29 January 2015

Arguments for giving marks early are often about being motivational for all students. But this doesn’t add up. Instead, early marks can have the opposite effect on certain groups of students. This has been shown by researchers from institutions including Linköping University.

betyg“We find no support for early marks yielding better study results. If we are to argue seriously with a school on a scientific basis, there are clear results showing that we should be careful with lowering the age for marks,” says Magnus Hultén.

Together with colleagues from Örebro University, Södertörn University, and the University of Gothenburg, he reviewed 6,000 scientific outlines, 500 articles and some 40 theses dealing with marks. The group also conducted international comparisons.

Negative impact

The results show that early marks in general do not yield better study results, but that it can have certain positive effects for high-performing students – who usually are girls and older students. For low-performing students, boys, and younger students, early marks on the other hand lead to negative developments in their learning.

“What I find surprising about the results is that marks don’t serve as a carrot for any group of students. And it’s in terms of motivation that people usually talk about early marks. Good students simply know they’re good; getting validation in the form of early marks doesn’t increase their motivation. For low-performing students, early marks reinforce their poor self-image. For them, early marks are more of a death blow. It’s often these students who leave school without a diploma,” Mr Hultén says.

The results also show that standardised tests, for example national examinations or the scholastic aptitude test, are considered more reliable than the teacher’s assessment. This approach is a dilemma since, in reality, the marks the teacher gives over a longer period better show the student’s capacity and motivation to conclude their studies.

No PISA effects

Nor can researchers find any link between PISA results and the age at which students receive marks. The only thing they found is that external tests such as the national examination, seem to be able to contribute something to increased results in the PISA, even if the effect is marginal. It therefore seems that students with certain test-taking habits have an advantage in PISA studies.

Instead of early marks, there are significantly more effective ways of providing feedback to students so that they can go further. To a great extent, this is bound up with the teachers, the study shows. The teachers must have tools they can use in assessing students’ knowledge that they themselves perceive as meaningful for the pedagogical process. They must also be able to continue their own training as regards marks and assessment; in teacher training, marks and assessment should also be a clear element.

The research overview was produced on commission from the Swedish Research Council prior to the start-up of Skolforskningsinstitutet, the new school research institute.