Interpreting Grades in College: A Guide for Students


Grades are not a measure of self-worth
Getting good grades does mean something
But getting good grades doesnít mean everything
Bad grades have no unambiguous interpretation
Feedback vs. evaluation
How professors feel about grades
What to do when you really feel course grade is not fair
Conclusion: Grades are purely a measure of your work, not who you are

(c) 2000 by Laura Rediehs



College students can feel under a lot of pressure about the grades they receive for the courses they take. Sometimes their parents put pressure on them to receive good grades. Other times it may be that they need to maintain a minimum grade point average in order to keep scholarships or to be able to continue participating in certain activities or organizations. Many students feel that their future opportunities will be largely, or in part, determined by their grade point average, especially if they want to continue studies beyond college, or if they aspire to a competitive job or profession. In addition to these external pressures, many students are internally motivated to do their best and may set high standards for themselves, believing that the grades they receive are a measure of their success or failure in meeting these standards.

While grades do constitute a reality of college life in the United States that must be faced, it is very important to understand them for what they are and not let them interfere with the most important aspect of college life: the opportunity to get a real education.

This guide is intended to help students seeking a liberal arts education to understand the grades they receive in college. It is important to acknowledge that there is a peculiar tension, perhaps even a paradox, between the ideals of a liberal arts education and the U.S. higher education grading system.

The reasons for evaluating students are clearer when talking about various kinds of practical education. We do want bridge engineers to design bridges that will not fall down. We do hope that surgeons can tell the difference between a patientís liver and lung. When we call on people to put their training to practical purposes, we are right to expect a certain competence. Someone in society has to determine whether the people who want to sell their skills are competent. And so schools do not just provide education and training, but also provide various kinds of evaluation and certification as well. In addition, employers also try to evaluate the skills and competencies of potential employees, and various professional associations and accrediting agencies evaluate methods of evaluation as a kind of double-check to ensure that standards remain high.

While this emphasis on frequent evaluation in order to maintain high standards might be understandable in the context of training for specific practical purposes, a liberal arts education is not meant to be a specific practical kind of education. And so there remains a question as to what should be the proper relationship between education and evaluation in a liberal arts context.

The particular problem is that frequent evaluation puts a kind of pressure on students that can detract from the deeper ideals of a liberal arts education. The more students worry about grades (and they typically feel that they have good reasons to worry about grades), the more they will play it safe, not take intellectual risks, get upset when challenged too much, and narrow their focus to just those components of a course that are likely to improve their grade.

While ideally getting good grades should correspond with getting a good education (and these can correspond well in practical education), the most important kinds of knowledge in a liberal arts education are the most difficult to evaluate; and conversely, the kind of knowledge that is easiest to evaluate objectively is usually the least important for a liberal arts education. Thus, the students who are most adept at getting good grades might be the ones most likely to miss out on some of the deeper goals of a liberal arts education.

Meanwhile, some of the students who take their educations most seriously, and even allow themselves to be changed by it, might not always be the students who consistently receive the best grades.

This, then, is a guide for any liberal arts student who is puzzled by aspects of grading in college, or who has felt hurt in any way by the grading system. It may also have relevance to students receiving other kinds of education, because even though it is easier to evaluate the more practical forms of knowledge, it is not perfectly straightforward or immune from error, bad pedagogy, etc., either.

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Grades are not a measure of self-worth

This is the most important first principle to internalize. Most professors agree with this. Those who disagree with this (professors, parents, or potential employers) are simply wrong. Donít let them intimidate you. Do everything in your power to create for yourself structures (that have nothing to do with grades) that will affirm your value as a human being. Get involved in meaningful activities, related to your interests, that do not have any evaluative components. If your main interests are academic interests, then participate in enjoyable discussion groups outside of class to further your interests (and confidence) and/or get into the habit of talking with professors about ideas just for the sake of talking about those ideas. If you have trouble reconciling this kind of relationship with the evaluative role the professor has to assert, then talk with professors other than the ones with whom you are currently taking classes!

If you are ever feeling discouraged or unworthy because of poor performance grade-wise (or for any other reason!), re-read this passage: you really are a gift to the world; you give in ways you do not even realize. You have intrinsic value. There really are people who care about your well-being. There really are people who appreciate your being around. Everything you have ever appreciated about yourself really is valuable, whether other people have noticed these things about you yet or not. It is also worth remembering that professors themselves do not base their liking or disliking of students on the grades they give those students. Very often professors can get annoyed with A students who are too obsessed with grades, and greatly admire C students who participate well in class and are not too worried about their grades! Professors also have great sympathy for D students who are trying really hard not to fail the course.

