Stop throwing shade on the grade

Photo credit: Lisa Dimyadi

Within the past year, I’ve read a fair share of prompt words by ‘letter grade reformists’ online, preaching change from our grading system that dates back to the 1800s, to one that better reflects a student’s academic performance in the 21st century, and would, to sum up their argument, ‘actually teach us something.’

To my understanding, the letter grade system has been labelled as a game of stifled creativity, fostering a negative environment riddled with anxiety, plagiarism, and extensive competition. Elyse Watkins in The Globe and Mail, suggests the alternative focus be placed on feedback, “team-teaching” and “interdisciplinary classes” designed to promote a “lifelong learning process” — which sounds like the kind of exhausted rhetoric my high school principal would fart out during a school-wide assembly.

First of all, I’ll agree that the grading system is a game. But guess what: so is everything else! In fact, life is just a big game called “How well can you do to match the standards set by our society?” Letter grades are simply an arbitrary standard of academic measurement that plays the more tangible counterpart to the adult world, where we pull up our big kid pants and work our darndest to get the job done efficiently, satisfy societal desires, and try to make ourselves look good in the process.

You think a system of letters creates undesired competition? Welcome to the life we must face outside SFU’s walls.

Without a printed letter to symbolize the ‘level’ of our academic achievements (or lack thereof!), how will we concretely measure how well we’ve done? What would we truly have? Ambiguity, scholarly distrust, false or bloated accomplishments, and, if anything, a hazy educational system, that’s what.

To those who feel that the letter grade system inhibits actual learning by promoting simple memorization and regurgitation, I’ll say this: one’s motivation to learn and to take away something meaningful from their degree is entirely dependent upon the student. We aren’t spoon-fed at this institution; the initiative lies with students to put the effort into actually learning something. As our mothers once told us, attitude is everything — sorry folks, but the statement rings true.

You think a system of letter grades creates undesired competition? Welcome to the life we must face outside SFU’s walls.

Where I will criticize the system is in its failure to snapshot the exact measurement of a student’s performance. At SFU, each grade is assigned a certain GPA point ranging from 0 to 4.33, so if a student receives a mark that’s 0.1 below the range of GPA points associated with an ‘A,’ that student’s GPA is pretty much shit out of luck and will be bumped down to the minimum number associated with a ‘B plus.’ In other words, these marks are unrepresentative and simply unfair.

So, rather than to throw out the grading system entirely, perhaps SFU should switch to a percentage system that would more responsibly reflect a student’s achievements.

In any case, grades are essential in providing order and stability to the system, while a process focussed on plain feedback would introduce chaos and confusion. Maybe you endured an unfortunate year; maybe you ran into personal difficulties that put a mental barricade on your school life. I’m cringing as I write this, but tough luck. It might be in your best interest to retake the class and aim for that higher grade. A big person job won’t simply allow you to provide poorer quality work because of your personal life.

In our constantly evolving standardized world, if we want to be better students, then it’s our job to do so, and the university must provide that template for us.