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Arianne Cohen: Focusing on your kid's grades could backfire

Arianne Cohen, on

Published in Home and Consumer News

Especially now, grades-obsession can lead to cheating; talk about learning

It’s been a rough year for authentic learning. High school and college cheating levels are skyrocketing — or, at least, more professionals are looking for cheating and finding it. “I’ve seen 100-200% increases,” says psychology professor David Rettinger, who is director of academic integrity programs at the University of Mary Washington. “There are a lot more reports of student academic misconduct.”

This is not surprising. When students feel the odds are stacked against them, they do not respond with heartfelt engagement and honesty. “If students don’t think that it’s possible to learn something, or they think the situation is inherently unfair, they say, ‘Well, it’s not reasonable to expect me to do the work fairly because the situation is unfair,’” Rettinger says.

Cue shortcuts and low learning. Hollering, “Just learn it, dammit!” will not help, nor improve your household relationships. But you can bring students back to deep learning by harnessing motivational psychology in their favor with these tricks:

—Encourage learning plans. The first step is to talk through how a student will learn, practice and study in each course this year. “When students don’t feel that they’re able to study and get the grades they want, they’re not gonna do it,” Rettinger says. So connect the dots for them, allowing them to see exactly how they’ll succeed. In psychology lingo, this encourages “self-efficacy.”

—Define success as ‘your best.’ If your expectation is straight As, say goodbye to deep learning. During a pandemic, this means letting some things slide, says high school and college political science teacher Jeremy Adams, author of “Hollowed Out: A Warning About America’s Next Generation.” “My son is usually a straight-A student, but he didn’t like taking tests on a computer last year. And so I said to him, ‘Just so you know, if you don’t get As, it’s not gonna bother me, as long as you try your best.’” With older kids, this means emphasizing that an education — not a diploma — is what leads to a good career and life. Pushing external motivators like GPA, admission at specific colleges and honor society all discourage deep learning.


—Praise process. When they do their best work, be proud. For real. “If parents can’t figure that out, their kids won’t figure it out,” Rettinger says. For Type A parents, spewing this gospel can feel like cosplay, so I’ll tell you exactly what questions to ask when a low grade appears: What was your process? Did you do your best? What could you have done differently? Is there anything else you could have done to demonstrate your understanding of this work to your teacher? Discuss. You can do it.

—Equate intellectual struggle with grit. Truth time: You don’t really care if your kid learns physics. He doesn’t care either. You both know he’ll never use it. So what exactly is your position on this? Repeat after me: “Buddy, what matters here is that when the going gets tough, you don’t take the easy way out. If you want to be a successful (kid’s dream job), you’re going to have to learn to get through intellectual adversity.” When that reasoning gets stale, try, “Intellectual challenge is something we handle every day in our lives. For example, just last week I…” When you’re really at a loss, push “appreciation” of the broader subject.

It’s common for kids to behave studiously in favored classes, and then blow off or cheat in the classes they don’t care about. Rettinger says that cheating rates tend to be higher in required core classes. With that in mind, you can never go wrong helping students to genuinely enjoy material, perhaps with documentaries or field trips or podcasts. Adams does this in his classes. “Maybe I’m naive, but I really believe that I can get most of my students to enjoy the learning that we’re doing,” he says.

And don’t worry. This strategy will pay off in grades, because healthfully engaged kids do better in school and suffer less stress and anxiety, Rettinger says. “The more you focus on the process of learning and personal growth through education, the better the outcome ultimately is — and cheating becomes beside the point.”

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