Grades. What are they good for?

One of my all-time favorite stories to come out of my teaching dates back at least a decade, when I was still living in Tampa and working at USF. It was a lazy Saturday afternoon, and I was having a bite to eat at a restaurant a short walk from my house. It was sometime between the lunch rush and the dinner crowd, so the place was mostly empty. I was sitting by myself with a book at one end of the bar. At the other end of the bar, two men and a woman — none of whom I recognized at all — were enjoying some lively conversation and a few mid-afternoon drinks.

As it turned out, however, not all of them were actually strangers. After a while, the woman of the group called out to me and asked if I taught at USF. As it turns out, she had taken my undergraduate course on “Communication and Popular Music” a few years before, and had recognized me right away. She invited me to join her group (the men were her boyfriend and a friend of theirs, and they were working their own after-party in the wake of the wedding of some mutual friend of theirs that had happened that morning), and they all seemed like pleasant enough folk, so I did.

By way of explaining to her beau and their friend how she knew me, she told them about the course she’d taken from me … and she did so in ways that were flattering to the point of (almost) embarrassing me. She went on about how much she’d learned, how much she’d enjoyed the course, and about how hard she’d had to work to get the A she earned from me. She was clearly very proud of that A. More importantly, the course had stuck with her enough that, years afterward, in a context where she had no reason to curry favor with me — and where, in fact, she could easily have ignored me without me even knowing she had done so — she made a point of reaching out and telling me how much she had gotten out of the semester she spent in my classroom.

Those moments, when they happen, are special (and rare) enough. This one, though, came with an extra kick to it. When I got home, I dug up the grade sheet for the course in question. I’d been teaching long enough by then that I wasn’t surprised to have forgotten a student so completely, but I thought I would have had a better memory for a student who had been so deeply affected by my teaching … and who had done so well. A’s are a rare thing in most of my classrooms, after all, and I tend to have at least some recollection of most of the students who earn them.

As it turns out, though, the former student in question hadn’t earned an A from me for that course. She hadn’t even earned an A on an individual paper along the way. Instead, she’d gotten a C for the course, and her strongest assignment had earned a mid-range B.

It’s possible, of course, that she knew she hadn’t earned an A from me, and that she was simply performing (and exaggerating) her academic prowess for the benefit of her fella. I prefer, however, to take her at her word. Whatever her grade, after all, she clearly had strong and positive memories of the course — enough so that she made a point of turning a chance encounter with a former professor into a pleasant hour or so of affable socializing. She was convinced that she had learned enough in that course to have earned an A for her efforts … even if my grade sheet (and her transcript) would indicate otherwise.

I’d be lying if I said that the flattery in this story wasn’t nice. I don’t think I’ve ever known a teacher who doesn’t appreciate it when one of their former students turns up unexpectedly and offers unsolicited praise for what you did for them, once upon a time. I’m no exception to that rule.

But what really makes this one of my favorite teaching-related stories is that it helps to underscore the fundamental silliness of grades. Grades can measure a lot of things, and they certainly have their place. But they aren’t necessarily — or even, dare I say, usually — a great way to measure many (most?) of the things that we want students to get out of their educations.

There are lots of reasons for this, but the big one is that, too often, students confuse “getting good grades” with “getting a good education.” (To be clear — and fair — this confusion isn’t typically our students’ fault. It’s a false equation that has been drilled into their heads for more than a decade before they ever turn up in a college classroom.) And so, too often, students worry about their grades (“how do I get the A?”) more than they worry about what they’re actually getting out of their coursework.

Ideally, of course, the grades our students earn actually do reflect something about what they’ve learned. But there’s no fool-proof way to guarantee that outcome. Students will (for example) find ways to cram an A’s worth of information into their short-term memory right before an exam, but forget most of that information shortly afterwards. Grades measure how well students perform on particular tasks … but, at best, those tasks are imperfect measures of highly localized, short-term learning. They don’t tell us much — if anything — about what students take away from their courses, or how those skills and bits of knowledge help students forge different futures for themselves than they otherwise would.

More crucially, grades as we generally know and use them have a hard time accounting for all the ways that people can learn from their mistakes. From the sounds of it that afternoon in Tampa, that former student really had taken something away from my course that she found valuable years later. And I say that, not just because she claimed such a thing, but because the quality and thoughtfulness of her conversation actually backed that claim up. I was quite surprised when I saw that her A had actually been a C. She clearly did learn a great deal from that class … but the bulk of her learning may have taken place months (or even years) after the fact. Or she may simply have learned a lot that semester, but got lazy when she wrote up her papers.

And that’s perfectly fine by me. My real goal in teaching, after all, isn’t to get students to shine on four months worth of quizzes and papers and exams … and then go on with their lives as if those four months had never happened. My real goal is to help them see the world around them with a more critical eye, and to move through the world in a different way. But the real test for that kind of learning comes long after my students have left my classroom for the last time.

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