“They trust me to offer constructive feedback because my actions are not perceived as punitive,” he says. “Students trust one another as there is no competition to earn the most points and earn the highest grade in the class. Rather, students rely on one another’s strengths in order to be successful.”
Blackwelder, despite his preferred model, is still required to give a grade at the end of term. But Adam Tyner, associate director of research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education reform think tank, says grades do serve a practical purpose.
“The main benefit of using grades is that it distills performance into a single value that parents and students should be able to understand. Teachers can include both academic performance outcomes and day-to-day behaviour into students’ grades, which means that they can theoretically capture not just whether the student knows the subject but also ‘non-cognitive skills’ like how well students cooperate and collaborate.”
And the fact that teachers who have adopted a feedback-only model in the classroom still need to report a final grade points to a social reality, that as we grow up and enter the job market extrinsic motivation – probably in the form of salaries – will play a greater role in our lives.
A place for rewards?
That may partly be why studies have shown that for older students, extrinsic motivators can boost performance.
Tyner points to the National Math and Science Initiative’s College Readiness Program in the US, which couples advanced training for high school students with financial incentives for successful students and teachers. “A rigorous evaluation by Northwestern University economist Kirabo Jackson found that the NMSI programme increases college attendance by 4.2 percentage points while increasing college readiness and longer-term labour force outcomes. Some subgroup effects were jaw-dropping. Hispanic students experienced an 11% gain in earnings when exposed to the NMSI incentive programme.”