What’s in a grade? Some Friday thoughts…

What’s in a grade? Our lives are organized around them, pass or fail, grades A*-U, 1-9, distinction, merit, first-class, second-class first division, second class second division, third class and so on. They can be a source of joy and one of torment, but how much do they really matter? I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, thanks to a couple of former students of mine.

In one sense grades do matter, in so far as they show a level of attainment. I’d never want to be driven by someone who hadn’t passed their driving test, for example. Consider grades from an academic perspective for a moment, and I can see they are helpful in gauging an individual’s ability to be able to complete one course or another at a particular point in time. So in this sense they do have value.

Yet, whilst grades matter, I’ve also witnessed how demotivating they can be, and at times counter-productive. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve explained to students over the years that the number on a returned piece of work didn’t matter, what mattered for their learning, was the content and the feedback comments. I’ve seen people tie themselves in proverbial knots. devastated when they don’t get a particular grade. It is not healthy, and it doesn’t equip people for life. Failing, struggling, trying things from a different angle, it is not just that they’re all parts of life, but they are valuable ones to boot. We often have to learn how something doesn’t work, or doesn’t work well, to understand how to make it better. In a way there’s an ethical responsibility to conveying the message that failure is no bad thing, and we can benefit from it. To go back to that driving example, I failed my test twice, but I became a better driver for it. If that example doesn’t convince you, just think how many discoveries have been made precisely because something did not go to plan.

Seen from this perspective then grades aren’t the most important thing in life, even if they dominate our lives at particular points. The former students who got in contact recently inspired this blog post, not simply because they got in contact but rather why they did. Both wrote asking if I could provide them with references. I was happy to do so, but the question I had to ask of each of them was to provide their transcripts because whilst I could remember them well, what they were like in class, likes, interests, humorous moments, I couldn’t recall what grades they’d achieved either in the modules I taught them in or overall in their degrees. I wondered why. The answer is simply this – the grades weren’t important – the people are, it is the individuals I teach that I remember, I see them as individuals not a sum of their module marks; who they are matters, and who they are is what becomes memorable. So if you’re reading this and you’re a student, even if you’re not, remember it is the who not the what that matters.

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