Chowdhury: The grade obsession trap

Raisa Chowdhury, Columnist

If I got an A in a class, it must mean I learned everything that class had to offer. Right? Not quite. It means that I performed according to the class’s requirements: turning in all homework consistently, attending classes, doing just well enough on exams and meeting all guidelines on grading rubrics. Which means if I got an A, I performed well. It is important to remember performance and learning are two different things. Though performance is linked to behavior, learning can be linked to a change in knowledge or ideas in our minds.

If I asked someone what they remembered from a class they recently aced, chances are they will mostly remember spending long hours in the library, efficiently planning group meetings, going to office hours, sacrificing portions of their social lives, etc. If someone was being very attentive in class, they might even remember the names of all the theories they learned. This indicates that whereas we may have performed splendidly, achieved an A and remembered some of the information, we haven’t really reflected upon how the class actually changed the way we used to think or how it expanded our knowledge base or how what we learned fits into everything else that we know. Virtually, it could mean we remained, more or less, exactly as smart as we were before taking that class; we virtually learned nothing.

Grade obsession, especially at a highly competitive school like Northwestern, is common. It is almost impossible to not be obsessed with grades when teachers and recruiters use them as the first filter to gauge student competency. But as students, and perhaps as teachers, it is important to remember that though grades do provide the desirable incentive to perform better, they also cause the undesirable effect of restricting student learning.

Research indicates that the extrinsic motivation that grades provide already makes the process of learning appear like a chore, one that must continue until we obtain the external reward of an A as opposed to learning to further our knowledge in the field.

Therefore if the mere existence of grades demotivates learning, imagine what happens when we become grade obsessed: We essentially overemphasize performance and direct our focus further and further away from learning.

Moreover, imagine what overtly emphasizing grades can do to the quality of student creativity. Constantly thinking about what the teacher wants or what the rubric says for a paper injects a fear of not meeting standards for a good grade and can often limit the domain our research, our thought process and the exploration of a topic. Instead of allowing ourselves the freedom to be truly creative and original in the thinking process, we are really just becoming accustomed to shaping our thought process around this “rubric” and performing accordingly.

Even in group projects I have come across team members saying, “You are thinking too deeply/critically, we do not need to do that to get an A.” This is a very common trap we all fall into. By following the criteria for getting an A, we also assume that what we need to learn or do to get an A is actually all we ought to learn. This is an assumption that leads us to place a limit on acquiring knowledge.

Worst of all, obsessing over grades reduces any student’s willingness to explore or choose challenging tasks. Students often end up choosing easier classes, easier paper topics, easier projects or the easier task load in a group project. This is of course a great strategy to achieve a high GPA, a great strategy to show that you must be a great performer. If that is all you want out of all the money you spent on a class, great! If you intended to actually learn something, then it might be worth reconsidering your approach. Taking on tasks that challenge us more is almost guaranteed to teach us more, but yet, being the grade-obsessed students that we are, we shy away from this prospect. In this process, we again limit our learning to what is needed for an A as opposed to what we could be learning from a course.

This is not to say that we should forget about grades. Of course not. Working to earn a high grade reflects great discipline and having achieved a high grade demonstrates great performance, both of which are critical to succeeding in life. But instead of adopting the not-so-uncommon mantra of “How can I get an A?” that dominates most Northwestern students’ thoughts at the beginning of every quarter, what if we actually focus on learning and remembering what each course offers us? What if we reflect on how our thoughts about something have changed? What if we start connecting the dots between all the different things we learn? Maybe if we take an actual interest in learning, we will master the material more easily and automatically have higher chances of performing well; double victory: We get an A and our mind grows! We can become both learners and performers.

It is worth taking a step back and considering if we have fallen into this grade obsession trap. It is important while we obsess over grades, we don’t forget about one of the main reasons we are here in a passionate learning community like NU: to learn!

Raisa Chowdhury is a McCormick junior. She can be reached at [email protected]. If you want to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].