Give them an A: Research shows why starting with an A grade is better for students than earning it

Compiled by Nicole Shepard, Deseret News National Edition

Published: Fri, June 20, 2014, 7:40 a.m. MDT

 A plus grade in the notebook

A plus grade in the notebook

(courtesy Ludwig via flickr)

The idea that earning a good grade teaches life lessons about getting what you’re willing to work for may actually be working against students.

Researchers at the RSA Action and Resource Centre in London found that the traditional policy of starting students with no grade to work their way up to a good grade is incompatible with natural brain function.

The research was inspired by principles from the endowment effect, which is a result of what psychologists call “loss aversion.”

Owen Philips, of online publication New American Ed Central, while explaining endowment effect and loss aversion, said, "Researchers conducted a study to find out what people would pay to purchase an ordinary coffee mug. The average offer was $3. The researchers then gave them the same mug for free. When asked how much they would sell the mug for, on average participants said $7. Despite receiving the mug for free, they wanted much more for the mug than they were originally willing to pay for it. Simply possessing the mug induced participants to assign it a higher value.”

Other studies have found that loss is twice as painful for people than the rewards associated with gain. This remains true even when the loss and gain are of the same value, like in the case of the mug.

RSA looked at schools across the U.K. and Germany that used both methods of grading. When applied to students from kindergarten through college, the same held true: students are more successful when they are given an A to hold on to than those with a lower grade to build on.

“Imagine a classroom where everyone started off an academic year with an A grade and in order to keep the grade, a pupil had to show continuous improvement throughout the year,” RSA said about its study on loss aversion in schools. “In this classroom, the teacher would dock points from a pupil’s assessment when performance is inadequate, and pupils would work to maintain their high mark rather than to work up to it. How would this affect effort, expectations, performance, and assessment relative to current practice?”

Starting students with an A isn’t a new revelation for some teachers. For Maggie Tufts, a seventh-grade teacher in Sacramento, California, working within the brain chemistry associated with loss and gain has always proved more successful than expecting students to want something they may have never had and thus don’t understand the value.

Tufts explained in an interview with the Deseret News that she spent the first few years of her 26-year career trying to inspire students to work their way up from the bottom. She said it didn’t work. Students would more often than not become overwhelmed and assumed that they’d never get above a C anyway, so why try? Whereas students given an A were more motivated to maintain it.

“Learning is like any other series of tasks life throws at us,” Tufts said. “It’s easier to stay on top of things than to build something from nothing. Like it’s easier to maintain weight than lose weight or it’s easier to maintain a good car than it is to fix up a clunker.”

Critics of starting students with an A worry that it discourages hard work, but that doesn’t match up with the research. Because our brains naturally want to keep something good, we will naturally work harder to maintain what we have.

“Some students will give up when they feel like the odds are against them,” Tufts said. “But if they feel like they have a fighting chance, they’ll fight.”

EMAIL: nshepard@deseretnews.com TWITTER: @NicoleEShepard

1. Aggie238
Logan, UT,
June 20, 2014

Interesting. Perhaps worth some experimentation.

2. There You Go Again
Saint George, UT,
June 20, 2014

Sort of like starting on third base claiming you did it all yourself when you cross home?

Sounds like anybody the DN reports on weekly?

Who knows?

3. Denverite
Centennial, CO,
June 20, 2014

Hey, it's worth a shot--especially, honestly, in inner-city and urban areas.

My HS English teacher told our honors class after the first essay, "You all got bad grades --because you didn't know what I wanted. So don't worry about 10% of your semester grade being F--because your entire grade for the whole semester will actually be what you get on the last term paper after you've had chances to practice and learn what you need to."

By the end of the term, I think all of us had at least a B--and had gotten much better at writing. I am still grateful to her not because i got an A-, but because her class helped me get jobs as a writer even today.

4. idazut
Riverton, UT,
June 20, 2014

I'm skeptical. Sounds like another fad that will reduce expectations. If an A truly represents exceptional work then average students won't be able to keep it. Having it taken away from them through no fault of their own would be very frustrating. If standards are reduced to the point where average students are able to keep the A then it represents average work not the exceptional work that it should represent. I think the prinsiple of you get what you earn is still the best way to go.

5. DN Subscriber
Cottonwood Heights, UT,
June 20, 2014

Everyone is special. No one will keep score. No one will be criticized. There are no right or wrong answers, about anything.

There, everyone feels good about themselves nos, so let's have a group hug!

Today's "education" system, as modified in response to similar experts and their studies over the last 50 years. With the result that American kids' ability to perform basic skills like reading and math are far below most other countries. But, liberals are happy and that is what counts any more.

Let's just call nonsense, nonsense, and ignore "studies" like this. Instead, set rigorous standards and reward those who meet them and be sure to tell those who do not that they will live a much less profitable or comfortable life.