Grades in College Part 2: Grades and the Student

We saw in Part 1 that the grading system is intended to assess students' work ethic and skills for employment as well as reward students for cooperating with the institutional and career goals, respectively, of their university and professors.

I'll examine to what extent the system is successful in accomplishing that later. In this article, let's look at the effects of the grading system on the students who are subjected to it.

[I'm making a causal argument here, so let me disclaim by saying I have done no research beyond my 16.5 years as a participant-observer and that's not really valid for making a causal argument. Regardless, I trust my intuition and I can wait to verify it until after I've recorded my thoughts.]

Secondary Lessons

Whatever college students do or do not learn as part of their class curricula, there are certain things which the grading system is sure to teach them:
  • "It's okay to cheat as long as I don't get caught." Once that letter "A" is on a student's transcript, employers don't know or care how well the applicant actually knows the material taught in that class. In fact, most don't even look at the transcript. They just see the GPA. So the assessments of specific skills get glommed together and employers just get a sense that the applicant is generally studious or not. There's no accountability between when the student takes the test and when it's too late and the student already has responsibilities for which s/he's ill prepared.
  • "I only need to learn this material long enough to write it down on a test." Students inevitably learn a lot by spending time with the material and being graded forces them to do that. But there's really no system in place to make sure students really learn it instead of just cramming before a test and forgetting everything after.
  • "I will be rewarded for doing what I'm told above all else." Assessment of my ability to regurgitate information from my short-term memory is certainly a large part of what goes into a grade, but an even larger part is my ability to follow instructions. I can learn everything, think hard about the problems, work all day and all night, and still fail a class if I miss deadlines, misunderstand essay prompts, talk too little in class, arrive late, leave my student ID off the header of my exams, don't participate in supplemental experiments, forget to staple my homework, fail to catch grading mistakes on returned exams, or cite sources improperly. None of these things are related to actual learning. Of course these things are valuable to employers who need adherence to company policies and workers who will do what they're told by their managers, but they're not useful for promoting creativity, leadership, and independent thinking.
  • "Quality can be assigned by a superior." Students are taught not to pursue quality for its own sake as they perceive it, but for other ends as a professor perceives it.

Pain Aversion

Being assessed as constantly as college students are is very stressful and it takes a massive toll on their well-being. If it were just the specter of future unemployment, that would be awful enough. But grades are such a part of students' lives that they become integrated into their sense of self and a means for social competition between students. Here are some of the things I've heard walking around campus over the last two weeks.

"What grade did you get on the exam?"

"Is the class curved?"

"I need a good GPA booster next semester."

"I got sick for two weeks and tanked my midterm. So much for law school."

"This class was supposed to be easy, so either I suck or they started deflating grades."

When I walk into a classroom, the students look anxious and tired all the time. If they were ever here to learn, they're not anymore. We're constantly evaluated. Not a week goes by without any quizzes, midterms, finals, papers, labs, problem sets, or presentations, and even if I didn't have all those things, I know I'm daily evaluated on my attendance, punctuality, and participation in class discussions. If I were ever in school to learn, I'm not anymore. Sixteen and a half years in, I work because I'm scared and stressed and anxious about what will happen to me if I fail a test. I'm still learning, but because I have a gun to my head.

I wonder how much more I would learn, how much more sleep I would get, and how much more content I would be if I could appreciate again the musical quality of Emerson and Thoreau, the efficient elegance of a good computer program, and the explanatory power of Nash equilibria.


All that stress takes a toll on the student. NPR does a good job of describing what it's like for high school students, but the stress barely diminishes in college, and the article falls way too short of offering a solution. Dropping courses, managing one's time better, prioritizing, and avoiding catastrophic thinking might help for a bit, but I argue that the nature of grades and constant assessment adversely affect the student even with a perfect workload and proper time management. (Also, I actually encourage catastrophic thinking and asking "what if" questions, as long as you answer them honestly.)

Stress in small, infrequent amounts is good and potentially life saving - why else would humans have evolved to stress? But being evaluated day-in and day-out for decades is like living in an Orwellian dictatorship.

In high school, I was so stressed out for so long that I developed a psychosomatic disorder. About once a month all through 2009 (the year I applied to college) I would wake up in the middle of the night with acute abdominal pain and vomit for hours. The pain was so bad I even went to the hospital once and was treated with morphine. The more sleep I lost and school I missed, the more stressed out I became. Neither the hospital nor my GI ever found anything wrong with me, but the disorder went away on its own once I was accepted into college. I've talked to a few people at school who have had similar experiences either in high school or college.

Psychologists know that when students experience such extreme and prolonged chronic stress in their teens and early twenties, they're more likely to develop depression ten years down the road and suffer from the major western diseases. Those include heart attack, stroke, type II diabetes, and obesity. They're more likely to use drugs as coping mechanisms.

To recap: students take problematic lessons from a grading system, learn to view education as pain aversion, and suffer from chronic stress through unrelenting assessment.


Next up Part 3: Fixing Grades
Update: Part 1: Why Do We Use Grades?