Grades in College Part 1: Why Do We Use Grades?

A brief introduction: I have for a long time been frustrated with schooling and angry at being personally subjected to it. For all its costs, though, I think it's incredibly important. I agree with the prevailing understanding among people who study education that it leads to unparalleled economic, health, and social benefits for both those who get educated and for society as a whole.

This is, of course, when it works as it's supposed to work.

Education is often - or maybe even usually - not provided at an acceptable quality. Even in the United States, with a GDP the size of most of the rest of the world combined, education services are dismal for the majority of the population. I hope to, at a later time, address that issue in my writing or even in my career (through Teach for America or another such organization). However, that is beyond the scope of this series of articles.

What I would like to do here is examine the question of how higher education - where it is already of the highest quality, such as at my university - can be improved. I have never formally studied the philosophy or psychology of education, though I have a stack of books on assessment theory waiting for me in my room. Before I allow my opinions to be swayed by those authors' opinions, though, I wanted to take an a posteriori look at the system of assessment under which I personally have served my time and see how it can be improved.

That study begins with the question in the title: Why do we use grades?

The Obvious Answer

The obvious answer is that "we need to have some idea of how well Daniel learned this subject."

Okay, sure. Like I said, that's obvious.

But why do we need to know how well I learned this subject?

It Depends on Who You Ask

If you ask me, I don't need to know how well I learned this subject. Take a class I'm currently in: Introduction to Computing Using Python. I really don't care to know how well I learned Python. I can't think of a reason why that would matter to me. I do want to keep programming, but I don't need to know how well I know how to program to know how to program. That's confusing, but basically I just need to know how to program. If I try to program something and I realize I don't know how to do it, I'll just look it up online or read a textbook on the subject until I do know how to do it. At no point does assessment of any kind become useful.

If you ask my Computer Science professor, grades probably help in a couple ways. Our class has over 450 students, so student evaluations tell him how well we're absorbing what he's telling us, what pace to go through the material, how clear to make the instructions for assignments, etc. If he just asked us point blank, we might not give accurate answers and the class is too large to have an intuitive sense. Quantitative data about how many questions we get right on a test is definitely useful to him.

Beyond that, there's another use to the professor for having grades, and this is where things get interesting. Let's go through this, step by step. The professor gets paid by the university for teaching computer science. The professor basically has perfect job security since he has tenure, but even then, he has an economic incentive to make sure the students learn the material as best as they can. If he wants to move up in the department or win teaching awards, he has to make sure the students learn the material as best they can. He can provide the curriculum for the students to learn the material, but ultimately it is up to the students to learn the material on their own.

If I don't come to class, pay attention in lecture, come to labs, strive to complete them, complete the coding assignments, read the textbook, ask questions when I get stuck, and review the material periodically, the professor cannot achieve his goal. So his desired outcome depends on my, possibly undesired, contribution. He then holds grades over me as an incentive to give him what he wants.

The goals of the university are closely aligned with those of my professor. It too has an incentive to teach the material thoroughly if it wants to stay in business. My parents would not send me to college (read: pay) if they felt I were not learning anything here. So the university needs me to learn and it uses grades as a an incentive to cooperate with its goals.

If you ask employers in the tech industry, grades are useful because they allow recruiters to determine which students are qualified to do the work they need done. We can argue to what extent my GPA reflects my relevant skills and abilities, but if someone majoring in computer science graduates from my university with honors, it's a good sign they possess a strong work ethic (whatever that means) and knows how to program well. That makes it easier for companies to narrow their search.

To recap: employers need a way to narrow their search, universities need to incentivize their students to work hard, and professors need feedback on their teaching. It is a system imposed on students from which they do not directly benefit.


Stay tuned for Part 2: Grades and the Student.

Update: Part 3: Fixing Grades