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Sense and Nonsense: Grades and Learning


The point of education is deep learning, learning that is integrated into how we think and understand, that is multiplied outside the classroom and placed in moral and reflective contexts. Letter grades are there to provide a backdrop incentive for more of that learning to happen. They are meant to get students on board who otherwise would not care and to get us to follow teachers down paths when we do not yet see the value in following.


What letter grades more often do today is stunt deep, integrated learning. And they do this especially because of the type of students who make it to Stanford and beyond. Today’s students are much more strictly focused on the incentive structure. The meritocratic system by which we get here has become much more intense and competitive—only 2,300 of 32,022 almost entirely excellent students were admitted last year. Only 7.2 percent!


When the system is that tough, when any mistake is seen as a potential disqualifier, universities end up rewarding student focus on measurements much more than focus on integrated and long-term learning. As students, we become so busy and targeted that we end up sidestepping the hard work that is not necessary for the quick A, the 4.0 transcript and the lengthy activities list. We learn to memorize vocab lists and formulae rather than read challenging books or partake in experiments that develop our understanding. We learn to focus on the short-term, take few risks, and keep our heads so continuously beneath the water that we never even attempt to integrate classroom content with how we understand.


The basic failing of letter grades in this process is to orient students toward short-term, surface-level achievement rather than long-term, integrated learning, to wrongly assume that the aims of achievement and learning are aligned. When students are oriented toward achieving rather than learning, we act like Wall Street under regulations: we game the system left and right and try to be one step ahead of any regulation that would thwart us. Because our goal is not aligned with a teacher’s—because we aim for the grade and they aim to achieve learning that improves our weaknesses and survives beyond the classroom—we too often end up taking classes with easy As, avoiding the tougher subjects we would most benefit from and pleasing rather than intellectually wrestling with our grade-givers. This is not a fair description of every student by any means, but it is true of enough to be a big concern.


Grades have created college experiences that are, at times, antithetical to deep learning. But students still need incentives, and grad schools and companies need assessment. The question is whether there is a better system for achieving our ends. One option would be to replace letter grades with short paragraphs that appear on a transcript discussing a particular student’s performance and development. This would not be feasible in all classes: huge lecture courses, especially ones in which students do not need to attend small sections in order to achieve course goals, might need to be an exception. But if Stanford could achieve that system in enough of its classes—think all seminars, residential education programs and maybe even IHUM—it would do a lot to reduce student cynicism toward courses and aid in the integration that is necessary for the learning that matters most.


Imagine that when a student takes a freshman seminar, a teacher writes a paragraph about her performance that appears on her transcript at the end and discusses with her how she did and how she could improve. Her orientation will be diverted much more effectively from focusing on achievement, on a letter that can be attained through cynical choices and approaches to Stanford, to focusing on herself and how she could improve. She will more often view her education as providing a helpful reflection on where she is and how she could grow. She will more often take classes that challenge her, knowing that—come what may—she will not be summed up as a “C”.


She may even get sincerely hooked on the aim of deep learning, learning that works on weaknesses and opens new worlds. Her motivation would spring from not wanting to disappoint her teacher or fall below her personal potential. Her presently dormant desire to treat her education as something more than rungs up the achievement ladder might be enlivened. Deeper thinkers, students with rich intellectual experiences at Stanford and an appreciation for both the relations between different subjects and the moral contexts that surround them would emerge. And some stress might even be alleviated from a student experience that is too often too busy for reflection.


Have thoughts about grades at Stanford? Send them Aysha’s way at [email protected].

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