In some ways, a grade can be all of these; but it is equally true that
most grades do not provide a clear, accurate picture of any of these.
For example, I had exceptional grades in
my Master’s Program—straight A’s—but what does that prove? Yes, I am
reasonably smart, but I was certainly not the smartest person in the
class. Yes, I worked very hard (studying day and night), but I imagine
that at least a few others worked harder than me. Yes, I learned a lot
(made great academic progress), but I am sure that others learned more
than I did.
Grades are affected by many things. Some
of my classmates did not study as hard as I did, but they got higher
grades because they already knew the material before they enrolled in the
program. Some classmates studied even harder than I did, but scored lower
because English was not their native language, or because they were not as
good at mentally processing information as I was (some people call this
“intelligence” or I.Q.). Some classmates studied less but got better
grades because their undergraduate college was superior to mine. Some
studied hard and were very smart, but got lower grades because of family
emergencies, external work responsibilities, or one of many other factors
that can affect grades.
So, if my grades do not show the quality
of my work, how smart I am, how much I learned, or how hard I worked, what
are grades for, and what DO they show?
Grades are simply numbers that say how
well you measured up to the expectation of your teacher, department,
school, or whoever gave you the grade.
Within your grade point average, a future university gets a vague picture
of whether or not you were a good student—that is, how well you measured
up to the expectations of your current/previous school. They assume you
will do equally well (or poorly) at their institution. Similarly, your
“grades” provide future employers with a limited impression of your
potential as a good employee—that is, how well you might measure up to the
expectations of your boss or company.
If a company (or school) is looking for
someone who is creative and innovative, your grades will not provide much
of a clue. Likewise, if they are looking for someone who is a leader, they
will look at other things in addition to your grades. That is why your
roles in campus clubs, athletics, student councils, part-time jobs, and so
on are also a very important part of your educational experience.
What do grades show? Good grades say that
you are intuitive enough to figure out what was expected, smart enough
and/or diligent enough to learn that material to the expected degree of
mastery within the time you were given, and capable of adequately
expressing what you learned through exams, essays, or other forms of
Grades are important, and I (as a teacher)
must assign grades—regardless of their shortcomings. Most schools expect a
good teacher to set a reasonable standard, and then measure everyone
impartially by that standard. In some ways, this is very unfair, since
within a class there are students with varying backgrounds, abilities,
intelligence levels, and sources of distraction. If all students started a
term “equal,” the grades I assign could clearly show diligence, progress,
or academic achievement. But then the students would no longer be “equal”
so how could we start the following term with “equal” students? Obviously,
it is impossible for all students to be “equal,” and thus grades emerge
from a complex mixture of ability, motivation, effort, and a host of other
factors. In the end, grades say little, except the degree to which a
student measured up to my standard.
Grades are important, so you (as students)
need to care about them—regardless of their shortcomings. When you are
looking for a job or for a place at an “institution of higher learning,”
you will probably be judged (at least in part) by your grades. It may not
be fair, and may not be the best way to evaluate you, but this is common
practice in the civilized world.
However, there is very little reason for
getting too excited or too upset about your grades. Who you are is
far more complicated than numbers on an academic record. If you can
remember what grades really are—an artificial number that says how well
you measured up to someone’s expectations—then you are less likely to let
grades overly influence your self esteem or emotional balance. If you are
lazy, high grades do not mean you are a genius. Likewise, if you are doing
your best, low grades do not mean you are stupid—no matter what those who
look at the grades may think.
Your education is more than just grades.
Your education is preparing you for life. It has been said that the
purpose of education is to replace an empty mind with an open one. If you
stop once in a while to look back, you can see how much progress you are
making—progress in developing a useful skill, and progress in developing
an analytical mind that can integrate new information and experiences with
the old. Many employers look for college graduates, not just because they
have mastered some field or learned some set of facts. Educated people
have demonstrated the ability to learn, and this ability is worth more to
employers than words (or grades) can express.
Keep studying hard. Work for the best
grades you can. But remember what grades really mean (see above!), and
never let your grades get in the way of your education.
Michael Krigline, M.A.; English
Northwestern Polytechnical University,
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