The Paradox of Education

By Lindsey Wright

All my life, I’ve been rewarded for getting good grades. While I didn’t have it as good as the characters in the books I read, whose parents gave them money for good grades, I was nonetheless praised by my family for getting As on my report cards. Not as good as money, but it was still something to look forward to. As I got older, grades started to mean more. In high school, a high GPA meant getting to take advanced classes, qualifying for honor societies, and being eligible to hold leadership positions in clubs. My time as a child in the American education system was spent having the idea that grades matter ingrained into my beliefs and values. But now that I’m an adult, I’ve started to question this concept.

Since school is supposed to prepare students for the rest of their lives, it makes sense to have a measurement of how well they’re learning the material. After all, we wouldn’t want to send someone out into the workforce who isn’t ready. But are grades really an accurate assessment of learning? There’s no way to look into a student’s mind and objectively determine how much of a given lesson they understand. Instead, students are asked to complete assignments and tests, based on the concepts, to show they can apply what they’ve learned. The problem with this system of using proxies to measure learning is the proxies themselves. A student can’t demonstrate they understand a concept if tests make them anxious or they struggle to express themselves in timed essays. Grades don’t accurately reflect learning because of the external variables in tests and assignments.

Ingraining the idea of good grades as a value into students can be detrimental to their mental health in many ways – especially when someone’s self-worth is tied to an arbitrary system that works against them.

Personally, I’ve always been rather good at scoring high on exams and essays. I used to be proud of this, and to an extent I still am. But as I’ve grown older and started questioning grading as an effective system, I’ve also been questioning myself. I’ve been spending my time in school cramming knowledge into my short-term memory and learning how to conform to what a teacher thinks of as an A paper rather than committing myself to truly learning. People have always called me smart because of my high grades, but am I truly intelligent if all I’m good at is conforming? Ingraining the idea of good grades as a value into students can be detrimental to their mental health in many ways – especially when someone’s self-worth is tied to an arbitrary system that works against them.

The crux of the problem is that grades have overshadowed learning as the goal of education. I once went to a professor’s office hours for assistance with an essay, and he helped me come up with a thesis. Except, I didn’t understand why his thesis was better than my draft. And I didn’t care. I left his office not understanding the concept, but knowing I’d do well on the assignment. I wound up getting an A, but it wasn’t a paper I was proud of because I didn’t understand what made it good. Rather than learning the concept, I learned what the professor wanted and conformed to his expectations – caring more about my grade than my learning.

Most students think this way. Ask a friend about their classes and they’ll usually tell you about this paper due or that exam coming up, rather than sounding excited about the material. As a biology major and pre-med student, Emily Beale has experience with this disconnect between grades and learning. “As a pre-med student, a lot of the pressure regarding admission to medical school is to get good grades. It seems like good grades and learning are two separate goals that don’t necessarily go together, and I think that’s evident when professors find it necessary to lower boundaries of letter grades or curve grades so that the majority passes.” Rather than spending time learning and absorbing the material she needs to learn to be successful both in medical school and as a doctor, Emily has to spend her time cramming for exam after exam. Her learning is hindered in her attempt to get into medical school – no time to learn about and explore biology when you need to study for your biology exam.

One “solution” to having to spend all this time cramming and worrying about grades is cheating.

Despite rules against it, the education system actually rewards cheating. When grades are the goal rather than learning, why bother knowing the answers for yourself when you can get them online or from some sucker who’s actually doing the work? Cheating goes against the education system’s stated goal of having students learn, but it meshes perfectly with the implicit goal of getting good grades. If cheating helps you achieve your goal of getting a good grade, so long as you don’t get caught (and especially nowadays, being online, it is so easy not to get caught), then why not cheat? As a former member of UCF’s student conduct board, I’ve seen many cases of academic dishonesty. But I know those are only a fraction of the people who actually cheat. Education’s stated goals are at odds with the way the system is actually set up.

In addition to rewarding cheating, prioritizing grades actively discourages risk-taking in education. Conformity is key, so why try something new and exciting in your essay when you know the old way will work? I know I’ve often thought of something cool I could do with a project at the final hour (the hour at which I tend to complete most of my projects) but strayed from taking the risk since I didn’t have time to consult with my professor. After all, if I take the extra time with this new idea, I’ll get points docked from my grade for being late.

We should all take a step back and think about how valuing grades affects our learning.

What can be done to fix this system? After all, while grading is, as shown, ineffective, there needs to be some way to make sure students are learning. Some advocate for standards-based grading rather than points-based grading. This would fix the issue of risk-taking avoidance and allow students extra time to take those risks, as no longer would a missing or late assignment count against them. Rather, they’d be graded based on how well they do on key standards throughout the assignments they do turn in, regardless of when and how many. However, this still encourages meeting standards rather than truly learning why these standards matter and how to apply them in the real world.

Another solution is personalized feedback and coaching from mentors. I’ve had many of my professors complain, both in writing in their syllabi and verbally in their classes, about having to give out grades – so why hasn’t this solution been implemented? While many professors are happy to give feedback, and help students who ask for it, there just isn’t time for them to offer that to all their students on the intensive, personalized basis that would be required. It also just wouldn’t be effective for them to do that – some students just want the grade so they can move on through their major. Any feedback would fall on deaf ears. Plus, individual professors don’t have the power to change the entire system; the university would frown upon professors not giving students grades, or if an entire class somehow “mysteriously” got As.

There is no easy solution to this problem, or else it would already be fixed. However, I think we should all take a step back and think about how valuing grades affects our learning. A problem can only be fixed if it is acknowledged that said problem exists, and I hope the education system takes note of this paradox and works toward a solution that prioritizes learning, not grades.