grade comparing: the new pillory? (archived post)

by benjamin hollon on october 7, 2020

Why do grades matter to us? On the surface, they mean nothing. Grades are simply numbers (See The Tyranny of Grades). But on a deeper level, almost everyone feels emotionally tied to their grades to a ludicrous degree. We take these assessments of our knowledge and set them at the apex of the school system.

Now, don’t misunderstand me: grades aren’t bad. On the contrary, grades, when used for their intended purposes, can be excellent tools. Grades are meant to be compasses, pointing to things that need improvement.

Instead, grades have become the end goal instead of a means to an end. Society has placed the institution of grades on a pedestal as the ultimate goal of learning.

Out of this has sprung another unfortunate habit: grade comparing.

To understand what I mean, imagine this: A test has finished, and a crowd of students streams from the classroom door, chattering about how difficult the test was. A few short days later, those same students receive their scores back. Inevitably, one question arises: “What did you get?”

Within a few minutes, all the students have sorted out where they rank in the class hierarchy. With this fact comes a sense of satisfaction and smug superiority for those on top, but students on the bottom feel worthless and have a drive for achieving more, in a sense, for revenge. In short, the vicious cycle of grade comparing has begun.

So that we can be precise, I will define grade comparing as the process that occurs whenever one student looks at another’s score on any assignment and mentally compares it with their own score. And this is only a definition. I believe that grade comparing happens every time that a student sees someone else’s grades.

Don’t get me wrong; people often do have good intentions when they share grades. As I said, grades act like compasses, and if you know another student’s grades, you are better able to help them improve. Even so, it is incredibly challenging to look at another’s grades without feeling pride at being higher or shame at being lower. I would even go so far as to say that it is impossible. I, at least, have never been able to hear other people’s scores without comparing.

And no matter the intentions you begin with, comparing grades builds resentment. How do you feel if you know that your friend always scores higher than you on Biology tests? You feel inferiority, a sense that your friend is better than you, and dislike for the person begins to grow inside you. It may take years to manifest, but it is always there, lurking, waiting for a chance to reach out and wreak havoc.

People often get trapped by grade comparing. I described it as a “vicious cycle,” and it is. Imagine a hypothetical group of students (okay, not so hypothetical since I’ve met one just like it) where everyone compares grades. One, exultant, cries out, “I got an A!” The others note their lower scores and stay quiet. The student who scored high then asks his or her friends what they got and feels pride at having beaten them. Those who score low are ridiculed, like the wrongdoers long ago who were put in stocks and paraded in the marketplace for people to laugh at.

The logical response for this majority that scores lower would be to ignore it and move on, to try better next time. These students do try better the next time, but not to improve their knowledge. No, they want to beat everyone else. People stay in the cycle, angry at being on the bottom this time but hoping to be on top the next. It never stops. The taste of victory is brief, but just enough to keep them trapped.

Before we go further, I want us to recognize why this is bad. Many people would look at this situation and see something good. After all, these students’ grades are improving, since they’re all striving to their maximum potential. I won’t argue with that. Grade comparing does achieve higher grades, and it is immensely effective in that context.

The problem, though, is in measuring their achievement by the grades they get. While grades are meant for measuring achievement, they are not the goal of school.

School is not meant to give you high grades. When asked why they go to school, some students will say something on the lines of, “I want to go to school so I can get good grades so I can get into a good college so I can get a good job and make lots of money.” And, in the short term, grades do help you toward that goal. But in the long term, we’re fooling ourselves.

You see, a grade is a measure of how well a student knows a specific set of knowledge at one particular instant in time. Grades say nothing about how well students learn, or whether they can retain the knowledge for longer than the next half-week or so. While good grades are a sign that learning may have taken place, they don’t signify that learning has taken place.

Consider two imaginary students, Susan and Billy. In class, Susan listens, asks questions, and goes home with a genuine knowledge of the concepts and how they work. Billy doesn’t pay attention, jots down hasty notes without thinking about what they mean, and goes home with minimal knowledge of the concepts and almost no understanding of how or why they work.

On test day, Susan and Billy take the same test. Billy crammed the night before, memorizing everything he could so that he can remember it just long enough to score a few points on the test. While Susan hasn’t done much review work, she has a greater knowledge of the actual concepts involved rather than a list of key terms.

Who scores higher on the test? Billy does. This time, he lucks out and has memorized everything he needed to know while Susan struggles to recall some of the precise terms. But while Billy may have scored higher than Susan, ask him any of the questions a week later, and he will stare at you blankly. Susan, on the other hand, will engage in meaningful conversation with you.

