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

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

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

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

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.

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