The Importance of Grades

After teaching for almost 30 years, I have come to accept that not every student will earn a good grade in my courses—to me a good grade is an A or a B. This was a bit tough for me to deal with when I first started teaching, because I had naively assumed that everyone wanted to get a good grade. I had always “gone for the A” in college (even with a busy work schedule), why wouldn’t my students too. Some students may be in a real bind as far as good grades because their ability to devote time and effort into my courses is limited by job responsibilities, military service, or by personal difficulties (including mental issues). However, there are a number of students whose lack of motivation and willingness to give their maximum effort in my classes is driven by a view that grades are simply unimportant. This latter group of students includes those who think about “Cs for degrees” or may even feel that getting a D and just passing one of my courses is OK.

In my world, what is a bummer about the students who choose not to strive for high grades is that they probably can get good grades, but something is standing in their way. If these students think that grades are simply unimportant, are they correct? It is my opinion that these students, for the most part, are incorrect and that earning good grades in college is worth pursuing. Let me add that in taking this position I am not saying that having a higher GPA means you are a smarter person. Of course, many factors will impact your GPA over and above your intelligence.

good grades-booksLet me offer 4 points in support of my thinking that good grades matter:

1) If you want to pursue a doctoral or professional (MD, DDS, Nursing, PA, PT, or OT) degree good grades are critical. As I have talked about in other places (careersinpsych.com and https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/careers-in-psych), these programs are only taking the best of the best. Thus, your college grade point average (GPA) carries a lot of weight. It is possible to have a relatively low GPA offset by high scores on your entrance exam (e.g., GRE, MCAT, GMAT). However, selection committees (fair or not) will typically view a relatively low GPA in a negative light.

2) For certain jobs, especially high-paying jobs, good grades can be a “tie-breaker”. That is, if you have a 3.7 GPA and another job applicant has a 2.7 GPA, all things being equal, you will likely get selected for the job. Now I can hear some of you saying that “all things being equal” hurts my point because no job candidates are exactly the same. I agree. Nonetheless, grades are likely to be a part of the job selection equation, along with other characteristics like job skills, leadership qualities, ability to work with others, creativity and experience. My point is simply that grades can make the difference between candidates, and that it is better to have good grades than not. I will add one other point about certain jobs. Your GPA may be critical when you are looking for your first job out of college, but the value of your GPA may diminish over time–work experience may then carry the day.

3) If you get good grades in what are perceived as tough courses, this can work to your advantage. This does not mean that everyone should be taking a lot of difficult science and math courses in college. You just need to be aware that selection committees for graduate and professional school (possibly even certain jobs) will look at your transcript. Therefore, it won’t hurt that you took some science and math courses and did well in these courses. Keep in mind that those individuals making a decision about your future want to be sure that you were not taking a bunch of “bunny” courses to inflate your GPA.

goodgrades-arrows4) High grades can open up various opportunities for you in college. Let me give three quick examples. First, there are a number of scholarships that open up while you are in college. As you can imagine, these scholarships are not going to students with low GPAs. Second, it is typically the case that faculty will choose students with the highest grades to work in their lab or conduct other research. I am one of these faculty members. I look for the brightest and most motivated students to join my lab; high grades help me determine which students to select. Is it possible that I have missed a “diamond in the rough”—a student with high potential but low grades? Of course, but I feel over the years high grades have been a good indicator of productive research assistants. Finally, when it comes times to securing letters of recommendation you will probably have a better chance of having a faculty member write you a letter if you have done well in school. Moreover, the stronger your academic record, the better your letter.

In closing, I want to reiterate that grades are not everything. You may have qualities (e.g., leadership skills, creativity) that can overcome poor grades. In addition, I do not want to discount the importance of networking or experience in helping you move forward with your career. Finally, good grades require a lot of time and effort. The cost of high grades may be a loss of some sleep and social time. Still, in the end I feel the benefits of good grades outweigh the cost. Good luck!

Please note that the comments of Dr. Golding and the others who post on this blog express their own opinion and not that of the University of Kentucky.

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Dealing With Grades After Finals

Congratulations on finishing the semester! Of course, I hope things went well and that you are satisfied with all of your grades. However, I know that there are going to be some of you who are not happy. I mean, not happy at all.

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As I see it, there are usually 4 types of unhappy students at the end of the semester. Student 1 is unhappy as the result of not performing as well as they expected. These are the students who expected to earn an A, but they got a C. Moreover, they realize that their performance did not warrant an A–their C actually reflects what they should have received.

SOLUTION FOR STUDENT 1: I am sorry to say that if you are like Student 1 there is not much you can do. Your grade reflects your performance. If you did not perform well, either because you thought the class was too hard or you did not put in enough effort, I do not see any way your grade is going to be changed. My best advice is to consider repeating the course (https://beginnersguidetocollegesuccess.com/2016/03/21/is-repeating-a-course-a-good-idea-definitely/).

Student 2 is unhappy because they believe that their grade was incorrectly calculated based on the criteria presented in the syllabus. Remember, the importance of your syllabus. Not only does it make clear all of the rules of the class, but also it should specify exactly how grades are determined. If your syllabus says each exam is worth 25%, then each exam is worth 25%. Neither you nor your Instructor can change the rules at the end of the semester. If you calculate your grade and you see that Exam 1 was weighted 20% and Exam 3 was weighted only 10%, you have every right to be unhappy.

