Grades — What Are They Good For?

AGradeWhen I learn that a student is working to maintain a 4.0 grade point average, I see red flags waving all over the place. A 4.0 does not particularly impress me, and it does worry me. In my experience (and that of most professors I know), the kind of student who works hard to maintain a 4.0 is focusing too much on grades and too little on learning the course material for its own sake. The problem with that is that this student—who is clearly smart and driven—is missing important opportunities. A 4.0 really doesn’t give you very much in later life. Learning valuable skills and content knowledge will serve you well forever, professionally and personally.

Mind you, having good grades is important if you want to get into grad school, and for various other purposes. I’m not saying grades are completely irrelevant, but in the grand scheme of things there is no meaningful difference between a 3.90, a 3.95 and a 4.0, yet every year I see a student cry over the mere possibility of a tiny dent in that perfect-seeming 4.0. This is a student whose priorities need reassessing.

Then again, there’s a completely different kind of student who thinks an A grade is a reward you get simply for showing up (most of the time), paying your tuition, and turning in acceptable work.

This is also a very false assumption. An A grade represents extraordinary work that goes above and beyond the assignment, not average work that merely fulfills the assignment.

In the false scenario of grade-as-reward, grades become a commodity (one which you will later trade for jobs, internships, or grants), which you ‘buy’ with the work you turn in. This in turn makes the work also a commodity, or a ticket to be punched.

Actually, there are extremely few professors, with extremely few assignments (unless we’re talking about research assistant assignments for which you get paid in actual money), who give a damn about the product you’ve turned in. The point of a grade is to certify to the world that you have demonstrated a certain skill. The assignment is meant to give you an opportunity to demonstrate that skill, and sometimes it’s worded in a way that’s meant to force you to demonstrate that skill whether you know you have it yet or not. Universities are accredited in the same way, to certify to the world that they have the apparatus (the appropriately trained graders) to certify your work.

Therefore, we don’t want you to turn in the first acceptable thing you can lay your hands on, “just so we have the product.”  Neither should you want that. Having a product, any product, is irrelevant in this context.

We grade you in order to give some accounting to others of what you can do and what you can’t.

You don’t start with an A and get points knocked off whenever the prof is in a bad mood. You start a course as a novice, with zero points if you want to think of it that way, and every time you demonstrate that you learned something, you EARN points, which eventually result in a final grade. And again, the final grade serves only to give an outsider a rough guide to how much knowledge and what level of skill you demonstrated in this instance as compared to others. It’s not an assessment of your value as a human being, or your intelligence, or how much the prof liked it.

The real work of education is in teaching you the knowledge and skills, which comes before the grades. Your goal in doing the required work for a class should be to get as much as possible out of it for yourself – to learn as much as possible, to discover new ideas, new methods, and new skills, and to demonstrate to others the absolute highest level of performance of which you are capable.

If you can’t fathom how the work you are being assigned can give you anything of value, ask your professor. And ask the question with an open mind. Think about what you are told. If, after an honest and open-minded effort, you still can’t see the point, maybe you should be putting your time and energy into something else right now.


UPDATE: See also this wonderful post.

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