Our 120-year-old grading system doesn't recognise a culture of knowledge for its own sake, argues Justin Thomas
Acing it: why grades A to D get an F for fail
Many educational institutions have just completed, or are heading towards, final exam season.
This is a time of the year that can be tough on students, especially when Ramadan and exam time overlap and outdoor temperatures have shot up into the 40s.
It can be a time of year when students get stressed out and high on the list of stress factors is concerns about grades.
Our current letter-based grade system began in 1897 at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.
More for its simplifying properties than anything else, the system caught on and was adopted by other schools.
Within a couple of decades, it had become the norm across America and today you can hear students talking about letter grades A through to F around the globe.
The E grade was dropped from the original system, although F stayed as it was conveniently indicative of a fail.
Some students can develop an unhealthy obsession with grades, to the extent that obtaining high grades becomes more important than learning.
Professor of education at Ohio Northern University, Michael Romanowski, has written extensively on this topic, suggesting that “grade-obsessed students focus on the prize or extrinsic reward. Knowledge is considered dispensable after it is used to secure a good grade”.
In other words, some of us view knowledge simply as a means to a good grade rather than viewing good grades as a by-product of acquiring knowledge.
That some students have come to view education this way is hardly surprising, given how much overemphasis our educational systems presently place on the link between good grades, employment and success.
We also offer glittering rewards for those with high grade point averages (GPAs) and then there are the disincentives applied to those whose grades drop below expectations, whether they are self-imposed, parental or institutional.
We often treat grades as though they are an objective and universal indicator of academic or even self worth. They are not.
Many factors beyond academic ability can impact grades; for example, the institution you attend, adverse life events in the run-up to an exam and whether the person assessing the work is a "hard grader" or a "fair grader".
Top grades are, to some extent, in the eye of the beholder and can be affected by circumstances beyond the exam-taker's control.
A recent study by researchers at Harvard University, the University of California Los Angeles and Georgia State University found that even slight increases in classroom temperature had a negative impact on academic performance.
In a part of the world where the temperature often soars into the high 40s, that could have a potentially adverse effect on grades if students arrive hot and flustered.
Then there is the emotional knock-on effect of being graded. Tragically, each year we hear about students who take their own lives after receiving grades that were lower than they had desired.
A study published earlier this year in the journal Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health reports that in high-income countries, lower students’ grades are related to higher odds of suicidal behaviour.
While there is no evidence of a causal relationship here, less emphasis on grades would arguably help safeguard emotional wellbeing.
On a day-to-day level, the narrow pursuit of grades interferes with learning and erodes our intrinsic motivation, our innate child-like love of discovery.
In its ugliest incarnation, grade obsession can lead to academic dishonesty, such as buying essays on the internet or paying people to sit exams.
If we care more about grades than we do about learning, then cheating is more likely to be an issue within our institutions.
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Part of the answer to this problem lies in replacing the traditional letter grades of A to D that we have lazily relied upon for more than a century.
For example, opting for a straight up pass or fail system eliminates the competitive shades of grade.
We could also adopt behaviourally descriptive standards-based grading.
Within this system, you could be described as having acquired a particular skill or level of understanding – for example, the ability to speak Mandarin fluently or critically discuss the behavioural perspective of personality.
This tells us a lot more than simply describing someone as an A-grade student.
Another alternative would be to do away with graded assessment altogether.
Assignments and exams could be reviewed and helpful, constructive feedback given without the need to assign numbers or letters to the work.
Employers could perform additional, in-house assessments to identify the best candidates for their organisations. Many already do this anyway.
In addition to reviewing how we carry out grading and assessment, it might also be helpful to promote a culture of knowledge for its own sake.
I’m privileged to know many students who already embody this ideal.
These are students who take additional classes and audit courses without grades. They study for the sake of learning.
They appreciate that when they write an essay, the essay also helps shape them and that when they acquire new skills, they become more useful.
Dr Justin Thomas is professor of psychology at Zayed University and author of Psychological Well-Being in the Gulf States
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