I woke up to a blanket of snow on the Saturday before finals week, and it was like a deliverance. My eyelashes caught melting crystals as I walked to Butler, wondering if there was an open seat. My cheeks stung, turning red from the intensifying cascade of white. It was a pure and temporary experience, a kind reminder that my current stress would pass. For a whole five minutes, the intense anxiety to secure a 4.0 GPA seemed fleeting, like it could melt just as easily as those snowflakes.
From which demonic hole does this anxiety emerge? Well, I don’t know your life—I won’t pretend to have the answer. However, I do understand that regardless of your personal circumstances, there’s one method of academic categorization that inherently links us: grades.
That is the point of grades, right? To put a classroom of students on a spectrum of knowledge. To objectively assess the amount of knowledge obtained by each student. Grades are a quick method of communicating a more complicated message about learning. When an employer or a graduate school views your transcript, what do those marks mean? Ideally, they simply represent the percentage of knowledge you were able to render from a specific subject. A grade should be an unadulterated representation of intellectual gain, not a gift based on subjectively measured success. Nevertheless, culturally, personally, inevitably, we all ascribe more meaning to these letters than mere percentages. They seem to define our futures. They validate us.
You and I are present at this University because intelligence (or at least good test results) is a non-negotiable requirement for admission. Whether intrinsically or extrinsically motivated, we were all (once, at least) excellent students. We worked for the best possible grades, and hopefully continue to do so.
The serendipitous circumstances of our lives have given us the gift to acquire more knowledge than other human beings. For me, these circumstances were parents encouraging exceptional academic performance, teachers with soft words and hard assignments, and a lifelong desire to become Hermione Granger. Although your circumstances may be different, the community of widespread and overvalued intelligence is an experience intrinsic to Columbia. I came into this community ravenous for knowledge, but I was served a culture of idealized GPAs, extensive cramming, and curved tests.
In Introduction to Organismal and Evolutionary Biology, I plowed through my first graded assignment at this school: a multiple choice test worth a quarter of my final grade, covering a third of the class material. I left the classroom feeling helpless, like I had learned nothing. Nine and a half panic attacks later, I found out I received an A- on the test.
I say “received” instead of “earned” because I take every class—even the tedious, introductory, requirement-fulfilling ones—as an opportunity to learn. Even though my grade was in the A range, I only remembered 80 percent of the material for a test which could only cover a fraction of the 33.3 percent of the textbook it was supposed to represent. According to the curve, I understood 92 percent of what I reasonably could have. I did not come to the alleged “The Greatest University in The Greatest City in The World” to merely obtain a reasonable understanding.
This moment is an example of the self-perpetuating flaws in the current grading system. First, I made my personal worth contingent on whether or not I had the ability to learn the material for one test. I do not need to be “excellent” at identifying the random facts I stumble upon while studying—like identifying the function of a salamander cloaca—to be a successful scholar or a valuable person (but look it up, it’s hilarious).
Second, the nature of most assessments is not adequate for representing how well the material learned in a class is understood. In survey courses like Introduction to Organismal and Evolutionary Biology, the material is too copious to synthesize into assessments that test every aspect of it. In more specific humanities courses, the graded essay as a form is inherently and necessarily subjective.
Third, we are often assessed in relation to each other rather than in relation to the material. I understand that curves are a method of weighting the material in terms of possible acquisition, and they do serve an important purpose. However, I have made a literal investment in the progress of my own intellectual capacity, and I find the idea of the curve uncomfortable. It serves to minimize potential learning and further the undeserved merit of grades.
So, as you begin a new learning experience this semester, remember that for all the cramming you do, personal worth is not fundamentally linked to your grades. Neither is any innate intellectual ability. Grades should simply be a standardized measurement, assessing your overall understanding of an intended material. This measurement needs reformation, and reformation can be as simple as distributing subjective essay grading across multiple people, or giving students the opportunity to demonstrate the knowledge they have mastered, in addition to what a professor deems most important. Other Ivy League schools are actively trying to diffuse the pressure surrounding grades. At Brown, one of three letter grades may be recorded (A, B, or C), while Ds and failing grades are not.
Look out the window of your dream school at the snowstorm and remember that, as the snow melts, most of your knowledge from the class you took to fulfill a random requirement will probably melt too. But ask yourself—did the class incite something profound? Did the material somehow expand your intellectual experience? Isn’t that why you’re here?
The author is a sophomore in Barnard College studying neuroscience and English. She recognizes this discussion as a personal, slippery, tempestuous one and welcomes your counterargument. She can be reached at email@example.com while she updates the handcrafted spreadsheet that calculates her ongoing semester GPA as assignments are returned. Miss Interpretations runs alternate Wednesdays.
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