Do I Need to Know That?

Value Learning

As a teacher at a local university, I see the fallout of our emphasis on grades first hand day after day. We do a great disservice to our youth by allowing them to believe grades define success.

As we approach final exam season at our university, I find myself beset by many students trying to find out how to maximize their grade-to-effort ratio, all of them asking some version of the question:

Do I need to know that for the final exam?
Do I need to know
Tell me which paragraphs of the text will be relevant throughout the rest of my life so I can ignore the rest, thanks.

They’re not interested in learning – they’re interested in passing.

Sometimes I’m foolish enough to share my belief that we place too large an emphasis on the importance of grades with my classes. I then find my office hours filled with students who are currently not passing my course.

Hey, since grades don't matter, could you bump me up to a pass?
Hey, since grades don’t matter, could you bump me up to a pass?

*Sigh* … No.

So fine, grades do matter, but not in the way you think. You need to get a certain grade to pass, and you need to pass enough things to get your degree. But, you can’t use your grades to buy groceries, and, despite what we lead students to believe, you can’t exchange a certain number of grades for a career during a job interview.

We’ve created this narrative in our society that to prosper, you need to have a degree. To get a degree, you need to pass your courses, and to pass your courses, you need decent grades. But it’s not the grades that make you prosperous – it’s what the grades are supposed to signify.

They’re supposed to signify things like learning, discipline, perseverance, and the like. But the truth is, grades are flawed markers for such things. Here’s a case in point.

I had two students in a particularly difficult course. One got a B, the other a C. So, clearly the B student possessed more discipline to master the material better, right?

But here’s the back story I uncovered about these two students. The B student lives at home, is financially supported by her family and has no other real obligations other than succeeding at school.

The parents of the C student, on the other hand, passed away several years ago in an accident, and now she, at a rather young age, has to work full time to support herself while putting herself through school.

The B student has nothing to worry about in life except school. The C student had considerably more on her plate, and despite that, still managed to pull off a passing grade.

So, does the mark assigned really capture the intrinsic strengths of each student? No, of course not – it only measures how well I feel the students met my expectations for the challenges I set before them.

And students know this. They see students taking only one or two courses doing better than those taking five; they see students taking classes with ‘easy A’ teachers doing better than students with ‘hard-nose’ teachers. Who can blame them for recognizing grades have no intrinsic value other than as a hoop they must jump through to graduate?

The thing is, employers usually have similar credentials to recent graduates. They were students once, they saw how the game was played, so they also know grades don’t measure what’s truly important.

What matters is the story behind the grades. Did you get a C because you were working three jobs while going to school, or because of your crippling video-game addiction? What matters is do you actually know enough to be useful. Did you get an A because you took easy courses with easy teachers, or do you have deep mastery over the subject?

A good interviewer will be able to pull this background out.

So if grades aren’t a ticket to a career, what is? I’ll discuss this in a future blog, so stay tuned.

One thought on “Do I Need to Know That?

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  1. Wonderful insights. In my experience, employers, especially of governments, inflexibly go by marks and degrees. The caliber of their workers reflects this. In real life, any education a young person has managed to absorb, no matter how obscure, will eventually come in handy. Education does not end with school. Learning is life-long.

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