Taking education seriously does require a certain amount of self-confidence, and it is very important not to let discouraging grades undermine your confidence. Do all you can to build this up. It is harder for some people than others. It may have a lot to do with your upbringing. If you know that you have a problem with self-confidence, you may have to work at finding ways to develop it. You can even let good grades boost your confidence, but you must not let the bad grades undermine your confidence! And you certainly must not rest all of your confidence-building upon your grades or other kinds of external evaluation. You must develop your own sense of who you are, what your interests are, and what you do well. The confident person is one who has developed this inner sense, but is also able to listen to what others say and interpret these things carefully, neither giving them undue weight, nor undervaluing them. In a way, this is exactly what this document is all about.

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Getting good grades does mean something

Good grades do affirm successful communication between professor and student, and that the student has been able to convince the professor that she or he has learned some important things or mastered certain important skills that the professor hoped the students would learn and master.

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But getting good grades doesnít mean everything

Depending on how the course and graded assignments were planned, a good grade may or may not indicate a certain mastery of the subject of the course. Graded assignments can never measure everything a student has learned. Grade-oriented students learn how to focus on the bare minimum of learning that will earn them a good grade. If the course is well-designed, this approach will ensure a certain kind of mastery of core material. In a course not so well designed, this is not assured. But even in the best-designed courses, there is a basic truth that reflects the deep problem with our entire grading system: that the most important kinds of knowledge in a liberal arts education are the most difficult to evaluate; and conversely, that the kind of knowledge that is easiest to evaluate objectively can be the least important.

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Bad grades have no unambiguous interpretation

A bad grade is here understood to be any grade that disappoints you. What follows is a listing of the various possible meanings of your receiving a grade that disappoints you.

Sometimes you get a bad grade for not having done all that was expected.

When this happens, your professors are often sad about this, because what you did do may have shown considerable talent.

Sometimes you havenít really tried.

Professors are often sad about this too, when they realize thatís whatís going on. You may have considerable talent, but you are not letting the world see this. You are not only depriving yourself of the recognition you should receive, but you are depriving the world of the good you could bring if you only learned to take the risk of trying and showing.

Sometimes you have tried.

Even so, the bad grade can be interpreted in different ways.

    1. It may mean that this is just not one of your strong fields. But be cautious about reaching this conclusion.
    2. It may reflect some failure of communication between you and your professor. The fault may not be entirely yours. But it is up to you to be pro-active about trying to figure out the reasons for the failure of the communication, and be prepared to accept responsibility for your share in this.
    3. Bad grades when you have really tried are always an opportunity to learn something important about yourself, your relationship to the world, and your relationship to the field of study. But it really is up to you to figure this out.
Sometimes you donít really care (about the subject; about the bad grade).

This is actually okay! It is up to you whether to care or not. Of course, there may be others in your life who care that you donít care, and wish you would do better. This is because they realize that not getting the best grades that are possible for you may make it harder for you to embark on your dreams after college. Even if you think now that your goals are such that your grades in college really will not matter, you may in the future change your mind about what you want to do with your life. Also, not caring about things may be a sign of depression, and people are justified in being concerned about this. Finally, not caring deprives you of getting the most from your experiences. If you have to take the course, you might as well take it seriously Ė you may be surprised to find it more interesting than you would have thought.

Sometimes you may feel that caring about grades undermines your attempt to get a real education.

Perhaps you prefer to get what you can out of a course without much regard for the "requirements." Perhaps you take inspiration from the Einstein example: he didnít always "play by the rules" in his college education, and some of his teachers thought he wouldnít amount to much! Having this attitude about your college education is legitimate, and might not even undermine your success in being able to contribute important intellectual accomplishments to the world. If this is really your goal, just remember that it is sincere effort and real education that counts Ė not wishful thinking. If your grades are not great, and you have serious intellectual aspirations, there will be times when you will have to work harder than most to prove that you have learned what you need to learn, that you have indeed gotten an excellent education.

There is another caution worth mentioning, especially if serious intellectual accomplishments are your aspiration: it is important to maintain an attitude of humility and respect towards your teachers. Before neglecting course requirements in pursuit of what you regard as educationally important, pause to give your professors the benefit of the doubt Ė make sure you have seriously considered their goals for the course and their methodology for achieving those goals. Professors are often smarter than you think! In the long run, the more you can fit your own educational goals within what the people around you are asking of you, the easier it will be to open succeeding doors that will enable you to continue your pursuits.

You are depressed or have low self-confidence.

There are other crises in your life Ė illness, death, relationship problems, money problems, homesickness, etc.

