As we’ve worked from Nunavut and Singapore to Texas and beyond during this past school year, we’ve fielded many questions from educators. Certainly one of the most intriguing ones has been:

“How do I respond when people say only test scores and marks motivate students?”

What the research shows

This is a tough question. 

If someone believes students are motivated by tests and marks, they are likely to act accordingly. If students value marks and grades, it’s because this is the currency they recognize as a result of our structures and what we’ve valued.

Certainly, some students can be motivated by marks and grades. Consider the ones who typically do well in school. As Brookhart (2001) found, they know how to unpack grades and marks, sorting out what they need to do more or less of the next time.

It is equally true that some students are not motivated by, or are actually demotivated by marks and grades. Consider the research by Wynne Harlen and Ruth Deakin-Crick (2003) and the Assessment Reform Group (2002), that found students who do poorly in school often disengage. 

Some students can be motivated by marks and grades. It’s equally true, though, that some students aren’t. In fact, they’re actually demotivated by marks and grades.

Further, the researchers noted a gender effect. Male students tended to externalize the blame – stupid assignment, teacher doesn’t like me, school sucks. Female students, on the other hand, tended to internalize the blame – I don’t know, I’m stupid, I can’t… The impact on both groups of students is similar – they are not motivated to try again, or try harder.

That’s not all. Edward Deci and Richard Ryan (2002) and Wynne Harlen and Ruth Deakin-Crick (2002) found in their research that extrinsic rewards alone – such as test scores, grades and marks, feedback – undermine interest and motivation.

Butler explored the idea that marks and grades might get in the way of student learning even earlier (1988). She conducted an experimental study where feedback to students was:

  • Either marks and grades, 
  • Marks and grades with comments, or 
  • Comments alone. 

The research showed that students who received marks and grades, or marks and grades with comments did equally poorly. Those who received comments only, on the other hand, used the feedback to improve.  

What to do? 

Here are a few tips you can incorporate into your practice. 

Do this more:

  • Explain and discuss the purpose and relevance of learning,
  • Provide choice and scaffold students towards responsibility,
  • Provide opportunities for students to learn with each other,
  • Provide specific, descriptive feedback,
  • Involve students in self-and peer assessment in relation to criteria,
  • Encourage students to value effort and practice time,
  • Help students understand success has many different looks.

Do this less:

  • Test,
  • Drill and practice for test taking,
  • Self-evaluation (asking students to judge their work in terms of scores or grades),
  • Compare students in terms of test results and other evaluations,
  • Encourage competition for marks and grades.

What does this mean for beginning a school year?

It means being very clear about quality and proficiency. 

For example, in mathematics, quality and proficiency could be described in this way…

Student consistently and independently:

  • Understands, remembers, and applies mathematical concepts being studied,
  • Articulates clear understanding of mathematical concepts and is able to give everyday examples of use,
  • Applies concepts, skills, and strategies to propose solutions to problems,
  • Analyses problems, uses a variety of strategies to find possible solutions and is able to check and evaluate the effectiveness of the processes used,
  • Works effectively by self and with others,
  • Communicates using mathematical language, words, symbols, and representations,
  • Connects ideas to self and others, as well as to other ideas and tasks,
  • Uses mathematical habits of mind including persistence, questioning, drawing on past knowledge, precision of language, and thought.

This teacher has defined quality by the evidence of learning – via observations, conversations, and products. Contrast this with a description that simply includes a list of tests, quizzes, and assignments. What is the message to the learner about what is valued? 

This description goes beyond valuing marks and grades to valuing learning – which ultimately motivates humans.

Want more?

If you’d like to dig deeper into this topic, check out these two books:

Explore with this five-part series

In this post, we’ve provided a taste of the steps you can take to effect positive change in your practice. But it’s far from the only innovative change you can look into! We’ve crafted a five-part series that helps you explore new ways to motivate and inspire your students for the start of this school year. Read the 5 part Back to School Series here.

Free resources

We have a host of free resources – here are a few that are guaranteed to spark ideas, and help you help students. Enjoy!


  •  Assessment Reform Group. 2002. Testing, Motivation and Learning. Booklet produced by ARG at the University of Cambridge Faculty of Education, Cambridge, UK.
  •  Brookhart, S. 2001. Successful students’ formative and summative uses of assessment information. Assessment in Education, 8, no. 21: 153-169.
  •  Butler, R. 1988. Enhancing and undermining intrinsic motivation: The effects of task–involving and ego-involving evaluation on interest and performance. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 58: 1-14.
  •  Harlen, W. and Deakin-Crick, R. 2003. ‘Testing and Motivation for Learning,’ Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 10, no. 2: 169-207. DOI: 10.1080/0969594032000121270.
  •  Harlen, W. and Deakin-Crick, R. 2002. A systematic review of the impact of summative assessment and tests on students´ motivation for learning (EPPI-Centre Review, version 1.1). In Research Evidence in Education Library. London: EPPI-Centre, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education. 
  •  Klapp, A. 2014. Long-term effects of grading on later achievement and educational attainment. Conference paper. DOI: 10.13140/2.1.2979.1685. 
  •  Ryan, R. M., and Deci, E. L. 2002. Overview of self-determination theory: An organismic-dialectical perspective. In E. L. Deci & R. M. Ryan (Eds.), Handbook of self-determination research (pp. 3-33). Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press. 
  •  Ryan, R. M. and Deci, E. L. 2000. Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development and well-being. American Psychologist, 55: 68-78.
Anne Davies, Sandra Herbst, and Brenda Augusta

Anne Davies, Sandra Herbst, and Brenda Augusta

Anne Davies, Sandra Herbst, and Brenda Augusta are educators, consultants, authors, and presenters who are highly sought after, both locally and globally. Their energy, passion, and expertise have helped teachers, leaders, schools, and systems to move forward with competence and confidence. Learn more about the team here...


Like most education professionals, we have a burning desire to make a difference in the lives of learners. We started as teachers and leaders, but saw the potential to drive greater transformation by creating and sharing methodologies with other educators.

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