Grades are arbitrary, learning is not

Being overly concerned with one’s grades misses the point of a higher education.

Trent M. Kays

As the semester comes to a close at the University of Minnesota, many students are concerned with what grade they will receive in their courses. When I was an undergraduate student, I had a lot of the same concerns. I wanted to be sure that I got an A in all my courses because once you get an A, it seems as if you must get that grade every time. Unfortunately, the worrying that came with this reasoning resulted in high stress and anguish, and it does the same to many other students.

Grades are an odd social construct. They are meant to transmit your level of expertise in course material to the world outside of school. They serve as gatekeepers for those who fall below a certain grade point average. But instead, grades hardly transmit expertise because most universities have different ways of understanding them. A C+ grade at one university will be a B- at another. This becomes problematic quickly.

If you get a B in ancient Greek history or astronomy, what does that mean? It doesnâÄôt really mean anything. ItâÄôs arbitrary. ItâÄôs an indicator telling the university that you are ready to move on to the next class in whatever course sequence youâÄôre in. It tells the university whether or not you need to be put on probation or kicked out to make room for other students. ThatâÄôs it.

For many students, especially undergraduates, grades are a validation. Students crave them because itâÄôs like a pat on the back for doing good work. Students often want validation from their teachers because that seems to be the only way to know if they are doing well or not.

However, this creates a problem. Instead of trying to master the knowledge of the course, students master how to please their teacher. This issue is troublesome because college is one of the few times in a studentâÄôs life where he or she can openly challenge something. College is one of the few safe spaces for students to explore ideas and concepts they might be uncomfortable with. Mastering how to please a teacher âÄî in other words, your audience âÄî is a good skill, and it will probably serve students well outside of college. However, that skill canâÄôt be the only thing they learn in school, and thatâÄôs far from the point of a college education.

As a teacher, IâÄôve always had difficulty assigning grades in my courses. Not because I canâÄôt or donâÄôt know how to, but because grading, as itâÄôs currently understood, is something I donâÄôt believe in. ItâÄôs a flawed system that teaches students to only do the minimum to get a certain grade. It doesnâÄôt encourage sustained inquiry or passion, and it sets up students to be in two groups: A-grade students and everyone else.

Despite my issues with the current grading system in higher education, I still have to assign grades. My role as a teacher in my current university environment dictates it. So, reluctantly, I assign grades every semester to students. Some students complain and fight about their grades and some do not.

Honestly, IâÄôm more concerned about the students who donâÄôt fight their grades because itâÄôs reminiscent of the passivity universities seem to create in students. Many students just seem to accept their grades without comment or criticism. Either they know thatâÄôs the grade they deserve, or they just donâÄôt care as long as they pass the class.

I think in most cases, students fall into the latter category. This isnâÄôt to say instructors graded the work incorrectly, whatever that means. ItâÄôs likely that the grade assigned comes from the totaled points the student received for the course. But what many instructors want is for their students to make an argument for a higher grade, even if itâÄôs an unsuccessful argument. When students make an argument to their teachers for a higher grade, it at least shows that the students are engaged.

Students and teachers should be more concerned with learning than grade assigning. At the graduate levels, this is generally more the case; however, itâÄôs still not so at the undergraduate level.

If students focused on learning and exploring their courses rather than what grade theyâÄôre trying to get, then perhaps classes would be more engaging and fun. Most teachers do not like grading. ItâÄôs a drag. TheyâÄôd rather be teaching and helping students critique, question and succeed. ThatâÄôs what teaching is about.

For students, grades are the currency of the University. Good grades let you take classes you really want to take, and bad grades let you take classes youâÄôre not interested in or repeat classes you donâÄôt care about.

Moreover, the University needs grades and grade point averages because it lets others know how good their students are, which factors into many things like funding and rankings. Yet, students and teachers hold the power of grades because grades only mean something if the culture where the grade was created says it means something. ThatâÄôs a powerful place for students and teachers to be.

The truth is that once you leave the University, five years from now, no one will care that you got a B in your ancient Greek history course. No one.

What ultimately matters is that you graduated with a degree, and for most people, thatâÄôs enough. They donâÄôt care about your B grade, and students shouldnâÄôt care about their B grade either.

As a teacher, I want to know if students were challenged and learned something. Not if they didnâÄôt get enough points to get an A.