by Michael Krigline, MA, March 2003. www.krigline.com ⇔
Have you ever wondered what your “grade” really means? ⇔
When I asked my students to say what a grade is, they responded:
- an award for hard work (3%)
- a reflection of student knowledge/ability (11%)
- a mark indicating a teacher’s evaluation (17%)
- a mark showing the results (# of errors) of an essay/exam (23%)
- a mark showing the quality/level/rank of something (46%)
Other people think of grades as:
- a measure of your intelligence or academic ability
- a measure of your academic effort or progress
- a measure of your language level
- a way to compare you to the others in your class, or to yourself at different times
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, what are grades?
If my grades do not show the quality of my work, how smart I am, how much I learned, or how hard I worked, then 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 GPA (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 measurement.
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 Instructor
Northwestern Polytechnical University, Xi’an, China