Grades Don’t Define Us

Dominic Napolitano December 11, 2015 0
Grades Don’t Define Us

As children, we learn A, B, C, D and F as mere letters, but in our academic careers, they become labels. We realize the importance of the letter grade and the value of an “A.” We want to be hard working students and for our professors to view us this way.

In life, many situations can have a huge impact on you, change the way you think, and influence how you act. When my father passed away in 2012, I was devastated. The pressure of working full time and helping with bills came into play, but I knew that if I left school and just focused on working, I would likely never finish college. So despite the impact my father’s death had on me, I stayed in school.

My goal was clear: to cross the finish line. I knew how strong I was and how determined I was to be successful. This drove me to continue, focus, and finish my associates degree at the Borough of Manhattan Community College. Other students may not have been as fortunate; their self-esteem could’ve hit rock bottom and they could’ve stopped attending classes, started failing classes, and thinking that nothing is worth anything anymore. Sometimes you’ll be so stressed with these life situations that you can barely focus on anything else, whether school, work, or even parenting.

Dr. Jerrold Greenberg, an emeritus professor who taught public health, describes our routine stressors as an encounter that can alter the effectiveness with which we accomplish tasks. Such an event can include taking a test: if you get really anxious and stay up all night studying you can get a headache and wake up late for your class. So it’s possible to go from getting “A’s” to getting “F’s,” all depending on your life circumstances.

A professor/student relationship forms in the beginning of each semester and within this time students receive feedback through grades. The problem is when grading goes wrong. Some professors will go to the extent of giving every student an “A” in exchange for good evaluations. Professors have life stressors too, which can affect their performance.

As stated by Dr. Hamid Zangenehzadeh, a professor and published author, a professor’s personal thoughts of their evaluation by students would be used as a gateway to better opportunities, such as higher salaries or a promotion. Whether the student deserved the “A” and whether or not the evaluation they received is accurate is irrelevant. In some instances, depending on the professor, the importance of teaching can be for the professor’s benefit. In cases like this it makes one wonder if and when a student received a grade they truly deserved.

Therefore, the student is the only one who really knows if they walked away from the course having learned something. In reality that’s what matters: whether or not you learned something you can take with you on your life journey. Yet, no one asks you after the course is over if you learned anything, but instead “What grade did you get?” We’ve become so obsessed with grades that some students are happy to have barely passed because, hey, it might’ve been a “D” but it was a good “D” — at least I passed. Others, meanwhile, will be disappointed with an “A.” Students won’t try to strive for the best because the best is unknown. The best can be an “A” or an “A+” or if the professor is strict maybe the best grade they’ll give is a “B.” It all depends.

Dr. Susan M. Brookhart explains that conflicts with our grading policy have to do with the professor’s requirements for the course. Generally a professor has a set of goals for the class and for students to follow. If we take, for instance, our handy-dandy syllabus we can see the outlook for the course and what it takes to get an “A.” What we don’t see is the almost hidden expectations professors have that can conflict with the student’s perception of what’s expected and how the class is doing overall.

Professor Peter Frohlich, who teaches at Johns Hopkins University, has a special technique when grading students. Frohlich grades depending on the highest score amongst all his classes. This means if a final is worth 50 points and the highest score is 35, then 35 is considered 100% and everyone else receives a percentage based on the highest score. To his surprise students boycotted this method and refused to take their final exams. In other words, everyone received a 0, which also meant that everyone received 100%.

Andrew Kelly, a student in Frohlich’s class, said that giving out 0’s will not help you learn about material in this course. Frohlich has decided to change his grading policy. “I have changed my grading scheme to include ‘everybody has 0 points means that everybody gets 0 percent,’” Frohlich said, “and I also added a clause stating that I reserve the right to give everybody 0 percent if I get the impression that the students are trying to ‘game’ the system again.”

Brookhart says there are typically four methods in grading students: total possible points, the median of all scores, overall balance of lettered grades, and holistic rating. Despite the syllabus and which grading policy is being used, we’re human. The syllabus can be changed at any time; the same paper can be given to different professors and you can receive a different grade; the student and professor both deal with unfortunate situations that naturally can affect their ability in the classroom.

I remember in one of my courses there was a 5-page paper due every week, and I did them all. this was around the time my father passed. I found it amazing how I was working and dealing with the loss of my father and other students found excuses for not being able to complete the 5-page papers when they had the opportunity to completely focus on school. My perception of those students changed: deep inside I felt they were lazy and taking the time they had for granted. Maybe their perception of me was that my father’s passing didn’t tremendously affect me. But whom they perceived me to be and who I perceived them to be didn’t matter. What mattered was the scores I received and the scores they received.

In comparison to other students I may not have had as much time or been as mentally prepared to complete all the assignments, so shouldn’t that be taken into consideration while being graded? When students with two different lives have to work for the same “A” it’s unrealistic to determine who really put in the effort to deserve that grade. Sadly, all that’s seen is our scores, our final grades.

Matthew L. Sanders and Sky Anderson conducted a study to examine how students cope with discouraging grades. “The downside to grades is that they don’t fully show a student’s academic success,” Sanders states. In many cases an “A” is given to one who did great in the class, probably understood everything, received great grades on the exams etc. but what about someone who grew personally and self-improved and received an “F”?  The “F” student is just looked down upon and perceived to lack the necessary knowledge or skills for a passing grade.

When we continue to rank ourselves amongst our peers and when we continue to view the “A” as a marker of knowing everything in the course is when we really start to lose sight of what learning is about. There are so many factors in determining who gets what grade that it’s nearly impossible to say who truly deserved their grade and why.  With that being said, we only give power to our grades when we continue to let them be the base measure of our academic success.

To the professors, I would just like to say: Like every other paper you’ve read, exam you’ve graded, points you’ve given out, you’ll have to grade my paper and whether or not you think it’s worthy of an “A” or a “F” doesn’t define me as a student, or as a person. It simply means that in this course, in this semester, with you as my professor and me as your student, you believe that x is the right grade for me. I know I’m more than that.


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