It’s finals season, which means many of us are crunching grades. Students every year pull out the calculator to figure out answers to questions such as, “What is the lowest grade I can make on this final to still get an A?” or, if the semester has been less kind, “What grade do I need to pull on this essay to bring me up to at least a B-?” But while we sweat over letter grades, we don’t think to ask questions like, “What parts of this course engaged me the most?” or “How can I use what I’ve learned to create, write, or research something new?”
If students want to wring the most from UT’s educational opportunities — and to really enjoy their time in class — they need more holistic goals for their education than the shallow, sterile aim of making all A’s. Focusing on number and letter metrics for success drains the potential joys of higher education. And, in this era of grade inflation where A’s are becoming average, just “making the grade” is not a smart priority.
“A” students are no longer exceptional. So many students are making A’s and B’s that GPA becomes less meaningful to future employers and graduate schools. Researchers Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy have studied the rise of grade inflation since the 1980s as the share of A’s and B’s students continues to increase. Their last study, done in 2013, found that A’s constituted 45 percent of college grades and that average GPA was a 3.15. When employers and graduate schools get a pool of applicants with similarly high GPAs, they begin to devalue number and letter metrics of academic success. A Chronicle of Higher Education study of over 50,000 employers in a variety of fields found that experience — internships, extracurriculars, employment — mattered much more than GPA. In fact, of a list of eight relevant job factors, GPA was tied for sixth. As A’s are becoming devalued in the job market, it makes less and less sense for students to devote so much of their brain space toward achieving them.
A grades-centric approach to learning also makes education less enjoyable and reduces the quality and depth of student learning. Students focused on grades are more likely to choose classes that they feel will be easy A’s than ones that challenge or interest them. Alfie Kohn, a leading thinker in progressive education and author of books such as “The Homework Myth,” has argued that concentrating on scores makes students less likely to rigorously engage with class work. Instead of focusing on comprehension, they skim assignments for what they “need to know,” and instead of asking questions like, “How can we be sure that’s true?” they ask, “Is this going to be on the test?” Students who want to become smarter, independent thinkers should adjust their aim from getting a 90 toward enjoying and growing from their coursework. This starts with choosing classes that interest you, the kinds of classes that make you pay attention to the material — even if it’s not on the test.
As grade inflation rises and the value of an A decreases, judging academic success by letter grades is becoming outdated and increasingly illogical. More importantly, when students have myopic goals for their education, the educational power of our world-class university is lost. If you aim to become a profoundly educated individual — the kind who retains information past the test, thinks independently and innovates — then let go of grade-centric thinking. You should take more away from a UT education than a good GPA.
Doan is a Plan II and English junior from Fort Worth.