5 Questionable Uses of Letter Grades

Grades play a significant role in many learning organizations today, but there are instances where they go awry. Here are five such instances, what I refer to as questionable uses of letter grades.

1. As a Punishment – A teacher notices that students in class seem unprepared on a given day.  As a result the teacher proclaims, “Clear off your desks and take out a blank sheet of paper.  We are having a pop quiz.” Or maybe a teacher is having trouble getting the class quiet, so he uses a pop quiz as a consequence.  Pop quizzes may have value and be used effectively in certain circumstances, but at other times they are intentionally used to punish a lack of preparation or certain classroom behaviors. This may motivate students to be better prepared the next time or to quiet down, but it does cause other challenges.  For example, suppose a student was “caught” by such a pop quiz punishment several times in a given semester.  It was a wake-up call each time, and the student proceeded to study out of class and earn an “A” on unit exams and final exams.  However, depending upon the weight of the pop quizzes, that student may earn a low or failing grade.  Does that grade accurately represent what the student learned? In the end, this sort of use makes letter greats less about student learning and more about preparation or behavior.

2. As a Carrot – “If you do this, then you will get a good grade.” There is a time and place for extrinsic motivators, but turning grades into the dominant motivator risks poisoning the learning environment. While this may seem idealistic to some, the goal of an effective teacher is to help create a learning community where learners discover and tap into stronger and more authentic motivations that will serve them far beyond life in the classroom.

3. As a Judgement of Student Ability & Commitment to Academic Excellence – Students sometimes self-identify or define one another as “A” or “C” students, for example.  I have even heard teachers and parents describe students that way.  I happen to strongly disagree with the notion that, “A man’s worth is determined by what he does.”  Apart from that fact, people are wonderfully complex, with diverse combinations of gifts, talents and abilities.  One’s grade in a class is a poor measure of that wonderfully complex status, even as it relates to one’s ability within a given content area or discipline. I’ve met far too many people who earned a low or failing letter grade in a class, but later went on to become exemplary in that area of study at a later date.  There are too many factors that influence what grade a person earns in a course, things like developmental readiness, life circumstances, motivation, relationship with the instructor and classmates, physical well-being, the teaching methods and effectiveness of the instructor, distractions or lack thereof, and the classroom culture.

Consider the many “honor rolls” and events that celebrate student excellence.  How many of them are based almost entirely on grade point averages?  While I am not necessarily arguing against these practices, I do suggest that we carefully consider the way that we go about defining and recognizing excellence in a school.  How might we recognize and affirm academic excellence in other ways as well? Academic excellence is about much more than earning a high GPA, and programs that focus upon that at the exclusion of other indicators miss the opportunity to celebrate the full spectrum of academic excellence.

4. As a Measure of Student Learning During the Course – This is one of the more controversial statements. Nonetheless, I am in the middle of a study that will likely shed new light on this subject.  At this point, allow me to note that how one sets up the grades and weight of different grading categories can easily make one’s letter grade in a class become about timeliness, organization, the ability to work on the instructor’s schedule, being an outgoing participant in discussions, as well as having prior knowledge and expertise in course content. This is significant when there are large assignments early in the course that contribute to a high percentage of the course grade. This rewards students who already knew the content, and penalizes those who are coming to the class with little prior knowledge, but they work very hard and do especially well in the later assignments within a course.  This is one of many scenarios that lead us to question whether the letter grade truly tells us what students learned as a result of a given class (or as a result of the specific teaching strategies used within the class).

5. As a Reliable Indicator of Future Success Beyond School – While there may be studies to show a correlation between grade point average and performance in future years, I have yet to see a study show a direct, isolated causal relationship.  Getting a low grade does not doom a student and earning a high grade does not promise future prosperity.  Character development, emotional intelligence, and any number of other factors contribute to future success.  Grades are simply not an effective measure.

Grades are a reality in many learning organizations today, and I do not expect that to change in the near future (although there is a growth in alternatives). Nonetheless, if we are going to use them, I suggest that we strive to be honest about what they do and do not mean, and careful about how we use them.

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is the author of Missional Moonshots, Assistant Vice President of Academics, Associate Professor of education, and a frequent keynote speaker and consultant on topics related to educational innovation and entrepreneurship, futures in education, and the intersection of education and digital culture. Opinions expressed here do not reflect those of his primary employer(s).