In the first chapter of their 2018 book, The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt argue that a distinctive feature of many modern, wealthy cultures is a broadened impulse to protect young people from difficulties. From advising parents to keep peanuts away from young children to the “trigger warnings” placed on university course syllabuses, the authors trace this impulse from overly-protective childrearing practices all the way to college campuses.
They contend, however, that the underlying premise of this “safteyism” is the “fundamental untruth” that young people are fragile. Instead, they agree with the iconoclastic financial guru Nassim Nicholas Taleb that young people manifest “antifragility,” which means that they can benefit from life’s stresses. The antifragile aren’t just durable or resilient, like a glass that doesn’t chip when you drop it; they actually get stronger from being tested. It follows, say Lukianoff and Haidt, that shielding young people from difficulties and discomforts—whether peanut butter or Charles Murray—can make them weaker in the end.
The implication of the fragility thesis is that students who face disappointments or disadvantages will be worse off in the long run. Of course, the magnitude and number of stressors and setbacks matters greatly, and Taleb distinguishes between “acute” and “chronic stressors,” the latter of which can “make you feel trapped in life.” Education commentators often deem students too fragile to cope with rigorous standardized tests or the negative feedback that comes from honest grading or even feedback given in red pen. (For what it’s worth, Taleb himself lists “exam pressures” on students as a chronic stressor.) Yet a new study of high school students in Denmark suggests the opposite. It finds that, even in the face of an arbitrary and unfair disadvantage, students can rise to the occasion, redouble their efforts, and come out stronger in the end.
In this study, the researchers cleverly exploit an idiosyncrasy in a 2007 reform of Danish course grading whereby some students lost points when a new grading scale was introduced and previous grades had to be converted to the new scale. Denmark’s grading systems are points-based (rather than the A-to-F scale that most American schools use), but the point values changed in some odd ways as the system shifted from a 13-point scale to a 7-point scale. The following example is instructive:
[A] student with grades 5, 5, 6, 11, and 13 on the old scale would have his or her GPA transformed from 8.0 to 5.2, while a student with grades 3, 5, 10, 11, and 11 would have his or her GPA transformed from 8.0 to 6.8.
In other words, two students with the exact same GPA on the old scale could have substantially different GPAs on the new scale. Using some additional controls, the researchers can then isolate the impact of getting re-assigned an arbitrarily lower GPA on students’ later behavior and outcomes. Since Denmark uses high school GPA to determine college admissions, the reform had real impact on students’ educational prospects.
The analysts found that students whose grades were arbitrarily lowered worked harder, earned better grades, and learned more. A one standard deviation downgrade in GPA was associated with an 8 percent of a standard deviation GPA increase in later years. Interestingly, this seems not to have been just students gaming the system by taking easy classes or “grade grubbing” their teachers to improve their GPAs, because the same students improved on other academic measures, as well. Those students whose grades were lowered had higher scores on national standardized exams, were more likely to enroll in college, and were more likely to graduate from college within six years of finishing high school. Recall that since GPA is large factor in college admissions, students whose GPAs arbitrarily fell were put at an artificial disadvantage for college admissions, and yet these students are even more likely to get a degree than students who didn’t face that disadvantage.
None of the student subgroups the researchers examined experienced statistically significant negative effects from having their GPAs artificially lowered, but the positive effects were not consistent for all types of students. Most importantly, the overall results are driven by girls, who experienced larger positive effects than boys. The effects were also stronger for students who had higher middle school GPAs, presumably because they were, on average, more motivated to attend a university.
This isolation of the positive impact of harsher grading builds on other work that has shown that students learn more when assigned to teachers who are tough graders, but in those studies, the mechanism was less clear. An article by David Figlio from 2004 showed that elementary students learned more when assigned to teachers less likely to award good grades, and a recent Fordham report by Seth Gershenson found similar results for high school students in North Carolina. Among college students, a 2010 study by Philip Babcock found that students spend more time studying in courses where they expect lower grades. In the Denmark study, the effect of harsher grading is completely separated from the quality of the teachers or the difficulty of the courses, yet when faced with this setback, students responded by working harder.
The implication for educators is that they must instill in students the understanding that a setback—even an unfair negative change to their grades—is not something that will break them. In other words, educators must teach students that they aren’t fragile, but antifragile.
SOURCE: Hvidman, Ulrik, and Hans Henrik Sievertsen. “High-Stakes Grades and Student Behavior.” Journal of Human Resources (2019).