OPINION: We need to detach our self-worth from our grades

An open notebook lays in front of a laptop that displays a Sakai launch site.
Aarushi Phalke PO ’24 argues that, in a period of remote learning, students should distance their self worth from their grades and place emphasis on personal growth and a love of learning. (Justin Sleppy • The Student Life)

Students at the 5Cs are now more than halfway through the semester and getting out of midterm season. With a condensed schedule and remote learning, it can be difficult for students to find purpose and motivation. We are all over the world, in very different circumstances while studying. To take care of ourselves under these circumstances, we need to detach our self-worth from our grades.

My first midterm exams came at one of the most stressful times in my life. I studied by myself in my room for days on end, the isolation causing me overwhelming anxiety, even though I knew I could email people for help if I needed it. It’s not the same to email your professor with a question as it is to catch them after class or on campus.

Learning is fundamentally collaborative, and because COVID-19 makes isolation and social distancing necessary, we lose the social environment that allows students to engage deeply in class content. As everyone finds ways to adapt to this new learning environment, we still are not able to fully recreate the collaborative environments without sharing physical space.

To cope with the stress of a more independent learning experience in college, I recommend that we distance ourselves from our grades. It’s much easier said than done, but it is also so essential for people like me, as I have put so much weight on my grades in the past.

There was no possibility going into midterm season that I would be able to perform as well in my exams as I did when I learned in collaborative spaces. And yet, I put even more pressure on myself to do well, because I am now in college and the stakes keep increasing as I get older.

I felt sick in my stomach for an entire week. I had no time to Zoom with friends. I spent almost all waking hours sitting behind my laptop screen. Test taking in isolation did terrible things to my emotional and physical health. After turning in my first exam on Gradescope, I felt so overwhelmed that I laid in bed, missing a class, and was unable to sleep for hours.

The next day, I went through worst case scenarios in my head. What if I had to drop this class? What would I do if I got a bad grade?

But what does a bad grade mean? This question is relevant even without a worldwide pandemic, but especially now. What does a bad grade in a pandemic mean?

In this period of remote learning, students have begun asking themselves what the point of college is without the social aspects of college clouding their view.

Many students are now able to recognize a rigid dichotomy between their two identities — when they’re in college and when they’re out of college — from this remote education. When students were on campus before the pandemic, many saw their identities to be closely connected with and centered around being a student, often with grades being the clearest way to determine self-worth. Now, when students are offline, they exit their college communities and have the ability to see themselves as more than just students as they engage with their separate worlds. In this moment, with students forced to disconnect from their learning environments by being away from campus, it is even more evident that grades are only a part of who we are.

This is not to disregard the importance of grades, especially for those who seek further education or employment after their four years of undergraduate school. Grades do matter and have real impacts, and I’m not arguing against that. However, we have known for a long while that grades are not fair indicators of our value.

We already know that socioeconomic status impacts academic achievement. We know that during the pandemic, there are great differences in learning environments among students that impact academic achievement.

Our grading system was always flawed, but the pandemic worsened these inequities, because the pandemic affects us unequally. While colleges and universities engage with how to address the flaws of grading in these times, we need to deemphasize grades as students as well.

We are not our grades. I found purpose in online college by loving what I’m learning, and at the end of my midterm exams, regardless of the scores I received, I was able to recognize that I know much more now than I did back in August. There is much more value in us than test scores and essays. There is much more value in our growth than in our grades. 

Reminding ourselves of our purpose in why we are studying right now can help ground us in these difficult conditions for learning. We are much more than a letter or a number, and there is much greater value in us as people navigating this new reality than in any transcript that exists.

Aarushi Phalke PO ’24 is from Portland, Oregon. Her current goal is to make a perfect apple pie.

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