The average college student is someone who scrambles to get good grades in hopes of one day earning a degree. In the ideal world, the average college student would be someone who learns for the pure joy of learning.
Unfortunately, for most of us the joy of learning is just an added benefit. We might enjoy learning or we might despise it, but the thing we absolutely must do is get good grades and graduate.
This is not enough. We’re paying for an education, but getting grades instead. Professor Monte Hull of Temple’s religion department said, “If [students] are focusing on the grade, [they] are not focusing on the subject matter.”
So what would happen if grades were abolished? The pressure would be lifted. However, students would be so relieved that they would probably stop handing in assignments and attending class.
If this thought even crosses our minds, then the whole educational enterprise is in serious trouble. It shows how the desire for good grades has replaced the desire for education.
This problem didn’t always exist; Cambridge was the first university to grade papers, according to Technopoly, a book by the late Neil Postman. The England-based university began this practice at the end of the 18th century. Soon, other European and American schools followed this trend. Grades, which up to that point had not been an educational necessity, soon became a part of almost every educational system.
Grades brought with them a number of unnecessary difficulties. Most notably, they tend to interrupt the learning process while trying to encourage it. They put students under pressure to perform well, and some students need this pressure.
But when students receive a grade, they tend to pay more attention to the grade than to what they did well and how they could improve.
Imagine that a student receives an A on a psychology paper. Even though the student receives an A, there are still red comments written on the paper.
These comments might help the student to improve her writing even further. But is she likely to take these comments seriously, let alone read them, if the A she received has already made her think her work couldn’t have been better?
Now imagine that the same student receives a D on the same paper, and there are the same red comments all over the paper. This time, the student is probably going to take the comments into consideration.
But her attempts to revise the paper are going to be compromised by the D she received. With every word she types, the D will be making a value judgment on her as a student, telling her that her work isn’t sufficient.
This argument can be extended to quantitative assignments, for even though they are much easier to evaluate, issuing grades on them still functions in the same way.
A high grade will prevent students from seeing how they could improve on the one or two problems they got wrong and a lousy grade will intimidate students as they try to improve.
So does this mean we should get rid of grades? Ideally, yes. But the educational milieu is much different than it was before Cambridge started grading papers. Grades have become an addiction.
If they disappeared, most students’ reaction would be to stop putting their best effort into schoolwork. So we’re stuck, unless our perspectives on grades and education change.
Grades have become a necessary evil. We’re addicted to them even though they get in the way of true education and make the phrase ‘learning for learning’s sake’ sound almost naive. But at the same time, we shouldn’t think of grades as an inescapable part of the universe.
As finals bear down on us, we should stop worrying about grades for a moment and ask ourselves, ‘Have we really learned something this semester?’ If the answer is yes, then we can consider ourselves successful students.
Daniel J. Kristie can be reached at email@example.com.