That simple phrase which strikes students with a fear second only to the dreaded Finals Week. Many of us just went through one of the toughest weeks of the academic year. It’s that time which has been designated by all professors to do heavily weighted assignments at once. Just great, isn’t it?
I’m sure there have been sleepless nights, lots of coffee, papers, tests, final projects, the list goes on. I for one will need Spring Break to detox from all of the coffee that I’ve been drinking. While spending this time studying and working to get the grades that I want, I started to think a bit about the system that determines the value of a student’s work. College is a time in which students are constantly being tested on how well they meet the standards set by different people in different subjects so that the outside world will “know” how talented they are. Strange when you think about it, isn’t it? Receiving grades can be very stressful for students, not just because a lot is expected of us, but because we often view grades not as mere evaluations of our work, but of our very selves.
The whole idea of someone assigning arbitrary letters that are supposed to be accepted as an objective evaluation of someone’s skill is a little strange when you think about it. But even more to the point, does this system actually help students? After all, the purpose of going to college is for young adults to learn and develop into people who are better capable of pursuing their dreams. But the college system seems more methodical than one would think with this purpose in mind. At the beginning of each course, professors hand out syllabi mapping out exactly how much of our effort in different areas is necessary to produce the grades we desire. Already the focus has strayed from judging how much a student has grown in knowledge to a colder and less individualized approach. This is of course due in part to the large number of students who have to be evaluated, but I’m not sure this excuse is acceptable. My fear is that too many students will try to concentrate more on the items that are “worth” more while ignoring other aspects of the material of a given course. As a result, students are less likely to actually learn the material and are merely doing what they must to get that all-desirable “A.”
Are there any valid alternatives to our current system of grading? One step in a different direction has been taken by the English Department at Vassar College in which papers do not have letter grades assigned to them, rather they are filled with constructive comments. Yes, at the end a grade is assigned but the department is moving in the right direction by putting more emphasis on the development of the student. The system is not without its flaws, however. As a science major, I can sympathize with those students who prefer more structure in their grades. Many of us plan to go to medical school, veterinary school, or some other type of graduate school in which acceptance to these schools relies heavily on grades. Both systems create frustrations for students, but at least schools like Vassar are putting some thought into how to best educate students with their wellbeing in mind. It’s about time that colleges and universities begin to work toward their purpose of educating students rather than judging them.