This article originally appeared in Psychology Today.
Many students and their parents see grades as the brass ring on the educational merry-go-round. But grades aren’t necessarily indicative of intelligence. In essence, they are the currency of a complex academic/economic social structure. They can be used to gain access to competitive universities and programs, and to earn awards, scholarships, and recognition.
Because they are theoretically based on numerical calculations, many people assume they are an objective measure of achievement. But rather than being comparable to a tangible measure of time or distance, they are more akin to the scores given to a gymnast by a judge. They reflect someone else’s belief that you have met a set of performance criteria. In essence, they are a subjective decision based on subjective criteria, rather than a measurable construct.
As a result, grades are not an unbiased measure of knowledge and intelligence, but rather a marker of how much time, money and planning an individual is willing and able to invest in their pursuit. Unfortunately, some students are better prepared to succeed at this task than others. Children who attended good schools and have familial support and resources have often spent years being coached on how to succeed in the classroom. Students who attended underfunded high schools or come from families that lack economic resources and college experience aren’t so lucky. Essentially, we ask them to compete on a sophisticated playing field without a coach or a rulebook, and then question why they have trouble keeping up with kids who have been playing at elite levels their whole lives. In reality, we should stop being surprised that so many underprivileged students don’t complete college their college degrees, and instead be amazed at those who do manage to overcome the economic, social, and systemic barriers we place in their way.
Even when students manage to become the first person in their family to attend college, these “first generation” students still struggle to understand what they need to do to succeed. For example, I often find that first generation students believe that they should continue to try to pass a class, no matter how poorly they are doing. Or they assume that they can save time and money by taking as many classes per semester as possible. By the time they admit that they aren’t keeping up with their course work, it is often too late to withdraw.
What they don’t realize is that GPA is calculated cumulatively, so it is actually quite hard to recover from a D or an F. When they subsequently apply to a graduate or professional program, or even a job, they find that to be eligible for consideration they have to meet a fixed GPA, regardless of whatever else they have accomplished. When my own daughters were in college, I urged each of them to drop a class when their efforts to connect with the material, and to get help from the instructor weren’t working. However, many well-meaning parents don’t understand the implications of earning a poor grade or have the financial resources to absorb the lost time and tuition failing dropping a course entails.
So, what should we be telling students about how to achieve academic success? I challenge my students to think of school as a job. But I warn them that instead of focusing on learning one position or skill set, they are going to be asked to take on three to five new work-related projects, each with a different boss, every few months. To do that successfully they have to figure out how to balance the tasks against each other and to figure out what each Instructor (the boss of the class) values. Are they a stickler for punctuality? Do they emphasize attendance or participation? How do they like assignments to be done? What knowledge do they want you to master? Is there a particular style of writing they like? What measures are they going to use to assess your performance? How did the students who did well in their class study?
You can garner such information by carefully reading your syllabus, going to online sites where previous students have evaluated the professor, asking other students in your program, and talking with the faculty member yourself. While this may seem like gaming the system, it is no different than trying to figure out a new job. Successful employees focus on learning their job and doing it the way the boss wants it done. When they have trouble, they look to people who are already trained in the position, to see how they do it and they ask for advice. Unfortunately, many students view advising and tutoring as remedial, and are afraid to approach faculty members for help.
Of course, there will always be students, like gifted athletes, who have the talent, interest or experience needed to excel in a field regardless of the situation. However, just as in sports, many successful people get ahead because they are willing to work both harder and smarter. Spending the time to figure out how to play the game on the field, or in the classroom can make a huge difference in what you learn, and how your scores or grades reflect that knowledge. I once had a student complain that my test didn’t “show what she knows.” I don’t doubt it, but the fact remains that her job as a student is to figure out how to show me what she knows in a format that I can recognize and endorse so she gets my stamp of approval.
While purists argue that students who prioritize learning will be rewarded, that is only part of the picture. Making sure that each student knows how the game works, what it takes to succeed, and who they can turn to for help is an essential component of the process. Grades aren’t always the best measure of a student’s motivation, ability or potential, but they are often the only metric used to assess performance. If we put the effort into making sure everyone understands the game and has the resources they need to play, we could greatly reduce the number of students whose unforced errors cause them to quit before they reach their goals.
Terenzini, P.T., Springer, L., Yaeger, P.M. et al. First-generation college students: Characteristics, experiences, and cognitive development. Res High Educ 37, 1–22 (1996). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01680039