“Grades Matter” and Other Lies

Exam time always brings out a great deal of stress in my students. This is especially true of my undergraduate students.

The list of stressors around exams are numerous: parental pressure, fear of failure, fear of the unknown, fear of missing your alarm and being late to the exam (okay, maybe that’s just my recurring nightmare)…you get the point.

All relate to one essential lie: that student grades on said exams carry weight. A great deal of weight.

But before we get to why it’s a lie, let’s define what an exam is.

An exam is a measure of your ability to answer specific questions at a specific moment in time to the satisfaction of a person who usually both writes and grades said exam.

Notice what it is not.

It is not a measure of intelligence (there are other tests that claim to do that).

It is not a measure of your future success (if that was true, valedictorians wouldn’t be richer or more satisfied with their lives than people who finished at the bottom of their class — news flash: they’re not).

It is not a measure of how good a person you are (why do people think this, btw?).

Why do we use grades?

As professors, I think many of us would prefer not to use grades at all. I know I would. From my perspective, I’ve seen it create unnecessary stress and competitiveness in my students, both of which are usually at odds with the actual learning process.

We do like to recognize the best students, though. A simple pass-fail system would be a detriment to us being able to denote the few students who really stand out (note: a pass-fail-pass with distinction system largely alleviates this problem).

Employers also seem to like it as it enables them to sort through potential job applicants of which there are usually too many.

And parents seem to like it as they are able to use it as a measure for whether their children — away from home for many hours of the day or, in some cases, for days, weeks, or months at a time — are actually achieving something. Anything.

So some of the lies about grades are particular bizarre given this context. Here’s a not-so-extensive list of the types of things I’ve heard students, parents, and even professors (who should know better but often don’t).

1 — Grades indicate future success (or failure).

On basically any definition of “success”, this is not true.

Financial success?

Nope. There is a strong connection between earning different degree levels (e.g. high school, Bachelor’s, Master’s) and earning more than those without those degrees. There is also a connection between future earnings and the reputation of the institution you attend. But grades? No impact. If it’s not all about money, what about…

Life satisfaction?

Nope again. In fact, grades are the main source of anxiety among students, anxiety that can linger for years past when the students have finished their studies.

Creative works/expressions?

No, again! Focus on grades permanently (you read that right) hinder creativity in students and often force students away from subjects that they have natural aptitudes for.

So, why do so many people perpetuate this, the number one myth about grades? Because grades are an easy motivational tool. Which leads us to ridiculous justification number 2.

2 — Without grades, students would be unmotivated to do the work in courses, especially at the university level.

I would guess that this the top reason given by professors and administrators for why we have grades. The idea is that if students did not have to earn particular grades, they would check out, not attending class or doing the readings. “We need to incentivize them to do well,” goes the argument, “or else, what would their motivation be?”

Anyone who knows even a small amount about human motivation should know this isn’t how human beings work. Research has shown time and again that people learn better when they are self-motivated and when they are not under pressure. Grades undermine both.

Meaning that a student’s motivation to learn should be…to learn. If they’re not motivated to learn they shouldn’t be there. And as professors, our job (in part) is to encourage that self-motivation. That takes time and effort on our part (which, I have a feeling, many professors don’t really want to put the time in to achieve).

They also think it reflects their ability in the topic as a whole, even though it might be limited to only one sub-set of the topic. Imagine a student does extremely well in a microeconomics course. She now believes she is good at economics in general. This is not a reasonable assumption. She then takes a macroeconomics course and does very poorly. Her expectations have been shattered and she now labels herself as “bad at Econ”. Neither assumption is correct and both are based on grades. She should judge her ability in these areas based on how hard it was for her.

And then, there’s grade inflation which results from perverse incentives at the institutional level for the professors, but that’s another story.

3— Grades reflect your knowledge of the material in the course.

Nope. A test is your ability to answer someone’s questions at a moment in time to that person’s satisfaction. To assume that the person (usually a professor) is the great and only arbiter of who knows knowledge and how to test it would be to assume a level of infallibility that we do not assume for literally any other person in any other position. Some professors like this and to them I say: be careful what you wish for. When it becomes clear that you are just a human like everyone else, your hubris will make you look like the fool you are.

As professors, we know more about our topic than the students we are teaching. We even might know more than the average person in our field. We EVEN might be experts in our field.

But the only arbiter and judge of who does and does not have knowledge in the field? No chance. And I have proof that even professors don’t really believe this: it’s called the peer-review system.

The dominant academic view of research is that, to be legitimate, it must be peer-reviewed, that is, reviewed by other people in the field and judged as worthy of distribution to the world. This is a major check in the field. If any (or all) of them were the sole, right, and correct arbiters of knowledge in the field, they wouldn’t need anyone to check their work. They would just send it out.

But we don’t believe this. So we don’t do that. It would be absurd. By extension, the idea that if we tell you don’t know something you absolutely don’t is similarly absurd. Is it more likely? Sure. But does a 70% on an exam that we write and grade mean a student only has 70% of the knowledge for that topic? No.

So what do grades reflect?

They actually do a decent good job — as compared to IQ tests or standardized tests — of indirectly measuring personality traits. Those personality traits are, in fact, really important in predicting future success and life satisfaction. But grades are just better than the alternatives, not necessarily meaningful in absolute terms.

Grades are also really good reflections of how well someone follows rules. This is why some of the worst students are some of the most creative people — they are rebellious and really terrible at following the rules (and often are terrible at following through at all).

I now fully expect my fellow professors to vociferously disagree with me. I love being a professor! Please comment below.

Professor. Lawyer. Researcher. Writer. I help people learn to run better, more sustainable businesses and be better humans. Opinions my own.

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