distance learning, grading reform

Motivating Students Without Grades

Image by Gerd Altmann

As distance learning continues around the country, teachers may find themselves grappling with the topic of student motivation. Bereft of the traditional tools and strategies commonly used to motivate students in face-to-face instruction, teachers may feel powerless to teach any student other than the most motivated. And for many, the biggest missing motivator is grades.

Grading policies in many K-12 schools, colleges, and universities have recently shifted due to COVID-19 school closures. In an effort to address inequitable learning experiences and the stress that many students are experiencing during this time, many schools have shifted to a Pass/Fail, Pass/Incomplete, Credit/No Credit, or similar grading system. As a result, most of the extrinsic motivation traditionally provided by grades is gone, leaving some educators frustrated with students’ lack of engagement and homework completion.

But what if I were to say that there are many things teachers can do right now to motivate their students that are actually best teaching practices, regardless of the educational setting? And what if we were to view distance learning as an opportunity to improve our practice instead of an unfortunate time to merely endure?

The Purpose of Grades

Over the past century, grades have served as a major source of motivation for American students. Teachers often use them as punishments and rewards in the classroom, and they are often considered something to be earned by students.

But grades aren’t meant for these purposes. Rather, grades are intended for only one purpose: to communicate student learning––primarily to students and parents. When they’re used for other purposes, both grade meaning and the focus on learning can be lost.

So if teachers shouldn’t use grades to motivate students to learn, how should they motivate their students?


To address the topic of student motivation, I’ve returned to a book that I first read a number of years ago, but one I often consider in my teaching: Daniel Pink‘s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.

The book discusses discrepancies between the common use of motivation and what the science says, contrasting the concepts of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Daniel Pink explains that extrinsic motivation, which relies on punishments and rewards, “can extinguish intrinsic motivation, diminish performance, crush creativity, and crowd out good behavior” as well as “encourage unethical behavior, create additions, and foster short-term thinking” (220).

So when teachers use grades to motivate students, they are relying on extrinsic motivation, and as a result, they may inadvertently promote the undesired attributes listed above.

But intrinsic motivation, the author explains, is an inherent drive derived from equal parts of autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Here, I’ll discuss these three elements in the context of K-12 schools.


Daniel Pink explains that autonomy is essential for intrinsic motivation because “our basic nature is to be curious and self-directed” (87).

Educators who instead rely on authority risk stifling students’ curiosity, which is a key component of learning. Further, they risk creating students who overly depend on teachers for each step of the learning process.

Sound at all familiar?

Pink goes on to describe four key aspects of autonomy: task, time, team, and technique––each of which can be directly applied to the virtual classroom.

  1. Autonomy of task can mean that students have a choice about the learning task they complete to practice class priority standards. In math class this may mean a choice of problems at each level of difficulty. In English this could be the choice of several articles to analyze or of a book for independent reading as opposed to being assigned a class novel. In science, it could mean the choice of a body system to become the local expert on, later to teach the class. When applied to summative assessment, teachers may provide students with several options of how they display their learning of the unit priority standards, including written, graphic, and presentation formats.
  2. Autonomy of time can mean providing students with flexible timelines throughout each learning progression. This means asynchronous instead of synchronous distance learning to cater to students’ schedules, home life, and learning preferences. It also means allowing students additional time to practice and learn skills when their rate of learning doesn’t conform to the timetables set in the unit plan. This allowance also requires differentiated instruction and liberal retake policies on summative assessments. And although grading practices are intentionally left out of this post, when grades are a factor, autonomy of time should be paired with a grading policy that doesn’t penalize for late work or test retakes.
  3. Autonomy of team can mean simply that students are given choice of their team members for group work. In some classes, this may mean complete choice, while particular classes or particular students may need more guidance in making good choices that are in the best interest of their own learning. A good rule of thumb is giving students as much choice as possible to allow for successful completion of learning tasks.
  4. Autonomy of technique can mean that students have choice in how they go about creating a final product. Instead of being required to follow a teacher’s step-by-step instructions, students can be provided with the choice of several methods to use or even be encouraged to create a novel approach. In English, this can mean students choose how to create and organize their argumentative, narrative, or explanatory essay. In math, students may have the choice of method to come up with the correct solution. In science, students may be provided with lab materials and be tasked with developing procedures to create a desired product. But when the process is particularly important, the teacher may provide a model solution after students complete their own task and then ask students to compare and contrast it to their own methods.


