ECR Projects

Explore past and current fundamental STEM education research projects across the three research areas that NSF's EDU Core Research (ECR) program funds, as well as across ECR funding types. Other search filters draw from both NSF's data and the ECR Hub's hand coding of award abstracts.

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STEM Learning and Learning Environments STEM Learning and Learning Environments  

Evaluating the Effect of Alternative Grading Strategies on Goal Orientation, Motivation, Self-Efficacy, and Content Learning

Effective Years: 2023-2026

Increasingly, STEM educators seek alternatives to traditional grading strategies out of a concern that traditional ways of evaluating student work can undermine meaningful learning. For example, when professors assign points to assignments, students’ goals shift to achieving a high score instead of learning the content and skills provided in the course. Furthermore, grading has also been linked consistently with lower internal motivation, increased anxiety, and decreased self-awareness about levels of knowledge and skill. Alternative grading strategies have the potential to remove the harmful effect of grades by relying on clear mastery standards of specific learning outcomes, helpful feedback, and opportunity of reassessment without penalty. According to the theory of goal orientation, these features should shift students’ goals from performance (e.g., “I perform this task to do well in the course”) to mastery (e.g., “I perform this task because it helps me learn”). Although there are multiple reports that alternative grading efforts have a positive effect on motivation and risk taking, and there is a growing community of alternative grading advocates, evidence of the effect of alternative grading strategies on motivational beliefs, self-awareness and academic performance is scarce. It is especially important to study the effects of alternative grading in institutions with a high proportion of underrepresented students who could benefit the most from experiencing learning environments that promote these mindsets and skills. This project aims to explore whether adopting an alternative grading in college courses increases students’ mastery goal orientation, in turn affecting motivation, self-awareness, and content learning. This project is important because it has the potential to inform research-driven curriculum changes to high enrollment courses with the objective of decreasing student attrition in high-enrollment, Biology courses.

This project is designed to explore how course grade structure affects students’ goal orientations, course motivation, metacognitive skills, and content learning. To do this, the researchers will focus on two high enrollment courses- General Biology II (lower division) and a Genetics course (upper division) at Florida International University (FIU), a Hispanic Serving institution. Two paired experiments that will compare sections with alternative grading structure with graded sections of each course will be performed to address five research questions. First, researchers will use a quantitative methods approach to measure students’ goal orientations and motivation at the beginning, middle and end of the courses. This experiment will address whether an alternative grading structure influences students’ goal orientation and whether there is a relationship between goal orientation and students’ motivation to perform class assignments. Second, researchers will apply an instrument to measure content knowledge and self-efficacy at the beginning and end of the courses. Structural equation modeling will be used to determine if content knowledge and self-efficacy improve in courses with alternative grading. Finally, researchers will determine whether under-prepared students are differentially affected by an alternative grading structure by using the data collected during both experiments and apply measures of educational preparation to determine if this variable improves model fit to the data. This is one of the first studies that addresses whether alternative grading structures have an impact on mastery goal orientations in students. Although, it is widely accepted that grades have a negative effect on internal motivation, anxiety, self-regulated learning, and content learning, it has been hard to prove that the absence of grades has the opposite effect. Goal orientation theory could explain why some students fail to benefit from an ungraded structure. This research will enhance our understanding of how pedagogy affects goal orientations in under-prepared students. Results can inform faculty in their course design to incorporate practices that can benefit students that need it the most.

The project is supported by NSF’s EDU Core Research Building Capacity in STEM Education Research (ECR: BCSER) program, which is designed to build investigators’ capacity to carry out high-quality STEM education research.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.