“C Students: You too, can be president”

Earlier in May, during a commencement speech former president George W. Bush said to the graduating students:

“To those of you who are graduating this afternoon with high honors, awards and distinctions, I say, ‘Well done.’ And as I like to tell the C students: You too, can be president.” (See video)

This blog is not to debate the 43rd US President. I want to elaborate on my thoughts on the matter of grading. Does it work? Does it promote learning? Is it serving the student or the teacher?

I believe I have been a student all my life. My mother still asks me if I didn’t exit my infant stage, in which I asked ‘why?’ every time. I think I can speak for what motivates a student. I have seen students that say I do not care if I get a C, I just want to pass. I have seen students that say, ‘Oh my God, I got a B, I am going to die.’ Does a grade say a student learned the material? I had a professor during my bachelor, that said when he asked about something students should had learn from previous courses that he was using to scaffold into the new knowledge, and not one student answered: ‘crédito aprobado, crédito olvidado’ (in Spanish it rhymes, it means: approved credit, forgotten credit.’ Students are more focused in passing the class, than in learning and cementing knowledge to use later in their other classes or profession. It has happened to me.

During my bachelor degree, I took the courses required in the curriculum that guaranteed that I would of finish and graduate. Now, in a more mature (I believe) stage of my life, pursuing a doctoral degree, I take classes that call my attention that I want to learn from. Most of the time, I am auditing them, no grade involved. I see that I get more immersed in the topics than when I took a required course in order to graduate. But will these be the case with all students? How do we gauge the transfer of knowledge? Is the grade a tool for the teacher to learn how well he disseminated the material? Or is it to know how well the student ‘learned it’? Are the grades forcing students to look inside the box and not explore their creativity and look out of the box? All difficult questions, maybe, with not a single simple answer…

11 thoughts on ““C Students: You too, can be president””

  1. During my undergrad, a common phrase I heard was “C’s get degrees.” Students in college have different work ethics, different goals, and different opinions regarding grades and their importance, which you hit on above. At the end of the day, they are correct; a diploma of a C student looks the same as the diploma I received as an A student (minus some cum laude distinctions, or what not). Ultimately though, regardless of a GPA, a college graduate is seen as a college graduate, and grades or GPA probably aren’t the first thing potential employers look at when trying to fill a position.

    The phrase you included about earned credit, forgotten credit is an interesting one. Would our system be better off if we focused more on pass/fail designations rather than the traditional A-F scale we use?

  2. I agree, all difficult questions, but good one none the less. Like you, I was very excited when I got to graduate school and was able to study what I wanted without fear of the grade.
    Sure, i have to earn at least a B in a class in order to keep my assistantship, but the feeling is different. I just do the best work I can because once I earn a PhD, no one is going to ask me what my GPA was, everyone just assumes I am some kind of “smart.” I think it is unfortunate that we have to be in graduate school before that general smartness is assumed.
    I like the title of the blogpost, mostly because I felt like the student who got Cs. At the end of the day, I am in graduate school, as is the kid who studied really super hard and never went out on the weekends and did not have a work/life balance and OMG SCHOOL ALL THE TIME!!!! And I think I had more fun.

  3. Difficult but very important questions we need to keep asking in every possible scenario in higher education.

    I agree with all of you, but one thing that caught my attention is the unstated assumption that a C student is the student that didn’t effort as much as the A student. As I see it that might not be the case. I have been an A student for most of my academic life, and that doesn’t mean that I was the student that was working hard or even making an effort. In fact (and I shouldn’t be saying this out loud) I wasn’t kicked out of College in my undergrad or in high school just because of my grades. I was lazy, rebel, and hated classes. For me it was painful to be seating in a classroom for more than 20 minutes. In Graduate school some things changed since I’m more mature (maybe). At the end I realized that I have a great skill, I’m an excellent test-taker. I can identify the professor style to design tests and just crack whatever is the way they are going to answer me something and most of the time get away with A’s doing the minimum effort. In contrast, my best friend (a C student) is the most hard working and committed person that I know. He spent all the possible hours a week doing school-related work, however, he is really bad at taking tests. Sadly most of the education in Venezuela is graded based on standards tests, so you can do the math.

    I also agree that is not only fun to have a life balance and enjoy your time in College, it will also paid off when you graduate. When I was recruiting for J&J one of the things we were looking for was the candidate that was able to be different, that had life experiences, that had a great story to tell. GPA’s didn’t matter at all, in fact my boss was always against 4.0 people.

