What is a letter or number grade an actual representation of? It’s a question that will stand the test of time, or at least as long as academia exists. The number of times I have submitted an assignment and then waited days to receive that all-important number or letter telling me how well I performed might as well be infinity at this point.
I still vividly remember the afternoon in winter quarter of my freshman year, when I received a grade on my assignment that ultimately changed my perception of grades forever. I had put a considerable amount of effort into what I believed was a discussion board post for an English class that week, and I remember being rather proud of the fact that I actually took the time to consult a scholarly source and properly incorporate it into my post. I opened up Drexel Learn and went to the grade page, only to be greeted with a lovely grade of 1/10 for the assignment. I’ll save you the long recount of what happened next, but the main reason for the grade was because, while the post did require a scholarly and peer reviewed source, it needed to be one that was from a specific book we’d been reading from for the class.
Now, that’s something that I failed to recognize in the instructions, and upon consulting the instructions for that post again, I saw that it was indeed stated. However, if it was an exercise in testing my ability to follow instructions flawlessly and a proper usage of a scholarly source, then it should have been highlighted in red and written in bold italics.
If 90 percent of the grade is going to be based on the usage of a source, then you should probably specify that 90 percent of the grade is going to be based on the usage of a source. That way, I can focus more on using the correct source as opposed to what I am saying in my response. Redundancy aside, this experience (along with countless others that have occurred since) have made me curious as to why grades seem to be hated by some students and professors but fully accepted by others. There are two sides to every controversy, but this particular one has baffled me daily, simply because I’m a college student who is always receiving grades.
I think the biggest problem that I see with grades is the their inconsistency. For example, a number grade means very different things depending on what the grade is for. For a student in a math class, receiving a 100 percent on an exam means that they correctly answered every problem, whereas a student in an English class receiving a 100 percent on an essay exam will assume that they answered the essay question correctly. The problem is that the method for receiving that perfect score in math class is completely identifiable just by looking at the equations and problem solving that was utilized.
But for an essay, how can you determine that it is perfect, assuming we’re viewing the number 100 as being synonymous with perfection in this grading system? Yes, there are some aspects that we can identify in order to explain the grade, such as sentence structure, grammar, strength of argument, articulation, clarity of ideas, evidence utilized and general flow, also known as “how well it reads.” But the point I’m trying to make is that the grade is not a reflection of the work put in by the student, which I think is a better way to judge the quality of a work. Yes, the end product matters, but the steps taken to reach that end product is in my experience often more important. And these steps are especially more important in areas of study that have less concrete methods of studying, like English. The professor can’t see the seemingly endless number of hours that you put into crafting a paper. All they can see is the finished product, and that is what is graded. Unfortunately, many people are unable to put out a finished product that is as impressive as the process that it took to create that product.
I don’t get a 100 percent on every assignment, and it’s mainly because getting that perfect score is much more trouble than it is worth. I’m not discrediting anyone who aims to get perfect scores on every assignment so that they can maintain that 4.0 GPA, because doing that is quite impressive, especially for four to five years. However, scoring 100 percent or an A on every assignment really isn’t all that difficult. It’s tedious, yes, but not difficult. Grades in college are based less around learning and more around students being able to operate within a system where they have to take in information and regurgitate it in a form that meets a certain set of standards laid down by a particular professor. And this changes from one professor to the next, which goes back to the issue of inconsistency that I mentioned earlier. It’s all about learning how to play the game of college, and just like with any game, there are certain rules that can be bent and certain techniques that can be learned to give one person an advantage over another.
You may have one student, while taking a “Classical to Medieval Literature” course, who goes through a large amount of knowledge growth by interacting with the material on a deep and meaningful level. This is the student that does the “real” learning in my opinion, even if their grade doesn’t necessarily reflect that learning. In the same class, you will have the student that interacts with the material on a surface level but is still able to walk away with a perfect score by the end of the class, even if they don’t remember a single meaningful thing from any of the assignments.
Again, I am not saying that one student is better than the other. What I am saying is that the grading system often makes it seem as if that is the case, when it simply isn’t. Comparing Student A, who studies for the test first and material second, to Student B, who studies the material first and for the test second, seems like the equivalent of comparing apples and oranges.
Sometimes, you can have a student that is a blend of both and these are the students that I find often have the most balanced college experience because they learn and get good grades in tandem. But these students are rare. Often, you have one student memorizing and cramming information, terms and concepts into their head, only to dispose of 90 percent of it after passing the exam with a perfect score. That way, they have room for the next information that needs to be crammed. And then you have the other student, who plays around with the information, terms and concepts and gains a truly fundamental understanding of them, but ends up getting a lower grade because they didn’t remember the definition of that “important” term that was used in one story. Or, they forgot the first name of an author or the exact date that a piece of literature was published. One person will come away with an A and a mind that is potentially devoid of any useful learning, while the other comes away with a brain full of useful information with a C to show for it.
Again, I want to emphasize that I’m not trying to pit these two types of students against each other, because I think that is an easy misinterpretation. I’m merely trying to highlight these two extremes of student types, because I think both of them clearly suffer in their own ways and much of that suffering is because of the emphasis placed on grades. Grades compel one student to obsess so strongly over them that they risk neglecting any real learning, while at the same time punishing the student that chooses to focus on deeper learning instead. The question that I want to put forth is: how do we develop a grading system which bridges the gap here? Personally, my answer starts with the professors, as they are the people that have the most immediate control over the grades of their students.
Yes, the current grading system does work for classes that have a more rigid definition of “right” and “wrong.” However, for a class where the “correctness” of a student’s product is much more subjective (such as English), it is more difficult to assign an accurate grade to it. The problem exists in the relationship between students and professors, so communication between those two groups is key. Together, we may be able to develop a system of grading that best accommodates all kinds of students and promotes both the student who studies material for the test and the student who learns from the material.