How Letter Grades Are Failing Higher Education

A, B, C, D, F. Letter grades have always had a simplistic appeal; they allow us to judge our performance in a class with a mere symbol. Unfortunately, the reality of education is far more complex than the neatly distilled grades would have us believe.

For starters, there is a level of confusion as to what grades should represent. Should they take effort into account (as happens when professors grade homework for completion) or should they be reflective solely of aptitude? Should they weigh different components of a class (for example, speaking a foreign language versus writing it) equally, or prioritize components deemed by the professor to be most important?

The problems become worse when we focus on subjects outside of the hard sciences. The notion of achievement in those fields resists the sort of easy quantification needed to place grades on a scale. What exactly does it mean to be 'better' at painting or music than someone else?

These sorts of questions are important not only because they relate to the pursuit of a fairer evaluation system, but also because they divert our attention away from everything they cannot encompass. We don’t question whether we are truly learning in a class in which we have gotten an 'A' because receiving high grades has become synonymous in our minds with learning.

Last week’s Pomona Student Union Chat and Chew event on “The Puzzle of Motivation” featured a screening of a TED talk by best-selling author Dan Pink. In his talk, Pink cited an experiment conducted by Princeton psychology professor Sam Glucksberg in which offering financial rewards caused people to actually perform worse at tasks requiring creativity. Pink argued that this counterintuitive result occurred because external motivators such as money cause people to narrow their focus, thus causing them to miss the outside-the-box solutions often needed to solve such tasks.

Grades are an external motivator, so they fall victim to this problem. By stressing grades instead of the idea of learning for its own sake (an intrinsic motivator), they take our focus away from developing our minds (useful in life) and replace it with a focus on elevating our GPAs (useful only for career advancement).

So, what’s the alternative? After all, there needs to be some way for potential employers and graduate institutions to distinguish between applicants if we wish to find jobs after graduation.

Narrative evaluations, which are written assessments of a student’s work issued in lieu of grades, are a promising possibility. They’re not perfect, either, since they move the focus to impressing the professor, but at least this new focus correlates more closely to true learning: It’s hard to get a professor to like your work if you aren’t engaging with the course material. There’s always the risk of favoritism, of course, but this may be a necessary cost.

The handful of colleges in the United States that use narrative evaluations tend to give them rave reviews. They note several advantages of the system. First, it provides more useful feedback by allowing professors to highlight strengths and areas needing improvement separately. Second, as a qualitative evaluation method it eliminates the problems with grade inflation faced by many schools that use grades. Third, it reduces the pressure to choose easy courses for fear that a hard course could negatively impact one’s academic record. Lastly, it reduces stress by making it harder to compare oneself to others, thus encouraging internal reflection rather than outward competition.

Despite these advantages, many schools choose to continue using grades for fear that switching to narrative evaluations will make it more difficult for graduates to find jobs. However, this isn’t necessarily the case. Employers don’t actually care that much about GPAs: In a December 2012 survey of employers by the Chronicle of Higher Education, a high GPA was listed as the second-least important attribute in applicants out of eight choices. Also, elite institutions such as Yale Law School and Stanford Law School have made the switch without seeing their graduates face any additional trouble in the job market.

Ditching the grading system has the potential to revolutionize our academic environment, redefine the notion of academic achievement to reflect a more nuanced reality and foster a more genuinely intellectual culture. Let’s enable ourselves to stop worrying about getting a good grade and instead concern ourselves with getting a good education.

Samuel Breslow PO '18 is from Londonderry, N.H., and plans to major in the social sciences.