    1. Hi Homero, Thanks a lot for sharing this anecdote! Since I am also (I guess I should not say this aloud) secretly against GPA 4.0 students, I could not resist to jump in to comment 🙂 I totally agree with you that GPA 4.0 says something (directly or indirectly) about the person’s adaptability to the system (in good and bad ways). The research also supports the hypothesis that the “leaders” and “losers” share the trait of not being able to “fit in” the system, and staying outside the box. In this regard, Bush’s comment makes a lot of sense.

  4. Thank you for this post- it raises very interesting and important points. I did place a TON of stress on myself in undergraduate studies on grades. I did “freak out” at the thought of a B. I think if anything, this reflects the emphasis from outside sources on the importance of GPA for “the next stage in life” (as well as my own neurosis). Although I’ve been told that grades do not matter in a PhD program because you will have a doctorate versus a GPA, I still find myself stressing over each exam- I can’t seem to rid the thought of grades from my mind. Unfortunately, this hopeful change in future curriculum will be too late to alter my personal academic experience, but I believe the future professors have the ability to change the culture from a grade-motivated classroom to a learning-and-application-motivated classroom.

  5. I find your ‘required credit forgotten credit’ comment interesting as well. I do agree that the American counterpart to this is ‘C’s get degrees’. Some people believe that the A-F system should be replaced with the pass/fail system similar to some medical schools. I have a friend whose undergraduate degree is from Harvard, all of his undergrad courses were taken pass/fail. In highschool he was motivated (extrinsically) to get A’s so he could go to a good college. Once he reached college, he no longer was motivated because the grades didn’t matter as much. I do understand that in some instances this is a positive approach as it takes the focus off of the distinction between the A and the B, allowing students more free space in their brain where they usually worry, to be creative, but in my friends case the opposite was true. He used his time, well, let’s just say not studying.

  6. As a former professional that has hired and fired, I have to say I did not even consider GPA when looking through resumes.

    I looked first for a college degree and the field of that degree, and place and manner through which it was earned (paying no attention to for-profit schools or online colleges), then professional experience, then internship experience, then, if there were still too many resumes on my desk, previously held job titles. All this, of course, after looking at composition – font, format, paper and print quality, etc.
    That applicant’s GPA did not matter in the slightest. Then again, I was hiring writers, photographers – journalists. I expect the criteria to be a bit different in, say, biochemical engineering.

  7. Ahh yes, the 4.0 students. Nothing against them, but it seemed as though many of my friends (and I admit that I am guilty) wanted to be one. But those standardized tests killed me. Under stressful situations when studying or actually testing, I often felt as though the exams were “high stakes” tests, that if somehow failed would level my academic (and unfortunately my moral) standing completely. Every thought bouncing around in my head (“will I pass”, “oh no, what if I can’t finish in time”, “what if… what if”) would actually cause me to think unclearly about the questions staring at me from the exam. I don’t miss my undergraduate, or my graduate courses that were similar. I do wish someone would have tried something new, something that would step out of the bounds of what is considered traditional teaching. Like history, it seems as though old school traditional teaching is doomed to repeat itself.

  8. I can definitely see how harmful grades can be to motivate learning but I do have to wonder… do we as students have the self control to engage even in the subjects we don’t enjoy without some sort of really concrete form of motivation, such as grades? It’s easy to think about how great it would be to be able to engage ourselves in learning about subjects we enjoy or care about, but what about those we aren’t as interested in?

  9. Very interesting post. In my experience my grade stressed undergrad days didn’t teach me anything, however when I audit a course without caring about the grades I don’t do any of the assignments, and even then I don’t really learn much (although the class is more fun). I think grades are the easy way out to motivate students in the sense that they are forced to participate. However, igniting true motivation where the student participates out of the desire to participate is a lot harder to achieve!

  10. In this stage of my academic career, I agree that I no longer require grades to motivate me for my classes. However, I must admit that if it wasn’t for my impending preliminary exams, I would not be revisiting much of the crucial material I learned during my first two years in graduate school. I was lucky enough to study abroad in New Zealand during undergrad, where class grades were based EXCLUSIVELY on our final exam grade. I learned very quickly (through failing my first class, Genetics) that I absolutely needed graded milestones to keep me motivated throughout the semester. While this doesn’t apply to every student, I do think it applies to many. I believe the need for external motivation is even greater for younger students, or those who have not yet learned how to be professional learners.

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