Current grading systems don’t reflect student’s abilities

Letter grades and GPAs aren’t enough for students to properly learn

Letter grades shouldn’t determine our success. ILLUSTRATION: Anthony Liao / The Peak

by Charlene Aviles, Peak Associate

It’s believed that rewarding students’ hard work with letter grades can promote more effective learning. However, rather than prioritizing learning, this system induces pressure on students to focus solely on grades. The SFU Senate recently approved a compassionate grading pilot that would allow students to take a pass, credit, or no credit mark for electives. While this move is a great start for reforming the letter grade system, discrepancies remain. A permanent, alternative grading scheme should be implemented to ensure a focus on learning.

Without external pressures from the letter grade system, students can adopt mastery-approach goals. These would have them use effective study strategies, enjoy learning, and encourage high levels of effort, perseverance, and adaptability. Students with mastery goals also focus on growth by assessing their learning and challenging themselves with difficult course material. Because the letter grade system rewards performance, these types of learning goals are not a focus.

Grading policies are also inconsistent across institutions, so percentage cut-offs for grades vary. For example, Simon Fraser University and Kwantlen Polytechnic University use a 4.33 grading scale, whereas other post-secondary institutions, such as the University of Toronto, use a 4.0 grading scale. The same percentage earned at different universities may result in different grades for students with similar levels of retained information.

Transcripts fail to adequately detail students’ level of knowledge because of this discrepancy. Post-secondary transfer students receive transfer credit, but depending on the institutions’ grading scale, grades received for transferred credits may be converted. Students who meet the same learning outcomes should not be excluded from opportunities to improve their CGPA with transfer courses. 

Implementing a pass/fail grading system would help with these discrepancies and not interfere with future prospects. In America, 52 medical schools, agreed to unconditionally accept Spring 2020 pass/fail grades in admissions. Program directors at Stanford University’s School of Medicine deemed their alumni who had a pass/fail system as competent as those without. 

A study of seven American medical schools also indicated that students assessed with a pass/fail grading system experienced less burnout and stress than students with a letter grade system. In addition, following the University of Virginia School of Medicine adopting a pass/fail grading system in 2003, students had “improved psychological well-being and satisfaction, without any reduction in performance in courses or [ . . . ] level of attendance.” Not only can a pass/fail grading system help with admissions, but it can alleviate student hardship.

Additionally, Cs do tend to get degrees, as the saying goes. This makes the letter grade system even more arbitrary. Not to mention the fact that 1% differences in scores may result in a higher letter grades, but transcripts fail to detail why a student with 95% seems more competent than a student with 94%. A student with a 4.0 GPA and no extracurriculars may have scored one more question correct on an exam, but a student with a 3.9 GPA and years of research experience probably has a more well-rounded portfolio. 

Students face inconsistent grading policies and increased pressure to prioritize their grades over learning. By offering alternatives, such as the pass/fail grading system, educators can provide students with the ability to thrive in their academic life.