Will you do my homework for a dollar? This is a question one fifth grader asked another recently. The second fifth grader agreed, and all was well until the parents found out.

As one of the  parents, I was horrified.  My child abetted another student in undermining the learning process; what kind of parent and teacher am I? Payment for academic labor, how awful! Where is the joyful purity of the intellectual pursuit, the intrinsic motivation, the desire to learn for the sake of learning?

Then I thought a little and and realized something. I pay my students all the time.  I pay them in a commodity other than cash — points leading to grades.

Turns out the arrangement those fifth graders made wasn’t so outlandish.

Points are academic currency, the foundation of the standard educational economy. On one level their accumulation supposedly measures learning, but on another level, they are a way teachers pay students to learn or at least engage in behavior that looks like learning.

What the Point-Based Economy Looks Like

Consider the following:

  1. A student goes home tired after practice but then stays up late to do homework. The teacher pays the student in points, a homework grade, for doing so.
  2. A student struggles with a mathematical concept, seeing a teacher for help and doing a series of review problems. The teacher pays the student in points on the chapter test.
  3. A student contributes to class discussion. The teacher pays the student in participation points.
  4. A student remembers to bring a required book to class every day. The student avoids a fine, lost class preparedness points.
  5. A student holes up in their room all weekend, skipping homecoming,  to finish a research paper. The student avoids a fine, a lateness deduction from the paper’s grade.

Taking the connection further, think about student behavior in this universe of points.  Often they can see the points add up in a class’s electronic gradebook, so they check the totals the way I might check my checking account balance. Can they afford an indulgence, spending time with friends rather than studying for the next test?

Parents, too, check the totals and then add additional awards from praise, to cash, to, in grandiose cases, a new car. It’s like a gigantic game show. Earn enough points, get the tropical vacation and the Porsche. Fail to earn enough points, thanks for playing, here is your parting gift, off-brand luggage.

At the end of the semester, points become grades. Low enough grades, students can wind up on academic probation. They need to get more points next semester to stay in the game. Accumulate enough points, earn high enough grades, and they win trips to exotic destinations destinations like Advanced Placement classes or the Cum Laude Society.

However, the big payoff comes at the end, the final round.  The grades add and divide to become a GPA, which colleges examine. The colleges then decide whether the student has earned the ultimate reward, admission to a prestigious school and the indubitably excellent life that will result.

Spun this way, the  system sounds horrible, a kind of mercenary maze full of frantic mice constantly scurrying to make the right moves and acquire a large supply of gourmet cheese.

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What Points Cost

Looking at things from another perspective, however,  this points-based educational economy does produce some seemingly positive outcomes. In this system, students do what they are supposed to do: complete homework, read books, pass tests, write polished papers, finish projects and more. Students learn to follow rules, be responsible, and meet expectations.

Those behaviors sound positive, but are they really? Consider the following issues:

Engagement:  In the point economy, whether or not to complete a task is not a matter of interest; it’s a matter of payment. Consider the example of the reading rewards program that gives students pizza for reading books. The students grow to love pizza but not books and may not read without pizza being in the offing. To quote educational theorist Alfie Kohn “The more kids see books as a way to get pizza or some other prize, the less interest they’ll have in reading itself.”

Originality: The point economy creates a box in which rule-following is essential. Students must read assignments and rubrics carefully to make sure they follow every rule and get every point. In this point based economy, the one in which I teach, students live in fear of lost points. They show up at my office asking sheepishly if taking a risk in their writing might lead to the dreaded 7/10 in “Grammar and Mechanics.”

Ethics:  In some ways students can learn to be innovative problem solvers within the point economy, but the system is fundamentally amoral. In this world, one avoids cheating because cheating could lead to a loss of points and a lower grade.  Are the benefits of the 95/100 on a plagiarized English paper greater than the risks of being caught? It depends on how badly the student needs the points.

The Future: What happens after a student gets the points, and then the grades, and then the college admission offer? They might thrive in the world outside school, seamlessly shifting from accumulating points to making money. Then again they might flounder. After years of chasing points in a carefully calibrated system,  what happens in the messy reality of the open-ended universe? Take the mouse out of the maze and see the mouse tremble unsure of what to do to get the cheese.

Stress: The point economy is a Darwinistic universe where the fittest get the most points. Comparisons are constant. The question always are who got what, who is moving ahead and who is falling behind. Tread water and your peers swim by you, so just keep swimming, and swimming, and swimming.

What We Can Do About It

Despite the above hyperbolic condemnation, I do teach in this points-based economy at the moment, and I really hope I am not creating classrooms full of obedient mice with uncertain futures.

But change is scary. As long as I have been in schools, first as a student and then as a teacher, the point economy is one in which I have lived. Points can be an  educational Swiss Army Knife, a tool that while not optimal, can get the job done in many situations.

In the past I put a point total on everything from bringing a book to class to avoiding grammar errors, from highlighting at least one passage a page to identifying a quotation on a test.

Now, I am backing away from points especially on small assignments. As I suspected, I have found that work gets done and gets done more thoughtfully with this change.  Students still read assignments, but no one self-identifies as a bad reader after missing the facts I chose to put on the quiz.

Next up competency based, point-free feedback on essays. My colleagues tell me this system leads to students actually reading the comments rather than just looking at a point total and then mourning or celebrating their earnings.

It may take many years, and much trial and error, but If students are truly going to be intrinsically motivated learners, ethical citizens and most of all healthy human beings, they must see success as something that cannot be measured by tallying total points.

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Andrew Cleminshaw

Andrew Cleminshaw

I graduated Amherst College in 1992 with a double major in English and History. Since then I have taught at schools from Guam to California to Ohio and along the way earned an MA in Liberal Arts from St. John’s College. While I enjoy some level of suffering as a long distance runner, I work to make sure suffering is not part of the educational system.