How to Improve Your (Systemic) Grades

One wouldn’t think being in Canada is much different than the States. The college experience should be fairly similar, and the classes themselves shouldn’t be too much to adjust to.

While studying at Bishop’s University, I expected similar class formats and assignments like my past three semesters in South Dakota. Luckily, I am very familiar with writing papers and a typical lecture format. However, compared to most of my previous classes, the only grades on most of my syllabuses are a single term paper, a midterm, and a final.

With so few assignments weighing upon passing each course, the minimal workload leads to questions of the value of grades themselves. How important is a college GPA, especially after throwing a mortarboard in the air? Should students care more or less about the letters on their transcripts? Students should do their best in their work, but all colleges should emphasize the value of learning over traditional grading standards.

Grades are very arbitrary measurements of success. An A at one school in one location may look drastically different somewhere else. Over time, public universities have seen a grade inflation, giving higher grades for work that would’ve received lower grades in the past. This makes it more difficult to identify the best students since more people are given the highest possible grade. In fact, according to a recent study by the Teachers College Record, 43% of letter grades given are A’s. Less work and effort is now worthy of higher grades, demonstrating how slippery the grading slope can be. When colleges portray a GPA as a crucial measurement of success, students become stressed and deprioritize their mental health and moral values. Stanford News reported that cheating is closely linked to the social pressure put on students to prize high grades over education and other values, including creativity and their personal well-being. Education has become a competition fueled by stress and anxiety derived from a short-sighted fascination with graded achievement.

If the primary grading system higher education uses is so subjective, many people may question the value of even paying the hefty costs of tuition. College itself isn’t mandatory. People choose to invest their time and money toward a degree. Such expenses lead many to question the value of a college education altogether. According to Collegeboard, the most popular reasons for obtaining a college degree are to get a good education and to get a good job after graduation. Does that degree still have value and fulfill these purposes? TIME Magazine says that 65% of college alumni agreed their educations were worth the cost despite the growing popularity of technical institutions and online degree programs. The campus environment exposes students to new ideas and people that can help them expand their resumes. Different activities, volunteer and outreach programs, job fairs, and, appropriately, studying abroad all make attending a four-year institution worth it.

Choosing to attend college isn’t the problem here: the problem comes from placing higher importance on a flimsy means of judgment over hard work and learning. Grading serves as an evaluation of student work and a source of motivation to students for continued learning and improvement. Jeanetta Jones Miller’s research discusses  standard-based grading with a student-centered approach. This concept concentrates on students’ learning over individual assignments. When the goal is mastery of standards, it doesn’t matter that students might not complete exactly the same assignments or exactly the same number of assignments because the focus is on what the student is learning rather than how much the student is doing. Not everybody fits into a cookie-cutter system of evaluating progress. By giving students the freedom to make learning an experience that is individualized to them, they can gain greater benefits from discovering new knowledge and strengthening their work ethic necessary for all aspects of life.

Students’ concerns should be less focused on their grades beyond passing and doing well and look ahead to the future. According to USA Today, employers more often look at students’ job experience over their transcript. Networking is also very important. A 4.0 student with no connections within their desired field may struggle finding employment. Ultimately, employers want to see students who are involved on campus and in their community and have an internship or two under their belts. However, employers’ values vary across the field. Some may argue, as seen in US News, that a strong GPA indicates a potential employee who can handle pressure, learns quickly and is motivated to succeed. Additionally, earning a college degree is an exercise in delayed gratification, and students with higher GPAs have demonstrated that they can maintain a high level of focus and results over that time before they receive their payoff.

Students are defined by so much more than a letter or number. The plethora of factors that may determine one’s success in the job market far exceeds a digit on a transcript. Learning to adapt to limited assignments has been a challenge, but this difference between Canada and my home campus, along with a different grading scale altogether, suggests a new way of judging academic performance. All higher education must reemphasize the power of knowledge and the relationships made with peers and faculty that truly support students’ goals and encourage values that transcend the classroom.

Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie

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