Grades in College Part 3: Fixing Grades

In Part 2 of this series, we saw that students learn that good grades are more important than learning well and that being graded constantly unduly stresses students out.

Now let's take an optimistic direction. How can we solve the problems with grades from Part 2 without damaging the good we saw in Part 1?

(Recap from Part 1. Many parties benefit by having professors grade students:
  • employers can evaluate candidates' work ethic and ability to follow instructions,
  • professors can get feedback on the efficacy of their teaching,
  • universities/parents/professors can incent students to work hard when students themselves want to do anything but,
  • and students can convey their willingness to work hard and follow instructions to employers.
Note that students perhaps benefit the least.)

How can we accurately express students' aptitude for employment and get them to value learning as highly as society does without causing them so much stress and teaching them to value correct answers on a test higher than leadership, creativity, skill-building, and critical thinking?

I don't have the answer to that, but I do have some ideas.

Some Ideas

Employers: Instead of requiring a transcript, cover letter, resume, and interview, maybe do what Google does: look for learning ability, humility, leadership, and ownership. Google may have more resources for HR to dispense, but this isn't rocket science. Explain what you need, ask candidates what they can do for your company, bring in the ones who give satisfying answers, and have them prove themselves on the relevant tasks. If they're going to be product managing, give them some product management work for an hour and see how they do.

Professors: How about asking? I'll be more than happy to tell you that I don't know how to solve induction problems and I'll be more than happy to listen as you explain. If you have a big class, send out a quick survey. takes about a minute.

Everyone-but-students: Fuck you. I know you want to extract as much productivity as possible from young men and women and that starts by educating them, but we're already a productive society so let's take it easy. Let's focus on providing opportunities, not enforcing their seizure. Grades stomp the curiosity out of the true learners in order to pull compliance from those who just want its rewards. I don't think that's a good idea.

Let me give you an example of how this plays out. I'm taking an amazing class called "Politics of '70s Film" where we watch the greatest films produced between 1967 and 1976 and discuss them as art in the political context of the 1970s. The professor is excellent, an enthusiastic lecturer and one of the true experts in both the fields of film studies and political science. We are graded, absurdly, on attendance/participation, two written tests, and two long critical analysis essays.

I say that's absurd, because I would gladly do all of that without a grade. I want to be a writer, and I am extremely grateful to have something to cut my teeth on as well as guidance on the process and feedback on the product. So those two essays are valuable to me. It benefits me to give the professor objective feedback on how well I'm learning what he's teaching, so I would happily take the tests (though not instead of hearing him lecture, which is how it is right now, since he is that good). And why coerce me into attending and participating? I'm watching movies and talking about interesting stuff! I don't know how valuable it is, but I sure love doing it! You don't need to incentivize me to watch goddamn movies! 

Or, imagine for a moment that I don't want to do all those things. Then I shouldn't be allowed to take the class. Students who do not want to study something should not study it. Instead we've got this insane system where we try to lure students into taking classes and then enjoining them to work hard or else be punished with a low grade.

University instructors should only take on students who want to learn what they're teaching. They should then teach, to the best of their ability what the students want to learn. And employers should check on their own to see if students and graduates can provide what they need. It's really that simple.

Like I said, these are more ideas than policy prescriptions and need to be refined further with empirical research before implemented. I also want to point out that they are directed at universities and graduate programs where students are not minors. I do believe minors could benefit from a more hands-on approach to learning, lacking the will or knowledge to educate themselves as they see fit. High school needs fixing, but the high school grades and university application process are a completely different beast than what I have discussed here.


Finishing up my third year of college. Will hopefully be working during the day and performing stand-up at night in New York City this summer.