Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Step 3: Explore Strategies

Explore potential strategies.

Students complain about grades.

Students perceive themselves as “A” students, regardless of performance.

Sometimes students hold fixed beliefs about their abilities or intelligence that equate certain qualities with their identity, e.g., being a smart person or an ‘A’ student. These beliefs lead students to assume that they will always perform well, regardless of their effort and even in the face of evidence to the contrary. Indeed, such beliefs about learning and intelligence can affect the learning behaviors students engage in (e.g., giving little time to prepare for an assignment or exam because they believe they are “good at this subject”). However, not engaging in appropriate learning behaviors ultimately detracts from the quality of their performance. When such students receive a grade that is poor (or simply sub-par relative to their self-perceptions), they may resort to questioning the grade or grading process rather than re-evaluating their own performance, abilities, or approach.


Explain/show the value of effort.

If students believe that their innate qualities produce results rather than their efforts, they may not recognize the benefits of time well spent. Giving examples or sharing stories in which effort pays off may help push students to adjust their beliefs (and put in effort where it is actually needed and warranted).

Give feedback on students’ processes and growth.

Design assignments that have built-in opportunities for multiple submissions and ongoing feedback. In this way, students can see how their work is improving over time or how their skills have developed.

Explain to students that “A” is not an innate quality but a
performance assessment.

Students may believe themselves to be “A” students primarily because they have  a consistent history of obtaining high grades. First year students may especially be prone to this if they had straight A’s in high school. In those cases, students may naturally have built their identities around getting good grades. So, explaining to students that a grade is not an evaluation of their self but rather an assessment of a specific performance given at a specific point in time can help them understand that a poor grade is not an indictment of their character/identity.

Use rubrics.

Having a clear performance standard makes it easier to justify how students’ grades were derived. Performance rubrics help students understand your expectations for performance (i.e., what qualities you value and what levels of performance are required to attain a particular grade). While creating a high-quality rubric can involve an initial investment of time, instructors who have developed good rubrics generally find that they expedite the grading process and provide students with information they can use. Besides employing a performance rubric to grade students’ work, it is also important to share the rubric with students, so they can see the descriptions of different levels of performance.

Emphasize that learning and intelligence is incremental.

Entering into a discussion with students about the nature of intelligence (i.e., that intelligence is not an innate quality, that we can think of the brain as a muscle, etc.) can help them develop a new way of thinking about themselves as learners. Some research has shown that teaching students that intelligence is incremental can have a powerful effect on students’ beliefs as well as their subsequent behaviors.

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