Grades are limiting our ability to learn

Written By Amanda Andrews, Editor-in-Chief

Finals are just around the corner, and there’s probably only one thing on your mind right now: grades. Usually, a final carries at least a 20% weight in a class, which means it is very important not to mess it up (or not turn it in at all). Although, there may be a silver lining in this stressful time; for some, it may be a small relief that soon, grades and class weighting systems are something they don’t have to worry about for a few weeks.

But what if you as a student never had to be concerned about grades again?

It would be nice, right? And it sounds crazy. What would even be the point of being in school if your work is not measured by a grading scale? What would motivate you to stick around for class if there’s not the participation grade or do your final exams if it didn’t determine if you could move on to another class in your program?

There’s the hope, Pioneers, that you’re not just attending a higher education institution because your parents told you to and you actually want to be here, learning. You are here to improve your understanding of a career field you would like to go into, or perhaps you are wanting to have a better grasp of concepts you didn’t quite get in high school. Unfortunately, the system isn’t designed to incentivize you to push yourself beyond chugging through those major requirement classes and getting that degree.

While a lot of majors at any university allow the option to take several general electives, which can be in any of the university’s schools, most students sign up for the ones in their own school that they feel confident they can pass, rather than take something that might be a risk. For instance, there probably are not many journalism students who are enrolled in an engineering course. This kind of mindset is harmful to expanding and growing skills that may prove to be useful later on in life and to the very learning principles higher education is supposed to espouse.

It also goes beyond just the fear of what a bad or several bad grades might do to a transcript. Failing multiple courses may set back a student’s ability to graduate on time, meaning they have to shell out more money. For many, attending college for longer than four years, or however long their degree programs take, is not a financially viable option.

Countless academic decisions are made based on this grading system, which is the root cause behind college students’ chronic case of academic stress. College is pitched to high school students as a time of self-exploration, and it is in a number of personal ways, but if students are essentially punished for trying new things that they may not be talented at on the first try, how are they supposed to explore learning?

It gets worse. When a motivator like grades is imposed on the student, rather than a system encouraging self-motivation in learning, students become disengaged with the material and instead have the mentality of “just getting it done.” They are no longer there for the class itself, but the grade and what it can get them: one step closer to leaving their university so they can enter the real world and stop taking out student loans (and start the arduous process of paying them off).

Maybe assigning a numerical value to assignments and student engagement is good for structuring primary and secondary education. Students at that age need that accountability system because a lot of them would not finish basic schooling otherwise. In college, we are legal adults, and we are paying much more for our education and the services an institution provides. We should be pushing for a system that benefits us over one that is seemingly the most convenient because it’s always been done this way.

I don’t expect that writing how grades are detrimental to learning and college students is going to change anything since any meaningful adjustment would involve widely altering our entire society’s understanding of the purpose of these institutions. Colleges and universities as institutions have their core foundations in practices from hundreds of years ago, so change is not really in their nature. And, admittedly, grades can be very important to assess if a person is competent in their chosen field, like medicine for instance. Transcripts also can be reviewed by employers, so having blank spaces where grades are expected to be could be a problem for students moving on with their professional careers.

However, if we could tweak the system just slightly — perhaps make general electives pass/no credit — it could start to break the frustrating cycle that students and instructors are all currently trapped in. And, perhaps, higher education could live up to its promise that students really will expand their knowledge in all kinds of ways.