Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Are Grades Stifling Creativity?

We’ve all been graded on our work for what seems like forever. But are grades hindering our ability to think creatively? Recently, the argument has been made that they are.

According to a 2002 study done at the University of Michigan, 80% of the students surveyed based their self-worth on academic performance. On top of this, students said that they were less willing to take on challenging tasks when there were grades involved, for fear of receiving a poor grade. Students who get good grades are regarded as intelligent, even though some of the brightest kids don’t necessarily get the best grades.

Because of these fears and the pressure to get good grades, students are unwilling to be creative. Creativity is stifled by harsh guidelines and rubrics. Rather than feeling comfortable stepping out of the box, students feel stifled and stuck.

All of this has to do with intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. Studies, including the ones mentioned by Collins and Amabile in the article “Motivation and Creativity,” have found just how important intrinsic motivation is to creativity. Grades create extrinsic motivation, with students working primarily to meet certain requirements and, ultimately, to earn a good grade. However, studies on creativity have shown that high levels of intrinsic motivation, combined with relatively low levels of extrinsic motivation, can help people be less susceptible to pressures to perform, so they are able to perform more creatively. When high levels of extrinsic motivators are present, people lose the desire to be more creative and explore different possibilities.

Intrinsic/extrinsic motivators can also transfer to the workplace. It is argued that management often stifles creativity because they focus too much on extrinsic motivators, rather than looking on what individuals need in order to perform creatively and become innovators. If managers focus too much on things like goals and evaluations, it can add too much bad pressure on employees, and discourage creative thinking.

Overall, it is possible that grades hinder our ability to think creatively. When assignments have very stringent guidelines, it is difficult to think outside the box, so to speak. This can transfer into the workplace, with too many extrinsic motivators limiting our ability to innovate and come up with creative solutions to problems.

Collins, M.A., & Amabile, T.M. (1999). Motivation and creativity. In Robert J. Sternberg (Ed.) Handbook of Creativity. New York: Cambridge University Press.


  1. Interesting post! What you wrote really connects with studies that we looked at in class. When we discussed a study in which a task to create a piece of art was assigned to a group of people who were told it would be judged by a panel and a separate group that were told there was no end goal to the project. The group that had no end goal produced more creative works because they are not worried about judgement or the pressure of creativity. The same logic applies to what you described about the negative effects of grades!

  2. I tend to agree with this idea that stringent grading negatively impacts students' creativity in the classroom. Some people have issues with this idea, however, because it is possible that too lenient of an environment takes away all extrinsic motivation and the desire to participate at all. Does this theory work better in some areas of study (such as the arts) than others (such as math or biology)? And does an increase in creative thinking correlate to a successful education? If so, school systems should focus on finding the right balance between grading scales and leniency to maximize students' potential.

  3. This is a topic that has been debated in my hometown's school district for some time now, particularly concerning uniforms and whether those would help grades while also stifling creativity, so it's interesting that you were able to connect it to class discussions as I've never thought of it in these terms before. I would have to agree that grades stifle creativity and we especially see this in state testing and in AP testing when we know that the people reading our tests want specific answers and that its hard to step out of the bounds with this. I know that during one of my three SATs that I took (not a good decision) I answered the writing portion using Gossip Girl as reference, trying to stick out and be different, but I think that may have hindered me instead of helped.

    I also like that you mentioned workplaces as well! I think especially in the adult world it is very extrinsic and because of that a lot of people lose interest in their jobs which is sad! That's personally why I love working at Felice's (shameless plug) because it is student run and it encourages artisans to try new things and come up with new recipes and such! We're more intrinsically motivated to come up with a fun new product and less extrinsically motivated to meet high standards and evaluations. Awesome connection!

  4. I found your post extremely interesting. I have definitely wondered over the years how grades impact creativity and a student's self-worth. Personally, I put a lot of pressure on my self to do well in school, and I am one hundred percent a perfectionist. At times, I definitely feel I'm less willing to take risks and be creative for the fear of making a mistake. I do think schools should focus less on the extrinsic motivation of grades. After all, a huge part of learning is making mistakes, but with the pressure of earning good grades, it can not only hinder creativity but also the learning process. However, I do think it would be difficult to shift away from the more traditional grading scales in the education system. Also, I wonder how exactly a change would be implemented for all subjects not just the arts and humanities but also math and the hard sciences.


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