand wishing one didn't have to grade them at all. There are many schools in which this is the case, and many of them produce highly-qualified graduates. Students study what they want to study and their natural curiosity provides motivation. Do I think all schools could be this way? Maybe someday, but in the meantime, we can certainly take some small steps towards that goal. Read a little Alfie Kohn for more thoughts on the pitfalls of grading and rewards in general…there are many to watch out for.

  • Gina Burkart

    There are certainly ways to work effort into the grading equation. For example, on discussion boards, students can discuss and explore class topics in meaningful ways. Their discussions can be graded based on their contributions rather than mastery of material. This type of assignment is low stakes and contributes to learning–it could also offset low test scores for students who are poor test takers. I think students would perceive these types of assignments as valuing effort. Additionally, assigning projects or other assignments that value different ways of demonstrating learning might also be perceived as valuing effort. Perhaps, what students are telling us is that they value classes that allow for them to demonstrate learning and proficiency in multiple and diverse ways—as opposed to tests.

    • seejayjames

      Exactly. There are very few real-world situations where you are required to take a closed-book test. The vast majority of times, you have full access to any and all resources to solve a problem, and are expected to use them. Why do we insist on so much artificial testing?

      The few times where you do have to take such a test—like the GRE or a certification exam—you will have studied hard for it if you want to do well. There's no reason to use the same methods in a class when there are far more authentic and engaging ways to demonstrate mastery and effort.

  • Jay Elliott

    I have health issues that prevent me from getting to class sometimes which means I don't always make the due dates/deadlines. I am working with my doctors so this will not continue to be an issue, but in the mean time I need someone who is willing to work with me. If I am taking a class it means I want to learn and I expect the teacher to be involved with my education by being flexible. To me the syllabus is a guideline of what is expected, but once you start a dialogue with a particular student the rules begin to evolve and change according to their particular needs. I refuse to be put into a "a one size fits all" way of learning. If this is how one teaches I avoid your class. If I have to take your course in order to graduate be prepared to be pushed out of your comfort zone.