Psychology Today: Inverse Relationship Between Grades and Innovation

In school, grades are king

From very early on in our education, we’re taught that the measure of success is in our grades. If you want to get into a good college or University, have the most opportunities, and get the best job, you need good grades. There’s no getting around it, and students are taught that not only is a lot riding on their test scores, but that there is only so much opportunity to succeed out there.

“At every corner you are told that simply learning and doing your absolute best is not good enough. Instead of the focus being on learning the material and growing through experiences you are told that what you are doing is worthless unless you can beat other students.”

– Student

Students are more stressed about their grades than ever before, buying into the sense of competition that begins with ranked grade lists in middle school and continues to the honour roll in high school and the Dean’s List in university. This competition for the top rank, based on apparently objective measures, is ostensibly designed to encourage students to work hard, and help us to measure the potential of our best and brightest. It is supposed to tell us who our best and brightest are.

But are grades the right measure of success beyond school?

Grades are a good measure of how well you can reach the same conclusion as the teacher. If you’re looking for people who can follow directions, colour inside the lines, and deliver exactly what is expected, grades are a great way to find them. As Sir Ken Robinson points out in his famous TED Talk, our current school system was designed for the First Industrial Revolution, where convergent thinking and following directions were paramount to workplace success. Now, in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the skills and attributes that people need to succeed have changed. A lot.

“Ironically and tragically, rather than adapt our educational system to the needs of our modern times we have doubled down on the old system, so it is harder today than ever before for young people to retain and build upon their natural curiosity and creativity.”

– Peter Gray Ph.D.

We’re now looking 21st Century Skills in the workplace, for people who are innovative, empathetic, and good at learning new things. More and more, we’re looking for divergent thinkers, for people who are looking for new ways of doing things. Since grades don’t measure those traits or skills well, Google is just one of a number of big companies that has declared GPAs worthless as hiring criteria. Laszlo Bock, Google’s SVP of People Operations, said that based on his experience in school, the academic environment is not creating the kind of thinkers that we need today.

“One of my own frustrations when I was in college and grad school is that you knew the professor was looking for a specific answer. You could figure that out, but it’s much more interesting to solve problems where there isn’t an obvious answer. You want people who like figuring out stuff where there is no obvious answer.”

– Laszlo Block,, SVP of People Operations, Google

We continue to push students towards high grades in order to prove their potential, but an NYU study says that a high GPA is not only not an indicator of success, it’s actually inversely correlated with one of the most important 21st Century Skills: Innovation.

Good Grades = Bad Innovation Orientation

This study surveyed over 10,000 university students from the United States, Canada, Germany, and Qatar across a wide range of fields of study. While innovation itself is hard to measure, this study sought to understand the innovation intentions of the students. They were trying to understand which students wanted to innovate and create something new in their future careers.

The study found that a student’s desire to innovate can be increased by faculty members who form relationships with their students, who encourage problem-solving and argument development in class. Peer networking is also a positive factor in terms of encouraging innovation. But your GPA? The lower your GPA, the more likely you are to want to innovate, to create something new. The higher your GPA, the lower the innovation intention.

Why aren’t good students good innovators?

Findings indicate that innovators are more likely to be intrinsically motivated; they don’t need to be rewarded by others to go after something that they believe is meaningful or interesting. Grades, on the other hand, are an external motivator. Students who are competing for that top spot or highest score might not be as good at putting in work on something that they don’t know will lead to a reward. Not having a clear picture of what success looks like or how to game the system to get that highest score can make innovation and entrepreneurship less appealing for people who are motivated by grades and high GPAs.

While this NYU study isn’t ready to support the Thiel Fellowship, which gives students money to drop out of school and become entrepreneurs, it does emphasize that schools and educators can change the way they teach to encourage more innovation, because at the end of the day, that’s what we’re going to need. By encouraging debate and discussion, offering open-ended assignments, and increasing opportunities for self-directed learning and peer collaboration, our classrooms could help to foster more innovative thinkers.

Read more about this study and ideas here!

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