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It seems like every term, I try to turn over a new leaf and fashion quarterly resolutions about how I’m going to stop procrastinating this term, or how I’m going to eat at least one vegetable every day this term. The spring in particular is uniquely situated for this sort of thing- it seems to be somewhat of a release from the grind of winter term, but lacks the optimism and budding ambition of the fall. All this to say, by the end of week three, any unrealistic hopes I had for the term have almost certainly fallen by the wayside, so I think it’s a good time to consider a new goal now that you have a sense of your capacity for change this term: stop trying to get good grades.
Wait, come back. I don’t mean that this should be the term where you fail all your classes because you started partying five days a week after learning that you don’t need to wear a mask anymore, I mean that you’re paying too much to go here to be working for anything other than yourself. Let me explain.
Grades are a very good system for getting people to turn in assignments and do the work required to make classes happen, and for students – especially those who get good grades – it can be rewarding, and even fun to see the A’s roll in at the end of finals week. What grades have almost nothing to do with, however, is how hard a student works, how smart they are, or even how well they’re doing in a class.
One person who’s written a lot about this is Jo Boaler, a Stanford professor who’s one of the leading experts on education and grading. In one paper, she writes that when they receive grades, “students should learn three things: where they are now, where they need to be, and ways to close the gap between the two places” (Black & Wiliam, 1998). Grades do not communicate any of these important understandings. When students receive a grade or a test score, it does not tell them what they know and don’t know, it does not help students know how to learn more effectively, and it does not give them an idea of what they need to learn. A grade or test score simply communicates to students where they are in relation to other students. This is known as “ego feedback,” a form of feedback that has been found to be damaging for learning (Butler, 1988).”
So it’s been shown in research that for students losing points on assignments, their grades are not useful in helping them improve, and wear away at their self esteem, but I argue that it works the other way around as well; even if you’re getting all A’s, not all such grades are created equal. Consider three students in a class. One understands the concepts well, applies them to other subject areas and classes and helps their friends in the class with their work when they need it; one does well on exams and papers but isn’t so worried about thinking beyond the information they’ve been given and one has figured out what the professor is looking for in papers and assignments, so they’re able to get good grades without even really understanding the material particularly well. All three of these students almost certainly get an A in the class, but they all had very different experiences and takeaways. This is a fairly abstract example, but I anecdotally know people who fit all three of these molds, and countless others, who all do very well in school, but who in truth have wildly different levels of understanding and skill in the subjects they study.
Even if that doesn’t matter to you, one other thing to consider is that grades in college are very different from in high school. Your grades aren’t getting you into college, and even if you are part of the mere third of Lawrence grads who plan to continue their education after graduating, graduate admissions is a very different game – one that focuses on students’ work and connections far more than the letters on their transcript compared to undergrad admissions. And for the other 75%, this is it. As much as I hate the phrase, C’s do in fact get degrees, so focusing on your work itself is far more important than the numbers arbitrarily assigned to it by some professor who doesn’t have a thought about it five seconds after typing it into the system. For people who derive any amount of their self-worth from their grades (and you might, even if you don’t think you do), it may be worth considering that in a few short years, that source of self-worth will be gone, with no easy replacement in sight. Does the phrase “gifted kid burnout” resonate with you? That’s nothing compared to what’s coming down the pike.
So what is a person to do? We are so entrenched in the purpose of school as getting good grades that it’s hard to imagine any other way to do it. From my experience of being someone who once cared very deeply about grades, and now doesn’t really worry about them, I have three main pieces of advice.
The first, and arguably most important is to find what you’re interested in, and do that. Learning can’t happen without motivation to do the work. Frustratingly, for many this is also arguably the hardest part. Lawrence talks at great length about how “multi-interested” our student body is, but conveniently omits the part where not having one specific area of interest often means you feel like you’re not that interested in anything you’re studying. And even for people who do feel like they have their “thing,” winter term has a way of killing the joy in studying just about anything. If you fall into the former group, that’s ok! That’s why you’re at a liberal arts school. Keep trying things, in and out of the classroom, and odds are you’ll happen upon something that catches your interest. If you’re more disillusioned with something you used to love, think about how you grew to love that area, and try to reconnect with it, even if that means taking a break from classes on it (so long as that’s possible).
My second piece of advice is to train yourself to shift your focus away from grades. Just because you’re not working for your grades doesn’t mean you’re not working, and working to hand in stuff you’re really proud of is, in my opinion, even more rewarding than getting back a good grade. When you set goals, consider what doing good work looks like to you in a more holistic way, and when you’re inclined to click submit and think, “I hope I do well on this,” replace your hope with an affirmation: you did your best possible work under the circumstances, and that’s good enough. Do your best work so you can say that and mean it! This becomes easier when you’re interested in what you’re studying, and the cruel truth is that if you do assignments this way, you’ll probably still get good grades, and might even get better ones than before. That was certainly the case for me, and I have a number of theories as to why (I may share those in another article, if anyone reading would be interested).
The third and final thought I have to share is that for a long time, I – as someone who like many Lawrentians does a lot of things on campus – was caught between two minds on how best to balance all the things I was involved in. Should I work to excel in everything I do, because excellence is a habit, or is there only so much energy I have to give, so it’s best to prioritize the things I care about most and not worry about being such a perfectionist on the things that aren’t so important to me? After much deliberation I’ve come to the conclusion that for me, it’s undoubtedly the latter. Maybe that isn’t the case for you! If I was doing fewer things, I think I would certainly have an easier time feeling like I could give one hundred percent focus to all of them, but I don’t know anyone who really does few enough things to justifiably feel that way.
I also realize that my perspective comes from a place of great privilege: my parents support my work and myself rather than my grades, and my ableness and experience in a strong high school have meant that good grades mostly come pretty easily, especially in music classes, where an A in things like lessons and ensembles are more of a technicality most of the time, so I’m never really in danger of losing things like scholarships. Still, I think it’s hard to argue that our culture of perfectionism and workaholism is pretty toxic and damaging most of the time, and that we could all benefit from a little less stress in our lives. Hopefully a few of the words I’ve written here help!