So ask yourselves: who was the better learner in this situation? Sure, Billy got a higher score on the test, but Susan is the type of person who will succeed in the long term when she encounters jobs that require more than rote memorization. Job recruiters don’t look for people who can memorize tasks; they look for people who can learn and perform well.

Now, factor in grade comparing. What happens when both Billy and Susan tell their friends their grades? Billy is suddenly congratulated and celebrated while Susan is left alone in a corner, forgotten and abandoned.

What happens to these students over time as the trend continues? Billy grows in confidence and believes that what he is doing is real learning and that he is the best around. Then, when it’s time for him to do anything actually meaningful, he’ll fail. I can almost hear him saying, “I’m a genius, everyone else is just stupid not to recognize it.”

Susan, though, will undergo what I see as the worse fate of the two. Her very love of learning will be shaken. She’ll see people around her who are succeeding through these brute force tactics and begin to wonder if they’re right. She’ll start to go along with the crowd and forget her love of learning. She may succeed, but only because of the tools she collected when she still loved acquiring knowledge. She’ll find the things she does oddly unfulfilling and lacking meaning because she’s performing for results rather than for its own joy.

I don’t care nearly as much about Billy’s dilemma, distressing as it is. He’s merely chosen his own path, been falsely encouraged down it, and failed just like he deserved. Susan, though, has been misled from the correct way and guided down a darker one toward a fate that I find much sadder because she was someone who could have achieved so much.

Grade comparing is abominable. It has no excuse. Sure, it might improve students’ grades, but there is no consolation in higher grades if your love of learning is lost.

You don’t go to school to learn. Well, at one level, you are. But on a deeper level, you go to school to learn how to learn. Schools, rather than teaching you that a2 + b2 = c2, have a deeper goal of teaching you that learning is fun.

Because learning is fun. Learning is one of the greatest joys of life, and I can hardly imagine anything more satisfying than thinking, when you go to sleep, that you know more than you did when you woke up. Many other things brand themselves as “fun,” and we believe them, but very few of them bring the long-term satisfaction that a love of learning can.

So, given that our perception of grades is flawed, what can we do? Well, there are many things you can do, depending on your position.

Teachers, keep the goal of school in mind. The real goal of learning. Tape it on your wall, write it on your whiteboard, put it at the beginning of every slideshow if necessary, but do not forget this fundamental truth: We go to school, not to learn, but to learn how to learn. Keep it in mind when you make your tests. Don’t make tests that can only be passed by rote memorization, that Billy would succeed at, but make tests that look for real knowledge, for a deeper understanding of the why and the how.

Remember, the grading system is flawed, but we need to live with it. If you have to assign grades, make them compasses, not the north pole that attracts compasses.

Parents, instill a love of learning in your children. Give them books, but not hard books. Give them knowledge, but not difficult knowledge.

Giving a child too much knowledge too quickly is like telling a two-year-old to lift a 50-kilogram weight and then expecting her to love lifting weights for the rest of her life. At such a young age, children should be learning how to learn. If a child tries to read challenging books and fails, he will conclude that books are no fun and that he would do better to play outside. Don’t do that to your child! The love of learning comes first, then the learning itself.

Students, yours is the heaviest burden. You don’t have a say. Protesting that grades are unfair won’t make a difference. Yet.

You are the future parents and teachers. You are the ones who can grow up to change the world. You are the ones who will carry with you a memory of what the world was like and say, “I want to change it.” You can move mountains.

But to be able to say something is wrong, you first have to struggle under it. Grades are life right now, and there’s no way to change that. So make the best of it. Learn to love learning. Don’t succumb to grade comparing or making grades ultimate. Reevaluate your goals and center your choices around becoming lifelong learners rather than night-before crammers.

It’s not easy to avoid the traps along the way. The best way to prevent grade comparing is not to tell people your grades. Even if they mean well, it’s not worth it. Instead of telling people, “I got an A in this, but an F in this,” say, “I understand this concept, but I don’t quite understand this other one…” Feedback doesn’t need to depend on grades. Self-evaluate and tell your friends the areas you need help rather than just telling them the scores you got.

It’s not easy, and I’m the first to admit that. It’s been about a year since I realized how treacherous grades could be, and I still haven’t been able to disconnect myself entirely from the lies they tell me. I’ve started just saying, “I’m sorry, but I don’t tell people my grades as a matter of principle.” People will understand. And if they don’t, explain it to them. You may have just rescued another person from the whirlpool that traps so many.

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