Making the grade

Grades are far from critical.

by Trent M. Kays

In terms of frivolous lawsuits, the case of the graduate student suing her professor for a better grade must be on a special pedestal.

Megan Thode, a graduate student at Lehigh University, received a C-plus grade for one of her courses. This grade prevented her from continuing her chosen master’s program, and she was forced to graduate with a different M.A. degree. She argued that she lost out on $1.3 million in potential wages, and as such, she had to sue her professor for not giving her the appropriate grade.

This sort of lawsuit not only bogs down the legal system, it represents a woefully present sense of entitlement. It’s understandable that a graduate student who normally receives As or Bs as grades would be upset upon receiving a C-plus. Graduate school is a place where often the best of the best go, and if you’re used to getting As, then you expect them. However, the transitory nature of the grade is oddly juxtaposed against the goal of learning. We have to ask ourselves: Is a lower-than-expected grade an opportunity to complain or an opportunity for retrospection?

Both as a student and teacher, I understand the importance of grades within the higher education system. That is to say, I understand the role they play. I do not, however, understand why the chokehold of arbitrary letters masquerading as assessment continues in the 21st century. I always consider our system slightly more enlightened. But, my disappointment abounds.

Regardless, the issue of suing a professor for the grade one wants is ludicrous. There are instances of grading errors or complaints against professors, and those instances are normally handled through the grade appeal channel at the university level. There is a process, and for better or worse, the process normally works. By the time the grade appeal reaches the upper administration level, probably more than ten independent individuals have looked over said appeal and offered an opinion. This is not a process that is taken lightly; it is a serious process for serious accusations and appeals.

While sympathetic to Thode’s predicament, no one is entitled to a grade they don’t deserve. In this case, a judge threw out Thode’s lawsuit, so her frivolousness will not clog the legal system anymore. Yet, this issue has elucidated the ridiculous nature of our evaluation systems.

It’s important to note that assessment and grading are different things. These things are often convoluted and lumped together, but they represent two distinctive ways of thinking. Assessment is the act of looking at a body of work, understanding the strengths and weaknesses of said work and making an outline of improvement available. Grading is the act of assigning a concrete and static value to a body of work. The static nature of the grade is what irks many, including myself.

What is an A? Does an A mean you showed up every day and passively listened to the instructor? That you did your work and turned it in on time? The problem arises out of the subjectivity surrounding letter grades. I most certainly believe that everything is subjective and objectivity is a myth we sell ourselves to justify our perspectives, but in the case of letter grades, there are few things more subjective.

Moreover, letter grades perpetuate an understanding that learning ends. It is the stopping of a course of learning, and it provides a reason to those involved to wash their hands of the course. Yet, in many courses, instructors declare that learning is a process and students shouldn’t worry about their grades. This is easy for instructors to say because they aren’t the ones whose academic career lives or dies based on a grade.

Perhaps most troubling is that many instructors will adamantly suggest they only want students to understand the learning process and its importance, but then they do nothing to change the arbitrary and loathsome grading system. This type of hypocrisy is spread throughout higher education, so it isn’t surprising that students become over-stressed and over-concerned with their grades in a class. Many have offered nothing more than hollow words.

I abhor grading. I’m pro-assessment but anti-grading. I’ve never found grading particularly useful as either a motivator or an accurate representation of a student’s abilities. More often than not, grades are simply categories of direction. Meaning, if the students followed all the directions, they received the appropriate grade. It seems that little learning is involved. Then again, why should learning be involved at all?

In our society, higher education is becoming more interested in training than learning. Higher education trains students to follow the rules and get good grades and then spits them out into an over-burdened economy. Good grades are not assurances of good jobs, though some universities would have you think this is true.

Grades are meaningless outside of the university environment. Without the context through which the grade arose, a grade is just a letter. That’s it; it’s a simple and arbitrary letter, more in line with telling students what they aren’t than what they are.

We work to instill strong critical thinking and engagement in our students because we know it will help them achieve success. We owe it to our students to bring that same critical thinking and engagement to how we assess and value their learning process and work.