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Wednesday, April 17, 2024 — Houston, TX

The measure of measures? A critical eye toward grades

10/28/15 5:22am

So many of us Rice students have an interesting, almost masochistic, relationship with grades. We burden ourselves immensely with them and even claim to enjoy doing so. It’s disturbing how readily our grades shape our self-esteem. Somehow, we’ve convinced ourselves a good grade is a statement on our value, in a moral or metaphysical sense. Good grades lead to good postgraduate schools, which lead to high-paying or world-shaking jobs. This haunting sense of having our lives dictated by a fraction of a digit constantly lingers on the edge of our consciousness. Compounding to this encumbrance is our distorted perspective of what “doing well” means. For many Rice students, “doing well” equals nothing less than an A-, perhaps due to relativism: Last semester, more than 30 percent of all students obtained a GPA greater than 3.88. That’s an absurdly high number. If many of those around you are getting A’s, then getting a B, a very good grade at almost any other school (especially considering that most Rice courses are more rigorous than their counterparts in other colleges), doesn’t seem like much of an achievement. 

More troubling than the unrealistic standards we attach to grades are the ways grades change how we look at learning. A professor described to me how the assignment of grades effectively erects a wall between her and students: The first few weeks have an atmosphere of genuine curiosity and hunger for knowledge, when professors are collaborators as students embark on an invigorating intellectual exploration. However, as soon as the first grades are distributed, professors abruptly become opponents impeding academic success. The end-of-term instructor evaluations sadly reflect this mindset, as the preponderance of criticism focuses on how harshly professors grade rather than how well they teach the material.

But can grades limit learning? Some professors have expressed to me their disappointment in students’ unwillingness to challenge course material or how it is presented. Maybe grades have something to do with this. Grades lead us to believe there is one correct way to obtain the one correct answer, and this traps our thinking in a very small box as we desperately try to figure out the work needed to meet the professors’ expectations. This mode of reasoning makes perfunctory study easy. Rarely do we question the purpose of our learning or whether there are better ways to learn. What, ultimately, do we attain after reducing a class to periodic cramming and “going through the motions”? Not much, I think, besides perhaps a decent grade, but certainly at the cost of originality, individuality and cogitation.

What if there’s an even more serious intrinsic flaw with grades? Grades are meant to measure content mastery, but I suspect many professors themselves dislike the grading process. In fact, a professor once told me her irritation with it all: How should one weigh accomplishment, effort and improvement? Should there be a curve? If so, how should the standards be set? What about grade quotas? These concerns unveil the complications of setting benchmarks for grades, to the point that they become almost arbitrary. These benchmarks are especially dubious in the humanities, which, unlike the sciences, deal not so much with right and wrong facts as with strong and weak arguments. From the study of literature to physics, grades are an attempt to provide an explicit but faulty index for the ambiguous interpretations of academic and intellectual achievement. Brilliant artists and scientists such as George Bernard Shaw, Blaise Pascal, Thomas Edison and others performed mediocrely in school and commented on how the rigid path to high marks often stifles creativity and unconventional insight.

Large portions of our grades are derived from timed evaluations. Draw the reactions of the TCA cycle and include mechanisms (You have 10 minutes). Write an essay explaining carpe diem in the poems of Robert Herrick (You have 12 minutes). List and describe the implications of three classic conformity and obedience studies (You have eight minutes). For some subjects, this rapid regurgitation works perfectly fine. But for other disciplines, true comprehension and intellectual growth require students to engage in slow, deliberate contemplation — a luxury not afforded by exams. Sure, papers can offer these types of learning to some extent, but our tendency to postpone writing them until a last-minute mad dash, confident this method can result in a decent grade, unfortunately defeats the potential gains from such assignments.

And now to address the gargantuan elephant in the tiny room — that grade fixation is a result of the system, a system imposed by medical, law or other postgraduate school admissions. But here’s another way to think about it: It’s difficult to develop true enthusiasm for material taught in a class if the grade is the foremost concern, and I contend that genuine passion, something impossible to feign and easy to discern, is ultimately more gratifying in the long run and more powerful in getting you where you want to go. Moreover, it’s more effortless and rewarding to earn high marks as a by-product of your passion than for its own end.

All that said, I am not grade-shaming. Grades are important. They are a necessary stimulus in our education. Acquiring a good GPA takes dedication and effort and is commendable. But everyone thinks and learns differently, so how can you distill the uniqueness of each student’s approach to myriad distinct subjects into a unidimensional letter or number? In the end, grades are limited in telling us about a student’s true intellectual capabilities and potential for success. If I earn an A in my continental philosophy class while a classmate earns a B, does this mean I am now more able to understand Sartre than he is? If I earn an 80 in my biochemistry class while someone else earns 96, does this mean she is now 20 percent more likely than me to get published in Nature? No, these are preposterous assumptions. This is why I maintain some skepticism towards grades. There’s no need to get worked up over a B or C here or there, for they’re not value judgements on our worth or success as scholars. Better to relinquish the crippling neurosis over grades and just relish the phenomenal splendor of our education.

Henry Bair is a Baker College junior.

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