SOLUTION FOR STUDENT 2: If your grade was calculated incorrectly you should take action. This means:

1) Contact the Instructor immediately. Do not wait until you get back from break. The sooner you deal with this, the better. I’ll add that when I hear from a student right away I know this student is really concerned about their grade.

2) If possible, contact the Instructor face to face. Of course, this may be impossible if you get your final grade after you have left campus.

3) Get all your facts together and be prepared to present a convincing case. Make sure you double-check your calculations to be sure that there was a mistake. It would probably do you well to have another person look over the calculations to be sure you did them correctly. When you actually communicate with your Instructor I feel you should be ready to go through your calculations in a very systematic fashion to show them where mistakes were made.

4) MOST IMPORTANT! Be civil. No matter how you contact your Instructor, do so in a way where you are courteous, polite and respectful. You will get nowhere with your Instructor (except asked to end the conversation!) if you raise your voice, do not give your Instructor a chance to speak, or use foul language. Be calm, and let the facts guide the conversation. Let me add that you might think that you cannot be rude in an email—think again. I am amazed by the rudeness I see in an emails sent to me.

Student 3 is unhappy because they feel that certain graded components (e.g., assignments, reaction papers, exams) that comprised their overall grade were graded too low.

SOLUTION FOR STUDENT 3: Same as for Student 2, except you will need to have some way of presenting a case for why you were graded unfairly. This can be quite difficult, especially with graded components that are more subjective (e.g., an essay exam). I feel you have every right to ask your Instructor to justify your grade by making clear exactly why a certain amount of points were deducted. What might help your case is if your Instructor gave out a grading rubric that you can use to justify why you thought you should not have lost certain points.

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Student 4 is unhappy because they feel that somehow their grade does not reflect their performance and effort in the class. This is the student who just missed out on the next highest grade. A “silver medalist” like this is caught between wishing they had tried just a bit more in the class and hoping that their Instructor might offer them the few points they need to obtain a higher grade.

SOLUTION FOR STUDENT 4: If you are Student 4 this is a really tricky situation that must be approached very strategically. As above, contact the Instructor immediately, try to meet with the Instructor face to face, and be civil. Keep in mind that you should not be “begging” for a grade. Based on my own 29 years of experience and my discussions with faculty colleagues, this type of behavior simply will not work; if anything, begging will lead an Instructor to stop the discussion and make clear that there is no chance of additional points. My view is that if this is you, be prepared have some case to make. For example, you might have grades that show a steady increase through the semester, thereby showing a greater mastery of the material. I will caution you that if you state that your grade must be raised because you will lose a scholarship or be put on probation is typically not going to sway a lot of faculty.

I hope it is not you who is unhappy after the semester. But, as I described above, if it is you remember that there are ways to increase your chances of ending up with a better grade. Good luck!

Please note that the comments of Dr. Golding and the others who post on this blog express their own opinion and not that of the University of Kentucky.

 

Are Some Grades More Important Than Others?

As finals approach for many students, I keep hearing students talk about how certain grades are more important than others. They talk about this level of importance in terms of how much time and effort they plan to put into their preparation for final projects/papers and exams. For example, I had a student talk to me about how it was much more important for her to get an A in her Chemistry class because she was pre-med than for her to get an A in my Psychology course. Because of her ranking, she told me it was doubtful that she would be able to spend much time studying for her Psychology final. Her hope was that she would end up with a B in my class.

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I gave what she had to say a lot of thought, and have tried to determine what might be the advantages and disadvantages of taking this ranking approach to classes. A clear advantage to ranking courses is that you can focus your resources on courses in your major or program of study (e.g., pre-med). If you are trying for high grades in these courses then making them the highest priority will insure that you spend the greatest amount of time possible studying for these courses.

Sadly, however, the ranking approach only goes so far and there is a major cost associated with it. Of course, when you prioritize some courses over others you will not be spending a lot of time studying for these lower ranked courses. The end result of this strategy is likely to be a decrease in grades in these lower ranked courses. In high school this might seem like a reasonable plan because certain courses, such as AP courses, are typically weighted more than other classes and thus impact your GPA and class rank. However, in college, courses are not weighted. Thus, getting a low grade in any college course is going to impact your GPA.

Related to the above I should add that I have also heard students who rank courses rationalize this strategy by saying that the only courses that really matter for getting into graduate school or professional school are those in your major or program of study. My opinion (and that of colleagues I have talked to about this) is that thinking like this is very risky. When you apply to graduate or professional school, faculty will review your entire record. Yes, they will want to see if you did well in specific courses, but faculty are generally not willing to dismiss poor performance (in my thinking anything less than B) in general studies courses (which often seem to get a low rank).

Let me give a final example that students may want to think about. As I have said in other posts I have been teaching a long time—now in my 28th year—and each year I teach Introduction to Psychology. Almost every year I have at least one pre-med student who has used the ranking strategy and does poorly in my course. I believe that students like this would have done well if they had put just a little more time into my course. Instead, they keep thinking that my course will be a “bunny” course, and they end up with a poor grade. Regrettably, these students do not realize that this low (but avoidable) grade will potentially haunt them when they apply for medical school.

In the end, my advice is to consider all of the consequences of ranking some college grades as more important than others. As I said, there may be some value to earning high grades in only courses in your major. However, you may end up taking a big risk–in my opinion a risk not worth taking.