In the context of intrinsic motivation, Pink describes mastery as “the desire to get better and better at something that matters” (109). And although true mastery may not be possible, it’s the pursuit of mastery that leads to fulfillment, he states.

For this to happen in schools, several things must occur in the learning process. First, the teacher and student must have a clear idea of the learning goal and the student’s current learning level. Further, students must experience progress towards mastery. A key factor in facilitating this progress is matching students’ ability with the appropriate level of learning task. To create these “Goldilocks tasks,” as Pink calls them, teachers must use intensive formative assessment to determine each student’s current learning level and also to inform them of that level. This information can then be used to differentiate instruction, as appropriate learning tasks need to be created and assigned. And the moving force of this whole process is the ongoing feedback that enables teachers to appropriately modify instruction and students to make adjustments in their progress towards mastery.

But for students to embrace the mastery aspect of intrinsic motivation, they must be just as comfortable in their failures as they are in their successes. Daniel Pink explains this idea through Carol Dweck’s concept of a growth mindset, which comes from her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

By possessing a growth mindset, students understand that the never-ending pursuit of mastery is hard work and includes many failures along the way. They also realize that the hard work is mostly in the form of practice and that making and learning from mistakes during this process is a key part of learning. Finally, these students know that feedback is key to their growth, so they welcome feedback from teachers and peers to help them improve.

But many students don’t show up to the classroom with a growth mindset, and teachers shouldn’t expect them to. In fact, it may be more likely to find students with a fixed mindset, thinking they’re either good at a subject or they’re not––either they can complete an assignment or they can’t. So the growth mindset concept needs to be taught throughout the school year and reinforced with examples and appropriate classroom policies.


The final piece of intrinsic motivation, according to Pink, is working toward a cause bigger than one’s self. Purpose, he explains, focuses on the “why” of the work instead of simply the “what.”

In education, addressing purpose begins with getting students to understand the importance of the class and the priority standards. Students need to see a direct connection to their own lives––whether they plan to attend college or go directly into the workforce. Importantly, this needs to be ongoing dialogue between teacher and students instead of a single or sporadic reminder.

Strategic classroom discussions at the beginning and end of units that encourage students to engage in authentic dialogue about the standards can help them to better understand the standards and to internalize their importance.

Teachers can reenforce the importance and relevance of standards by providing examples of their application to daily life, college, and career. Teachers may also explain how they personally have used the skills in their own lives or even provide examples of how well-known or famous people have used the skills in their lives.

From here, teachers should continue explaining the purpose of each assignment throughout the year and encourage students to question the assigned practice when the purpose is unclear. A simple test for the teacher: If you can’t quickly and clearly explain the importance beyond “it’s on the test” or “it’s a standard,” then perhaps it’s not really that important.

Finally, Daniel Pink explains the importance of aligning policies to the stated purpose of the organization. In schools, this means ensuring that school-wide and classroom policies aim to maximize student well-being and learning before all else. Without doing so, the school is at risk of sending mixed messages to students and parents about the relative importance of student learning. So instead of discouraging students’ burgeoning sense of purpose by prioritizing the needs of adults on campus, school policies should bolster students’ belief that school is truly about learning.

Final Thoughts

For decades, educators have inextricably linked learning with grades. This means we have generations of Americans who were inculcated with the idea that one of the main objectives of school is to earn high grades. So we shouldn’t be surprised that when grades are suddenly removed from the equation, many students, parents, and even teachers question the viability of school.

But make no mistake about it: learning is not dependent upon grades. Taking a few moments to observe the inherent curiosity of children proves this point. But when we took away the grades from schools during distance learning, we also took away the extrinsic motivation that we have for so long relied upon.

So by intentionally using intrinsic motivation to replace the void left by those student grades that are so often used for punishment and rewards, teachers can help shift school culture to one that more deeply promotes student learning. This will not be easy, because for many, it’s new, and we’re fighting against years of tradition. But this is an essential shift that is in the best interest of our students and their futures.

And what about the future––when schools return to “normal”? The principles in this post will still be best practices. And although grades are bound to return, they shouldn’t return to status quo. Let’s use grades for what they’re meant to do: to communicate student learning. Let’s use restorative practices to address student behavior. And let’s use Daniel Pink’s three principles of intrinsic motivation to motivate our students to meaningfully learn.

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