Do You Earn a Grade or Receive a Grade?

We had one of those conversations in class yesterday, the kind I just abhor. It was about grades … the intro students don’t know how much I hate grades, or how much I hate students who ask about grades. I did not go into academia to grade people, I went in to teach them. 

Granted, I have to grade as part of my job but I minimize it as much as possible. My students have a nearly limitless redo policy – so long as they make deadline, they can redo almost every assignment for a different grade. There’s no curve – if everyone masters the material, they all get an A. 

The New York Times has a piece up today on a study looking at the shift in attitudes amongst college students regarding grades, and this mirrors my own thinking clearly:

(Aaron M. Brower, the vice provost for teaching and learning at the University of Wisconsin-Madison) said that if students developed a genuine interest in their field, grades would take a back seat, and holistic and intrinsically motivated learning could take place.

Of course, this annoys me to no end:

“If you put in all the effort you have and get a C, what is the point?” (Jason Greenwood, a senior kinesiology major at the University of Maryland) added. “If someone goes to every class and reads every chapter in the book and does everything the teacher asks of them and more, then they should be getting an A like their effort deserves. If your maximum effort can only be average in a teacher’s mind, then something is wrong.”

This attitude – that trying is enough, succeeding isn’t important – will make you almost instantly unemployed in a lot of places. Should we just hand out high grades because you tried? Is there no value in success? 

So, students, why are you here? Is it to learn? Or is it to check off another three credit hours, believing this is just something getting between you and your goal? You chose this university, this college, this class – why are you here?


  1. Grades are simply assessments of knowledge. The students responsibility it to acquire the knowledge required and then to prove to the instructor the depth and breadth of that knowledge. The instructors responsibility is not so much to teach but to describe the type, depth and breadth of knowledge the student is expected to acquire. It is true that by coming to class every day and doing “everything the teacher asks of them and more” the student has a better chance of demonstrating that knowledge than someone who never makes class. But a student who can demonstrate mastery of the contents of the class may not need to make every class. A student who makes the effort every day may still not deserve a passing grade. A student who struggles yet is putting in the effort may need to think about changing the methods they are using or the subject matter they have issues with or the way it is being presented. By college, students should be able to teach themselves once they learn the boundaries of the subject.
    Nutshell – Grades are received. Knowledge is earned.

  2. I immediately forwarded this to my husband, who teaches at the college level as well. He has had students tell him that if they do everything that is asked of them, they should receive an A for effort, and other students tell him that all grading is subjective and there is no objectivity to any grading. He teaches writing in particular, and students often tell him that all of his grades are completely subjective, because how is it his place to say if their writing is good or bad? (ha ha) I wrote a paper on this in college myself during my teacher education classes, mainly because I had friends in college upset when they “tried my best” and still didn’t make an A in the class. Too often they mistake an average grade as being for poor work and excellent grades being for “my best,” which very well may be average. Not all people do superior work in all areas, which is simply a fact of life. (I don’t get a pass in sports just because I’m not an excellent player. I’m 5’1″ and I think the WNBA should make an allowance for me just because I would try my hardest and show up to all practices and games. That’s only “fair,” right? *winks*) Grades are earned based upon ability and, to a degree, the amount of work put in.

    Unfortunately, this attitude is making its way into the workplace, and some employees see no problem with doing half-hearted work and expecting still to be rewarded for basic things such as showing up on time and coming in every day. Grade inflation is becoming more and more of a problem (and my husband’s department is now attempting to stop that from happening so much), creating this divide between ability and assessment.

    Thanks for posting on this. It’s definitely a concern for teachers of all ages these days.

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