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Grade Smarter

The Problem with Letter Grades and How It’s Affecting Our Education System

Devised to streamline and provide objectivity, the letter grades we use throughout the United States are not without problems, just ask any student or faculty member. As with any formal reporting systems, participants and monitors modify behavior to achieve “the ends” (i.e., letter grades) rather than focus on “the means” (i.e., learning). As discussed in the History of Grading in the United States, The letter grading system has some unintended consequences. The problem with letter grades is growing and continues to affect our education system negatively.

Letter grades matter. Students obsess about grades as a signal of worth and identity. Despite a teacher’s good intentions, letter grades have important ramifications in a student’s life. High schoolers worry about achieving near perfect grades to attend a prestigious university. In undergraduate programs, students need high marks to declare into certain majors, attain scholarships, and gain employment or entrance to graduate school. Grades then become chips in the poker game of student life. As with poker, your stack of chips is all too visible.

The Real Problems

One problem with letter grades is that it discourages the pursuit of learning. Students seek the professor that provides the easy “A.” Sites like Rate My Professor are “required reading” before students register for classes. Ideally, students would be looking for signals of good teaching, but many of them focus on the course grading scale. Accordingly, students flock to a teacher that have positive grading reviews. Because of the importance of grades, students shy away from majors and coursework for fear of not getting an “A.” Students will avoid rigor and seek security in their learning rather than take risks and explore. 

Another problem is that most universities have adopted a “customer satisfaction” model as a barometer for good teaching. In a way, the teacher evaluation system forces teachers to shift their focus from teaching to satisfying their students. With such a heavy emphasis on these evaluations, teachers may feel pressure to inflate grades. However, when teachers do not, students receiving poor marks tend to drop classes rather than persevere. Also, providing low grades throughout the course could logically affect a student’s opinion of the professor and therefore affect the teacher’s evaluation. This system creates a never-ending cycle of teachers sacrificing their curriculum and students filtering out good and bad professors.

What Can We Do Now?

These end-of-course grades are intended to convey achievement. Our letter grade system provides a common framework and vocabulary to communicate within, between, and outside educational institutions. This, in and of itself, is a significant benefit to our education system. These grades are used by students, other faculty, university administrators, and prospective employers to make a multitude of different decisions. Despite the many problems with letter grades, maybe it’s not the system but human behavior to blame.

As a society, we need to shift our emphasis from letter grades to actual learning. Too many of the problems include students interested in a particular subject, but not willing to take the risk. This behavior stems from the fear of failing. We need to encourage our students to welcome failure and see it as a learning experience rather than utter defeat.

Casper from GradeHub
Casper Lee is majoring in business at the University of California, Irvine and this year’s marketing intern at GradeHub