The Problem with Grades

Grades make me feel absolutely terrible about myself.  On the official transcripts, the median grades show up next to my grades.  Then it's not just about how I did, but how I did compared to everyone else.  It doesn't matter if I did a little better, the same, or a little worse than the median.  If it was better, I thought, "That's it?  That's not even that different from the median."  If it was the same or worse, I would think "I'm so mediocre/terrible at _______."   None of my grades took into account how hard I worked, or how much I actually cared about the subject, or if I thought what I was learning was important, or if I was working through a significant non-academic issue, or if I learned something valuable about myself or through working with others.  

When I got discouraged about my less-than-4.0 GPA, my mom would always tell me, "Think how good your grades would be if you'd taken courses you actually enjoyed."  She has a point.  The first (and only) time I made the Dean's List was in my final semester at Cornell, when, for the first time, I liked all of my classes, and I was more interested in the content I was learning than my grades.   

I think one of the worst experiences I had with grades was in my studio class.  I remember the professor saying if he didn't have to give out grades, he wouldn't.  But he had to.  Studio was, hands down, the most time consuming class of my college career.  And I had a love/hate relationship with it.  I thought the projects were all interesting, and I liked the critiques.  I thought they were helpful to see what others had done, and what I could learn from them.  But I hated the grades.  Grades in studio class felt worse than grades in engineering because the grades seemed to reflect my creative abilities or ideas, whereas with engineering was more like math problems, where the answer was definitely right or wrong, non-negotiable.  I consistently worked hard and spent a ton of time on all the projects, but I got to a point in the semester where I kept thinking, "I don't know why I try at all, when my grades will be the same whether I put in 10 hours or 1 hour"  and I felt miserable about myself.

My currently-favorite book, The Myth of the Spoiled Child by Alfie Kohn addresses the issue of grades, and is backed with the scientific studies to support its points.  The book talks about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, and how grades - extrinsic motivation, take away from the intrinsic motivation to learn for the sake of learning.  (In English class, I remember saying, "I probably would have enjoyed this book if I hadn't had to read it for class.")  On the other hand, in the popular positive psychology book, The Happiness Advantage, the anecdote I remember the most clearly was when the author visited school children in Africa, as a joke he said something like, "I'm sure you all really love school huh?" and all the children enthusiastically agreed.  They viewed school as a rare privilege, one their parents didn't have, and they were happy to be there.  For them, school isn't about grades, it's about an opportunity to learn.  I want to feel the same way. 


Anyway, here are my favorite quotes on the subject, courtesy of The Myth of the Spoiled Child. 

"Research by educational psychologists suggests that grades typically do three things: They reduce students' interest in learning, they lead students to prefer less challenging tasks, and they encourage students to think in a more superficial fashion" (85).

I mostly found it ironic that grades seem to have the opposite effect of their intentions.

"What's being rewarded isn't always merit or an effort but some combination of skills at playing the game of school (choosing courses with a keen eye on the effect on one's GPA, figuring out how to impress teachers, etc.) and a willingness to sacrifice sleep, health, friends, a sense of perspective, reading for pleasure, and anything else that might interfere with one's grades" (85).

Page 85 was a good page.  I know people that would have multiple all-nighters a week, live off granola bars, and have to limit their social interactions to group project meetings.  They got amazing grades, but they were constantly over-stressed and unhappy.  I think there are more important things than grades (health, for one), and I wish our education system would support well-being (physical, mental, emotional) along with academic needs.   

Finally, some instructors argue against "making high school more engaging and relevant. Why? Because [they believe] college too, will be boring.  Success...requires 'the ability to slog through' whatever is required" (87).  

This was me.  I "slogged through" three years of my college engineering curriculum that I found, in equal amounts challenging and uninteresting.  An extension of the required high school classes that I didn't really want to take, but was supposed to.  I think my biggest regret in college was I stayed for so long in a major I didn't enjoy.  I told myself the major was "okay" but we shouldn't have to settle for "okay".  We can do better than that.