Letter grades won’t give us a competitive edge


“What the hell am I paying this institution for if I am not getting my grades?” This is what I wondered after writing a midterm conceived in the fiery depths of hell. With the TSSU still struggling to reach an agreement with the university last week, I was becoming seriously concerned with where I stood on the teeter-totter of academic success.

Just as I was about to go rogue and start my application process to UBC, I had an epiphany.

What if we don’t need grades to be successful students?

Adam Van der Zwan made it clear in a previous Peak article titled “Stop throwing shade on the grade” that maintaining our current grading system is imperative to fostering good students. He says, “You think a system of letters creates undesired competition? Welcome to the life we must face outside SFU’s walls.”

If competition through grades is what we are after, then the bell curve should be used in all of our classes because, according to my friend and graduate of the Beedie School of Business Michael Costley, that is the model that most closely resembles competition in the job market.

But the bell curve model is far from what I am talking about.

What I advocate is a change to a completely outdated system. Many SFU students temporarily learned to live without their grades because of the TSSU strike. Instead, many of us were given in-depth feedback for our work. We ought to explore this idea further, and perhaps bring universities into an new era of scholarly feedback. We are young, adaptable, and think differently than past generations, something that should be embraced — or, should I say, ‘engaged.’

An article from The Guardian in 2012 showed 23 per cent of responders in a survey regarding the graduate job market “singled out lack of jobs and opportunities” as their biggest challenge; others regarded unpaid internships and being regarded as inexperienced “a big hurdle.” It seems that committing years to grueling courses and having the piece of paper to prove you graduated just isn’t enough anymore. The GPA has lost translation.

We are even accepted into programs with virtually no market available when we graduate. Those hoping to become teachers are a prime example, as a tragic amount of Canadian graduates are unable to find work in the country.

Students pay astronomical amounts to be graded, rather than be challenged and reinforced intellectually. If we are to truly remain competitive as students, we should place more emphasis on actually preparing for competition in the real world.

It’s time to ask ourselves not what will be lost if we abolish the grading system, but what will be gained. Without grades, SFU’s grading system was replaced with direct feedback from our teaching assistants and professors, which is far more conducive to learning. This has the potential to create students more prepared to be successful and to have a competitive edge where it counts.

Our world has changed drastically over the last 20 years, and our education system should, too. We do not live in the time that our parents grew up in, and the present is only going to move further away from that period. We should be defining our futures and how we get there, not our outdated institutions.