There’s a special place in hell for grades. It doesn’t matter if it’s an A or an F. The entire system of grading seems as if it was devised to torment. Grades have always been a sore spot for me and lately, that statement could not be more true. After experiencing a minor breakdown, I asked myself something: Are grades really necessary?
Grading is a bizarre practice. On paper, grades are a standardized substitute for feedback, but this contradicts what they are in practice. Grades are objective values tacked onto subjective work. There are exceptions to this like mathematics, medicine, engineering, and computer science; however, for liberal arts, grades alone provide little room for improvement.
Grading takes an emotional toll on students. Students tend to internalize their letter grade, which translates into anxiety, depression, stress, social withdrawal, and burnout. A 2020 study in the journal, Learning and Individual Differences discovered a direct connection between self-esteem and grades, specifically examining math grades in K-12 students. Students who scored poorly tended to have lower self-esteem. On a college level, STEM grading makes sense because of career specialization; however, for young children, the emotional burden can be particularly overwhelming.
Grades can have the potential to kill, too. Grades rank students in a hierarchy that instills feelings of superiority in some and inferiority in others. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 36% of high schoolers making a D or F seriously considered attempting suicide compared with 14% of high schoolers averaging an A.
These two studies are about K-12 students; however, I think this data still applies to college students because these kids grow up and take their problems with them.
When there’s a correlation between grades and self-worth, some students resort to cheating to boost their GPAs. In a 2015 survey conducted by the International Center for Academic Integrity, of over 70,000 undergraduates, 39% of students admitted to cheating on a test, 62% admitted to plagiarism and 68% admitted to participating in cheating of some sort. Cheating is wrong regardless, however, nobody cheats because they want to know the material. It’s only done to make that high score.
There are times when students must decide between good grades and good health. Sometimes, striving for grade perfection is an invitation for sleeplessness. However, if students opt to take a mental health day instead of an all-nighter, then they are punished, not rewarded. This overemphasis on work fosters an uneven work-life balance that threatens not only the physical health of students but also their mental health.
Grades should be abolished. Schools and universities would be doing both students and professors a favor. Grading is not genuine feedback; it is a counterproductive shortcut that draws arbitrary lines in the sand. Grades discourage self-expression and academic risk-taking by forcing students to conform to their professor’s rubric and not develop a deeper understanding of the content material.
A common counterargument to a world without grades is that students will become lazy or unmotivated, which is true under our current system. If students are given an optional assignment, they probably won’t do it. Though, this has nothing to do with laziness but rather the system implicitly telling students that gradeless assignments are inherently worthless.
However, if grades were deemphasized, students might foster a love for learning. An example of this successfully taking place is at Brown University. Taking an approach that is similar to Montessori schools, Brown decided in 1969 to scrap the traditional grading system and gave students two choices. The first was an option to be graded under the conventional grading system but only with A, B and C letter grades; D and F letter grades are not recorded and there are no plus and minus signs. The second choice gives students the option to show their grades as satisfactory/no credit. Students also can request a written evaluation that can be used for improvement. Brown’s grading scheme prevents students from relying on their transcripts as the only proof of their academic achievement. Instead, students can customize their transcripts to cater to their specific needs, constructing a portfolio that provides a realistic reflection of their progress.
Written feedback as an alternative to grading would indeed be much more labor-intensive and time-consuming. And, I doubt one newspaper article will change academia overnight. However, I do think the academic positives and health benefits for students are worth considering.