The Attack on Grades

Christen Palange Published 7 Apr 2016

Is the problem with the grading system, or the emphasis we put on it? 

Recent technological advances mean that students like me can access grades as soon as they are posted online. This is both a benefit and a curse. When I get a notification on my phone saying “Econ 650 grade has been updated” I stop what I’m doing to check. Even if the grade is for a homework assignment that I know doesn’t matter in the long run, I must check as soon as it’s posted. If it’s a good grade, then I’m happy and can go back to whatever I am doing. If it’s not good, I brood over the grade for 20 minutes.

Benefits and Drawbacks

The immediate feedback is good as you don’t have to wait until the next class to find out your grade. For a class that meets only once a week, this is especially important. There’s nothing worse for a student than getting a bad grade at the beginning of class and being so shocked you don’t listen to the lecture.

However, getting the information ahead of time can also cause problems. I drop everything to check the grade. By getting the notification on my phone, it seems like it is crucial information you cannot put off checking. Letting a grade of any type dominate your day like this is dangerous.

It’s a normal reaction to put so much value on grades. As students, this is what we are working towards, and have been for years. It’s been our whole life so far. Without the diploma and a certain GPA, we won’t be able to reach the career goals we are striving towards. School is essentially our job and each grade defines whether or not we get a promotion.

So what about not having grades?

I have read of teachers taking away the grading system in their classes and instead talking to their students about where they can grow with each assignment and then discussing an appropriate grade with them at the end of the term. To me – this is stressful because you don’t have a numerical reference throughout the year to go by. How do you know how you are doing? How do you decide what grade you would choose? You know what you can improve upon but do you really understand if you met the expectations? I agree that grades can prevent students from truly learning, but it would worry me to not have grades. Honestly, if only one or two of my classes had this format, I would not prioritize that work because it wouldn’t be graded. I would focus on classes that really impact my GPA and would do the ungraded classwork last.


I recently wrote about my experiences with motivation in the classroom. Despite the best of intentions, there are just some weeks when all you can manage is the minimum necessary. The homework is to read chapter 9 to prepare for the lecture? Well I have a project due for a grade in another class so maybe I’ll get to the reading, maybe I won’t. I often don’t. Of course, the better answer is to work ahead of time and not procrastinate. Easier said than done though.

During midterms one of my professors had the exam in the first half of class and then lectured during the second half. There was of course a reading assignment due to prepare for the lecture. Before he started he asked the class how many of us did not do the required reading. The entire class raised their hand. He laughed… and then began the lecture. I also have a professor who lists the required reading, and then below will post suggested reading for more information on the topics. I’ve yet to actually get to any of those links this semester. 

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Am I a lazy student? I don’t think so. I’ve just found that I function better when I sleep and skim the reading as opposed to reading thoroughly and not getting sleep. That’s just me though.


I read a piece that explained the case against grades. “A student asked his Zen master how long it would take to reach enlightenment.  Ten years, the master said.  But, the student persisted, what if he studied very hard?  Then 20 years, the master responded.  Surprised, the student asked how long it would take if he worked very, very hard and became the most dedicated student. In that case, 30 years, the master replied.  His explanation: If you have one eye on how close you are to achieving your goal that leaves only one eye for your task.”

This goes somewhat against the theories we have known. In school, we are constantly asked about our goals. Graduating, getting a certain GPA, making Dean’s List or Honor Roll, getting a job. This has been the point of school for me for about 15 years now. We assume that the emphasis on learning the material is implied, but it seems to me that for most students there is no emphasis on the learning. We have one eye on graduating, passing or getting a 4.0 and only one eye on learning.

In high school I had a conversation with someone who I knew was not putting in much effort in any classes. I could not understand why this student would do this to himself. When I asked, I was shocked by the insight. This student told me, “If I work really hard and start getting good grades, then people will expect that of me. If I just skate by, I can still learn what I need to, but won’t have the added pressure of living up to any previous expectations I’ve set for myself.” Five years later, I still wonder if this student understood the school system better than I did. If this is the system we have created, then we are not encouraging students to be their best.

As a student constantly under pressure to succeed, I can say that the grading system is not as flawed as we have made it out to be. While there are teachers who have had success with eliminating grades, I don’t believe that it is necessary. However, if the educational system can de-emphasize the need for students to maintain a 4.0 then we may be able to raise a new generation of students.

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