With three quarters of 2017 university graduates obtaining an upper second or first class degree, the Office for Students has warned that it will be monitoring degree classification trends for abnormalities. This serves as a reminder to students that grading systems in higher education are often arbitrary, and their role in our lives needs to be reconsidered.
While grades are meant to serve as a platform for constructive academic feedback, many students have come to regard them as purely indicators of their eligibility to future admissions officers and employers.
With both university graduate programs and many employers holding minimum entry requirements for their applicants, it is evident we live in a society that favors numbering people’s intelligence in order to standardise and simplify how opportunities are offered. This preserves the mindset that grades directly correlate with intelligence and personal capabilities. By undermining the notion of learning for the sake of learning, students put effort into their assignments to earn a certain grade, rather than to enrich their understanding of a subject.
In order to extrinsically incentivise students to do better, simplistic grade systems fuel a culture of competition that often crosses into cruel and unhealthy. In a society that favors superficial appearances over knowledge, it is not surprising that students would see grades as markers of their intelligence and strive to earn whatever is required to have a chance at opportunities that interest them.
However, the effect this perception takes on students can be alarming. Some students ‘just want to pass’, a mindset that often manifests itself in all-nighters bolstered by Red Bull and tears of frustration. Others might be aiming for a first in every assignment, investing time and effort that feels futile when they fail to achieve the grade they wanted. Overall, students can be found harboring an aversion to the courses they are studying because of the copious amounts of stress and lack of sleep that accompanies their pursuit of a degree, in a grading system that subtly pits them against each other. In theory, grades would serve as healthy motivation for students to do their best, but the fact that this is so far from reality should be cause for concern.
Even though academic grading systems are highly problematic in certain aspects, thinking of a feasible alternative to the traditional system of numbers and letters is a complicated task in itself. A system of feedback-oriented grading, in which students receive thorough feedback but no scoring, might encourage students to improve on the basis of the comments they receive. Promoting metacognitive reflection or even adopting a continuous climate of assessment could lead students to deliberate on the processes of learning that best suits them and to improve cumulatively. A nuanced system could allow students to receive feedback and grades under different systems depending on the assignment, with some assignments warranting an achievement (or ‘trophy’) and others deserving of numeric grades, allowing far more precision in the presentation of feedback.
Yet, within our current society, all of these alternatives appear to be unfavorable for extended use when compared to the traditional grading system. Letters and numbers are easy to grasp, and they hold a degree of legitimacy and finitude, the lack of which might lead schoolwork to be taken less seriously.
While most people that are familiar with the university grading system might be able to identify its pitfalls, its endurance is ultimately a testament to the priorities of the society we live in. Ultimately, rankings and reputations are valued over mental health and constructive processes to learn for the sake of learning.
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