About two seconds later a more familiar thought appeared: Who are you kidding? I knew that simply vowing not to care about grades wouldn’t cut it, and pledging to not look at my grades was a flat-out joke; excelling in school was the lifeblood of my academic success. I couldn’t walk away from such a crutch so easily. Instead, I decided to take matters out of my own hands. When I returned to school, I proceeded to ask all of my professors to omit their letter grade from any evaluation they returned to me. I wanted their comments, just not a grade. An A.B. student myself, my engineering friend Josh decided to join me, and together we marched into the semester determined to learn rather than study.
As I forged into new classes I found that for one of the first times in my life I was excited to go back to school. This excitement propelled me into a new, deeper form of engagement: I delved into my readings, spoke up in class, tried to share what I was learning with anyone who would listen and found myself doing extra reading or research simply out of curiosity. I hit the Writing Center for the first time and, traditionally averse to office hours, I met with all of my professors outside of class, often on multiple occasions, to discuss an exam or a paper or just to chat. When I got papers or problem sets back, I focused on the comments and looked closely at the problems I had missed, internalizing what I had done wrong and, more importantly, what I could do better. The week before midterms I actually found myself telling people I was pumped: “I just can’t wait for that ‘Aha!’ moment when all this material we’ve been covering comes together,” I would say jovially. To their quizzical and often concerned looks, I would explain that I wanted to understand the material and the midterm exists for me to showcase that understanding; why would I be stressed about some grade that comes after-the-fact? Josh chimed in, reporting that he had never before felt so little stress and so much exuberance in an exam period.
And yet when I tell people about my experiment, the most common response is, “That’s a fascinating idea, but I could never do it myself.” Some say they don’t actually care that much about grades; others explain they need to know how they’re doing to stay competitive; many flat-out admit the idea terrifies them and would only increase their stress. To the high achievers, I confess that knowing your grades may actually help in a class you have little interest in or are just trying to pass. But what about the ones in which the reading makes your mouth drop open or you look forward to lab, in which you believe that understanding the material will truly make you a better chemist, philosopher, writer, engineer? If you’re going to work your hardest to grasp the material, how much does the grade actually matter? Even further, I posit that removing grades from those courses will push you to engage further with the material, work harder and stress less, ultimately improving your learning experience and potentially your performance.
I admit taking grades out of the equation is scary — at first. I was sure I bombed the first few assignments I got back and fretted I would fail out of classes without realizing. And then, over time, grades faded into the distance. I still felt the pressure of ultimately receiving a grade, but that pressure became increasingly small. It ceased to matter so much what grade I received when what I truly wanted was not an A but a mastery of the subjects I was studying and more finely honed skills with which to demonstrate and build upon that knowledge. As Josh put it, the experience made me “get back to why I enjoyed learning in the first place” and rediscover that faintly familiar sense of joy, wonder and fascination.
Damaris Miller is a sophomore from Florence, Mass. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2012/10/10/31445/