You are overwhelmed with too much to do, between all your courses, participation in sports, church, or other activities, and perhaps also a job or more!

You havenít learned basic study skills.

The net result of this listing of the various possible explanations for bad grades is that the real reason bad grades are looked down upon is not because they indicate that you are incapable Ė most people know that they cannot really draw this conclusion Ė but because of the ambiguity itself! People donít know what the bad grades really mean from situation to situation. But they do know that good grades mean something. So they tend to play it safe and choose the person with good grades. It is a matter of measuring risk: the worst mistake theyíd make choosing someone with good grades is that theyíd choose someone who is a boring, uncreative person, but at least the person would still be reliable and good at understanding and following instructions. If they chose someone with an interesting mix of grades, they might be choosing someone self-directed and confident enough not to care about grades, someone creative and interesting, but they also might be choosing someone who is self-absorbed and unable to listen to others or follow through with assignments, or someone who is hopelessly disorganized, or someone with deep unresolved issues, etc. Most people find the latter set of risks scarier. While having these problems doesnít make you an unworthy person as a human being (see above on grades not being a measure of self-worth), sometimes some of these problems can interfere with your ability to get certain kinds of work done, and so employers are somewhat justified in caring about those sorts of problems.

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Feedback vs. evaluation

One of the biggest problems with the grading system is that grades often play a dual role in classes: they serve at once to give feedback and to evaluate. Why is this a problem? The problem is that in good education students need opportunities for substantive feedback without that feedback being tied to permanent evaluation.

Consider the following example: a student receives a writing assignment but does not yet fully understand it, but thinks she does understand it. Let us assume that the writing assignment is worth 30% of the course grade. She writes a paper that she thinks is a perfectly good paper, and expects an A or a B. When she receives the paper back, she is horrified to realize she has earned a C. Assuming that the psychological shock wears off and enables her to take a careful look at the professorís comments, she comes to understand the nature of her errors, and even to understand why the grade was justified. Nevertheless, the C will be averaged into her final grade, and so the highest that her final grade could be would be an A-, if she does stellar work from here on. While the professorís feedback could have provided a very valuable educational experience, it is not clear why the studentís initial efforts should bring down her grade if, by the end of the course, she masters the art of writing good papers appropriate to the subject matter of the course.

Of course, professors can get around this by having all of the early work in the course non-graded, but they find that students do generally want early indications of their grades in the course, and often misperceive ungraded assignments as an extra burden and as not really "counting," and so they may be inclined not to take these assignments as seriously as they should. The result is that in most courses, grades continue, problematically, to play their dual role. Students know that each graded assignment will be evaluated, and so they play it safe when usually taking risks is more valuable educationally, because taking risks generates more meaningful feedback. This system of grades serving this dual role favors the students who come into courses already quite skilled at the kind of work that the course is supposed to be teaching. But those students who are true beginners can feel punished by the conflation of feedback with evaluation.

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How professors feel about grades

There are those (perhaps most), who regard grades as a necessary evil.

These professors are probably somewhat uncomfortable with having to grade, and deal with their discomfort in various ways, some of which may not be particularly helpful to you, the student. They mean well, and try to grade fairly, but may not have read the research on how to evaluate students fairly. (Professors in general probably mostly model their grading techniques on how they were graded as students, and do little or no reading of the research on how to evaluate students.)

Other professors regard grading as an unnecessary evil.

Some of these professors are bold enough to try various nontraditional ways of determining grades. If you have such professors, take advantage of the opportunity to have a great educational experience. Try to make such professorsí experiments work. Why? If the grading system is ever going to change, it will be because some professors like these were able to make an alternative work. They need your help. They are very courageous, and at some schools may even meet with resistance or disapproval from some of their constituencies.

Then there are the professors who regard grading as an unnecessary evil who still struggle to make the best of the system, and try to play by the rules.

These professors are worth valuing as well. They are trying very hard to be fair, and to not let grades undermine your education. These noble intentions donít guarantee that they will succeed, but they probably appreciate engaging in dialogue with students who also care about education and resent having to worry about grades. The tension these professors feel under is that if they were to try something radical within the existing system, it wouldnít really work because within the existing system students will continue to feel under grade-pressure in their other courses, and wish for a consistent set of rules for how to do well as students. These professors feel that if they make it easy to get Aís, for example, their students will ignore their class in order to give more time to classes in which it is harder to get good grades.

Finally, there are the professors who do think grades are important.

