Student Wonders About Grades and Motivation

By Sylvia Rimm

March 19, 2014 5 min read

Q: I am a sixth-grader, and in my class, we have a research project. My topic is, "Do grades affect the way students want to learn?"

I was pleased by all the information that your book "Why Bright Kids Get Poor Grades: And What You Can Do About It" brought me. I would like your help in answering some of my questions. I was curious about when you were younger. Were grades motivating and helpful for you, or were grades demotivating? The primary focus of my research is to figure out if grades do affect a student's academic performance.

In the section of your book called "Grades and Rewards," you said children will work hard if they believe they can achieve grades, however, others may think their hard work will not get them good grades. I was curious about that idea and thought for a long time about, but I still don't get it. I was hoping you could help me understand.

Thank you in advance for your time and response!

A: You are asking a very deep question that I only can answer briefly, but I'll try to help you understand how students are motivated. Motivation is mainly divided into two parts — intrinsic and extrinsic.

Intrinsic motivation means that people want to learn for the interest or love of learning. So, for example, if you're fascinated with knowing about the planets, or you love to learn about animals, grades are unimportant to that love. Teachers try their best to engage children and encourage them to become interested in learning.

Not all subjects that children must learn are intrinsically interesting. For example, handwriting, phonics, math facts, spelling and grammar are not intrinsically interesting to most children. Extrinsic rewards need to be used when intrinsic interests don't motivate them. Praise, stars, stickers and grades are extrinsic rewards that we use to motivate children. Developmentally, children usually want to please their parents and teachers if they can, and good grades and praise are effective for helping them learn. If children feel the connection between their efforts and grades, they will work hard for those good grades and continue to learn the foundational skills they require for higher-level learning. If their grades come without effort, they assume that smart kids shouldn't have to make an effort, and when the work becomes more difficult, they assume they must not be smart enough and sometimes give up, becoming underachievers. Many regroup and realize that with maturity, more is expected of them. They learn to work harder and continue to achieve.

Achieving children set reasonably high expectations. Underachievers set expectations that are too high or too low. If they set them too high, they find themselves disappointed and give up. If they set them too low, you don't accomplish much. Creativity and social skills also count. Brilliance without hard work brings very discouraging results.

You've asked specifically about my childhood experience. I usually earned very good grades, but there were a few times I remember being disappointed. I would regroup and study harder most of the time. In my college math class, I earned a B- after working very hard, so I decided I wasn't smart enough for math. I laugh at that now. I shouldn't have given up that easily, but I assumed, like many others, that girls just couldn't do math, even after having been an A math student in high school.

For free newsletters about getting "A's For Effort," and/or "Learning to Cope With Competition," send a self-addressed, stamped envelope for each newsletter and a note with your topic request to the address below. Dr. Sylvia B. Rimm is the director of the Family Achievement Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, a clinical professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, and the author of many books on parenting. More information on raising kids is available at Please send questions to: Sylvia B. Rimm on Raising Kids, P.O. Box 32, Watertown, WI 53094 or [email protected] To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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