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…