The colossal divide between grades and learning: A college experience

Like most freshman entering college, I did not know what I wanted to study. But to play my cards safely, I went ahead and completed required courses for pre-med “just incase” I still did not know what to do upon graduation. BIG MISTAKE! I learned a lot about myself and other friends who were on the pre-med path, with one general constant: by focusing almost entirely¬†on their grades, they hindered their learning capacity. It wasn’t about ‘learning’ biology yet, they maintained. It was only about getting into medical school, where all the “book theory” in the first two years still don’t prepare you for anything except other exams. It was only during rotations in 3rd/4th year medical school, where you visit patients and take a hand-on approach where medical learning begins. Anyone who has a friend in medical school can attest to this narrative (what a waste of time, right? except they got $$$….so sad these are our doctors!)

My roommate was an interesting case-and-point. He simply knew how to make an A, no matter the content, material or structure of the class (Organic Chem, German film, econ, social theory, all A’s!). One time I asked him how he did it. I knew he worked hard, but he did not strike me as someone particularly marked with high acumen. Aside from working hard, re-writing his homework, taking meticulous notes, etc, he made an effort to visit professors and compliment them. “Do this a few times a semester” he advised, “and you will have an A”.


I DID NOT JUST HEAR THAT…(or perhaps I was thinking, “Gee, why didn’t you tell me this earlier dude?”)

My roommate uncovered the subjective element in grading, the human element, that I had so easily forgotten due to my unconscious subservience as a student towards my mythic-god like professors. Don’t get me wrong, he worked really hard. But it was clear to me that he tapped into a resource that pushed him above the rest of us.

I’m certain he doesn’t recall or care much about what he learned in college, but for me, it has been a recurrent nightmare. All those pre-med courses could have been better spent in courses I actually cared about. Luckily, my senior year I met a sociology professor who got me up to speed with “learning”, writing and arguing a cohesive paper, and most importantly, to get me to NOT CARE ABOUT THE GRADE. I would add that this professor was notorious on campus for (1) giving too much reading similar to graduate level courses and (2) never giving an A to a student (there have been rumors that a select few received 3.7 over his 20+ year career teaching).

The words of Dan Pink and Alfie Kohn really struck a cord with me. Replacing grades with narrative assessments has seemed to have a fairly positive effect, especially given the fact that elementary and middle school grades are not considered for college applications. I have been scared from¬†the learning v grading divide. It is a visceral experience that has essentially made me no longer care about grading and only towards learning. Some of my most memorable interactions with people have been those who have learned a skill or language without schooling. When asked how they did so, the reply was usually something like “The school called life taught me!” Somethings we simply learn with time, and adolescents going through high school and college already have so much on their plates. How can we provide narrative reports to students/parents with administrative support from universities? The quality of Letters of Recommendation remain the strongest reason for acceptance into universities. Why not make this a practice for grading?

I’m sure many of you have been on the unfortunate side of the learning/grading divide as well. Comments please!

2 thoughts on “The colossal divide between grades and learning: A college experience”

  1. I really can’t believe your roommate’s ‘secret’ to getting all those A’s! I haven’t heard that one before, but somehow it doesn’t surprise me that this worked. I was sometimes frustrated by the subjective nature of grades in my own experience, and wondered about the usefulness of practices such as ‘curving’ at the end of the semester.

    The question is, if grades were done away with and narrative reports meant to take their place, would these assessments be more or less subjective? On the one hand, I do think they should more accurately reflect what individual students have actually learned and, from the research, it would be better for actual learning. However, what happens if a teacher takes an intense dislike to a particular student for no apparent reason? Or, as in the case of your roommate, what if the professor is swayed by compliments throughout the semester?

  2. Thanks for your comment Brittany. You bring up really important questions about the inexorable nature of subjectivity within all forms of assessments, regardless of the form of the assessment. Something we should bring up in class.

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