Positive and Negative Incentives in the Classroom: An Analysis of Grading Systems and Student Motivation


Abstract: This study examined how particular grading systems motivate students. Since competency-based grading and point systems are most prevalent (Hendrickson and Gable, 1999), the current study is modeled around these systems. The grading systems used for this study were divided into two categories and defined as those students who earned their grades (“earners”) and those who maintained their grades (“maintainers”). The earners started the semester with 0 points and added points with each graded assignment, whereas the maintainers were given the maximum number of points available for the course at the beginning of the semester and then subtracted points from this overall total as they lost points on a graded assignment. The earners received positive incentives (i.e., the addition of points), whereas the maintainers received negative incentives (i.e., the subtraction of points). It was hypothesized that students who received negative incentives would exhibit higher levels of motivation than those who received positive incentives. Quantitative and qualitative methodologies were used to test the hypothesis. Although the quantitative results of this study marginally support the hypothesis, the qualitative results illuminate how the different incentives motivated students differently. The maintainers were driven by satisfaction (i.e., saw grading practices as fair; liked starting with an A), unfamiliarity (i.e., had to learn a new grading system), stress, and punishment (i.e., the threat of losing points). On the other hand, the earners were motivated by familiarity (in that they were used to the grading system used) and rewards. Implications of this study are also discussed

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