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Is predicting grades a waste of time?

Is predicting grades a waste of time?

4 min read
  • The science of learning

The vast majority of schools spend time (and money) on predicting how their students will do over the coming years. But is there any point in doing this and, most interestingly, are we any good at it?

We are poor predictors of how talent will develop

In 2007, The Daily Mail rounded up its chief sports reporters and challenged them to predict who would make up the future England football team ten years later. Their results were:

The Daily Mail's prediction of a future England football team.

As you can see, they weren’t even close. Only one or two of these players ever played for England. Most of the others didn’t. What is remarkable, is that the vast majority of the players selected are now not even playing at a level anywhere near international football. It appears that when it comes to guessing how talent will develop in the future, tossing a coin could be more accurate.

We are poor predictors of future behaviour

Several studies have found that human beings are terrible at predicting future behaviour. One study found that people tend to be overly optimistic at guessing how long it takes to complete a piece of work, whereas others found that people are more likely to inaccurately positively predict their own future behaviour. Simply put, we tend to view the future with rose tinted glasses.

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We are seduced by natural talent

Despite many of us stating that we endorse a growth mindset and really value people putting in effort, research suggests that we are often seduced by people we think of as being ‘naturally talented’. This natural talent bias leads to a belief that people who are effortlessly brilliant will go on to achieve better things than those that work hard and really strive for their success.

We don’t know talent when we see it

Think you know talent when you see it? Guess again. Evidence from the Education Data lab has found that how students do in primary school is very closely correlated to the month that they were born in. In fact, students born at the start of the school year were over 20% more likely to do well than those born in the summer months. It seems that what we think of as ‘smart’ or ‘talented’ in early years, may well just be age and maturity.

There is an opportunity cost

The term ‘Opportunity Cost’ relates to the concept that for each thing someone does, it means there is something else they can’t do. Each minute spent on predicting student grades is sixty seconds not doing something else. Like helping them learn how to get better. Or sorting out behaviour management policies. 

This is not to say there is no value in predicting grades. In theory, these can be used to track progress and ensure that students are getting the right level of support. However, the downside is that they can be used as a stick to beat teachers with if students don’t meet these levels. And as evidence above, given the lack of accuracy on predicting how people do in the future, this may be a shaky foundation from which to build upon.

Confusing predictive grades with high expectations

There is a wealth of research out there that highlights how having high expectations can help students perform. This is known as the Pygmalion Effect. However, having high predictive grades is not the only (or maybe even the best) way to convey these high expectations. Check out our blogs on aspirations and expectations and high expectations for more. 

Helping students believe that they can improve and learn new things is one strategy (especially in traditionally challenging subjects). Giving them concrete feedback on what to do next is another. Having belief ourselves that every student can achieve more than what they are currently displaying is also beneficial to pupil progress.

Final thought

Tracking progress, having high expectations and spending a little bit of time predicting what students will achieve are all good things. However, the limitations of trying to predict future grades, especially ones that are well into the future is challenging. As humans, we all suffer from a number of biases which make this difficult. If too much time is spent on it, it may eat into time that could be spent on things that we can do more accurately and that will have more impact on student learning.

Check out our guide on how to develop a Growth Mindset if you want to know more.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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