They usually appreciate how good grades are at motivating their students, and have good arguments why constant evaluation of student work is necessary (i.e., better than no evaluation or occasional evaluation). For the most part, they probably mean well and sincerely care about education, but they may underestimate the significance of the psychological factors associated with grades. Like the other kinds of professors, some are skilled at the art of fair use of grades, and others not so skilled.

Professors are under a peculiar tension between pressure to grade generously, and pressure to grade hard.

Most professors are aware that giving generous grades results in more positive course evaluations, and grading hard yields more negative course evaluations. Furthermore, they notice that grading more generously leads to fewer complaints from students after handing back assignments. Most professors are annoyed when students complain about grades, and would like to minimize this: they feel that it detracts from meaningful education. Another pressure to grade generously comes from parents or others who have an interest in particular students getting good grades. Believe it or not, there are parents who call professors and deans to complain about poor grades received by their kids in college, and they try to strong-arm better grades, usually by pointing out how much they are paying for their kidsí education. All of these factors contribute towards the phenomenon of grade inflation.

But professors also feel under a contrary pressure to keep the standards up, resist grade inflation, and earn a reputation for being tough (but fair). This latter approach also tends to command a certain kind of respect, or perhaps fear, from students. Professors who are very strict and teach important required courses often succeed in maintaining high attendance and the keen attention of their students. Some professors feel in a kind of competition with their colleagues, wanting students to pay attention to their course all the time, and will use the motivational power of grades to ensure this.

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What to do when you really feel course grade is not fair

It can be very frustrating to take a course seriously, think you are working hard and doing well, but find that you do not get the grades you think you deserve. If you find yourself in this situation, there are various ways you can respond. It is probably least productive to simply complain to yourself or your friends about this, or save your fury for the final course evaluations. Many professors take pride in studentsí complaints about the grading, thinking that the complaining is a sign that they are being tough enough to counteract the evils of grade inflation. Those sensitive professors who really do feel bad when students complain about grades might still feel justified in the grades that they give out, or might not know how to change the way they grade. So if you honestly do think that you have received a lower grade than you deserve, it is important to try to talk to your professor, and it will almost surely be an important educational experience for you, especially if you heed the following advice.

Donít simply go and ask for extra credit assignments

If you simply go in and ask if thereís anything you can do for extra credit, the answer will probably be "no" since professors are very busy people and assigning extra credit means extra work. The professor would feel compelled to extend this option to everyone in class, in the spirit of fairness, but doing so would then create hours of more grading.

Instead, go in and talk about how much you are learning in the course. State specifically the things you are learning and the skills you are developing that you donít feel are being adequately measured by the existing graded assignments. Be tactful and respectful. Show that you understand and appreciate some or all of the professorís stated goals. Show that you have thought about the ways the graded assignments are supposed to measure progress towards these goals. Finally, propose some specific alternative kinds of assignments that would fulfill the educational goals that you feel are not being adequately measured by the existing assignments. The professor will be very impressed if you actually bring samples of completed work that fulfills the requirements of the alternative kinds of assignments you propose.

Be prepared for the possibility that there are important things that you are missing.

Your talk with your professor might help you to realize that the grading has indeed been fair, and that there are important skills or kinds of knowledge that you are not developing as well as you should. If this is the result of your conversation, the conversation will have been very valuable for you, educationally.

Getting a second opinion if you feel your professor is being unreasonable

If your conversation is frustrating, and you feel that you and the professor have failed to understand each other, it can be helpful to get a second opinion. If you do this, be prepared when you go talk to the other professor. You should probably choose another professor in the same field, who may or may not be the chair of the department. Show the professor the syllabus and your graded assignments. Explain to that professor what you feel you have learned that is not being measured. Donít insist on immediate answers. The second professor will need time to read the materials and perhaps talk with your professor.

What to expect

Realistically, the professor will probably be reluctant to change your grade or to allow you to do extra work without making that option available to the others in the class, and a second professor is likely to back up his or her colleague. But if you handle the situation in a respectful way and make clear that you have thought about the relationship with the goals of good education and how progress towards these goals should be measured, you will probably have some very interesting conversations and learn a lot about human nature! You might even succeed in getting a better grade in the end. At any rate, you will have encouraged one or more professors to think more about how they use grades in their class, and in doing so, you might help future students to have less frustrating educational experiences.

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Conclusion: Grades are purely a measure of your work, not who you are

As you deal with the grades you receive in college, always remember that grades are purely a measure of your work, not who you are. But grades can tell you some things about yourself, if interpreted carefully. Grades do also have the power to open certain doors for your in the future, so there are good reasons to take them seriously. Just donít let grades undermine your sense of self-worth, the goals you really want to strive for, or your opportunity to obtain an authentic education.

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