Who was Ezra Stiles and why does that matter?

22 Jul 2020

For the first seven hundred or so years of schooling and university, there were no grades issued to students. At the end of their university courses, students would be judged by a group of Masters of the university in an oral examination, following which they would either be awarded their degree or not. Many of our community would be familiar with this style of examination, still employed by some universities, particularly prior to the granting of a higher degree.

This all changed 235 years ago, when the then President of Yale University, Ezra Stiles, graded the essays of 58 of his students. 20 Optimi (Best), 16 Secondi Optimi (Second Best), 12 Inferiores Boni (Less Good) and 10 Pejores (Worse). There is no record of how the 10 ‘Pejores’ felt, but this was in all probability the establishment of the four-point scale still used in American universities today in calculating a student’s GPA.

In our technological age, it seems we are now using gradings for all our activities. We just craze a good grading. I know I use a pedometer on my smartphone, checking in regularly to see if I have achieved my 10 000 steps. Our desire for As, for stars, for ‘Likes’ and the buzz of a notification on our smartphones – a constant need for affirmation through gradings and rewards. But is the relentless pursuit of these incentives and rewards actually good for our wellbeing?

External rewards affect our behaviour, often in ways that lead to little or no benefit.

Try these three anagrams. Give yourself 10 seconds for each to rearrange the letters to find the word:




The answers are at the end of this article. Chances are, unless you are a Scrabble enthusiast or really enjoy the anagrams in the in-flight Virgin or Jetstar magazine (which, at the time of writing, most of us would not have seen for a time), in levels of enjoyment, these three words would follow the Goldilocks principle. In a 15 second time frame, the 3-letter word was too easy, the 6-letter word was too difficult, but the 5-letter word was just right. For most people it would be the most enjoyable. Challenging but not impossible, finding the solution would give a sense of satisfaction and maybe generate a smile. A micro-moment of positivity (Fredrickson, 2001).

In a classic research project in which 6thgrade students were presented with an anagram challenge at one of four difficulty levels they were able to decide, children smiled most, in keeping with the Goldilocks principle, when they were solving anagrams with a level of difficulty at the edge of their ability (Harter, 1978). When students were then graded according to their successful solutions of the anagrams, this all changed. When the motivation became to achieve a higher grade, the students chose significantly easier anagrams. Therefore, the students were selecting and responding to problems below their optimal level. They exhibited less pleasure in achieving the task and verbalized greater levels of anxiety. When working for grades, students did worse, felt worse and aimed lower.

An emphasis on grades can become a dangerous obsession that robs students of a sense of joy – the joy that arrives from optimal performance at the edge of our current capability described by Csikszentmihalyias ‘Flow’ (Csikszentmihalyi, 2013). 

Alfie Kohn, a longtime critic of the behaviourist notion that the behaviour of all creatures, including humans, is the consequence of perceived external rewards and punishments (Kohn, 1999)concludes that rewards are used by teachers and parents to try and make students perform rather than authentically engaging students in dealing with questions, problems and projects of intrinsic interest. His research underlines the danger of an emphasis on grades as the outcome of endeavors, arriving at three conclusions. Grades:

  1. Undermine students’ interest in learning. Research comparing students with and without grades looking at the excitement of learning has found a negative effect from grading.
  2. Lead students to try to avoid challenging tasks. If the focus is to get a high grade, then it is more likely that the student will choose the easiest option. A rational response to an irrational situation.
  3. Leads students to think in a more shallow and superficial way. Students are less likely to investigate and challenge legitimacy of an argument or point of view, and more likely to ask if the content of the argument will be assessed and hence act accordingly.

Kohn’s research indicates that, following the removal of all rewards, students spontaneously choose more difficult and challenging tasks. He considers that rewards and punishments are ultimately about control, “Doing to, rather than working with” the individual.

Unlike the world pre-Ezra Stiles, it is difficult now to envision a society that does not give grades and rankings for everything, from how many steps I take in a day to how many serves of fruit and veg I consume to how many ‘likes’ I get in my Instagram post to how well I complete a class task. We would do better, however, from both a wellbeing and an academic perspective if we choose to focus on the journey and the joy of overcoming a challenge, of performing at our individual optimal level, rather than something that is in the control of another, our grades. Our students are far too complex, too precious, to be defined by a statistic.

Anagram Answers: OAK, BRIBE, REWARD


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2013). Flow: The psychology of happiness: Random House.

Fredrickson, B. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology. The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. The American psychologist, 56(3), 218-226. doi:10.1037//0003-066X.56.3.218

Harter, S. (1978). Pleasure Derived from Challenge and the Effects of Receiving Grades on Children's Difficulty Level Choices. Child development, 49(3), 788. doi:10.2307/1128249

Kohn, A. (1999). Punished by rewards: The trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A's, praise, and other bribes: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.