Where the rules are made up but the grades matter

Wilfrid Laurier University president Max Blouw wrote an op-ed for the Globe and Mail last year saying that universities should educate, employers should train. This seems obvious, especially to those of us still in school, but the cultural conversation around what an education should look like is shaping the way we think about school and academic success, and so far it’s not doing a very good job.

Ask yourself these questions: How often do I look for bird courses? How often do I get stressed out about grades? How many of my course readings do I do every term? Did I get anything out of my assignments? How much can I remember from the courses I took last year?

These have been on my mind lately as final grades trickle out and new courses begin. I used to say I cared more about what I learned in a course than what grade I got — but not only is that not what most people think, but I don’t even think it’s really true for me. I care a lot about grades and I’m worried that it’s getting in the way of my learning.

Working as an SI assistant for the Centre for Student Success last term, I kept getting questions about how to get good grades in the class, how to write a paper the teacher will grade well and how to do well on tests. My answers were fairly consistent: try not to care about grades, care about how much you learn. Needless to say that didn’t go over very well.

But as the semester went on I realized I didn’t even believe that. I started freaking out about my grades in November as I was thinking about grad school and the future. I was promoting an ideal about student success that caring about what you are studying and putting in the work is enough, when for a lot of us it’s not that easy.

It’s easy to complain about the GPA system for diminishing the good marks we do get (whether you achieved an 80 or an 84 in the course – in the GPA system that’s a 10). It’s easy to complain about teachers who pick favourites in class from the students that talk a lot even when they don’t do the work. It’s easy to complain about teachers that aren’t clear with their instructions for assignments. What is not easy is recognizing that all of this is flawed.

Professors aren’t there to destroy your academic careers — but they also aren’t there primarily to help your academic careers. If professors start giving out too many high grades they’ll be told to make the course harder because too many high grades devalues the program. If they mark too harshly though, they’ll get poor feedback from the student evaluations.

These two systems work with each other to create a large group of mediocre students graduating with degrees that don’t stand out. Moreover, they didn’t really learn much in class because the grading was focused more on rote memorization than on learning, understanding and application.

Hence, we have professors that have a lot of external pressure leading to a skewed marking scheme. We have students that want good grades but don’t know where to aim. We have students that don’t care about grades but want a degree so they can get a job. We have a university system that celebrates mediocrity to increase its revenues. We have a system that fails students and is about to fail itself.

The Laurier administration had a freak out this year with a drop in enrolment. Demographics tell us that every year for the next 15 years is going to have a decrease in the number of Canadian students graduating high school. So the system that grew to its current size by lowering standards will have no choice but to shrink further and put even fewer resources into the education they claim to value so much. Universities have to realize that the way they think about grades does enormous harm to students and is only going to cause more problems as time goes on.

On Jan. 2, the Globe and Mail published an op-ed arguing that universities should be at the helm of a new way to think about academic success that isn’t based on a century old grading system. Maybe instead of trying to save a system that isn’t working with IPRM, Laurier could do something really courageous and revolutionize education as we know it.

 

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