Do Grades Really Matter?
Posted On December 02, 2020
William Farish (1759–1837), who was a professor at Cambridge University and also a vicar in the Church of England, is widely regarded as the first to use a formal grading system in the context of undergraduate education. Due to widespread partiality and prejudice among instructors in examining their students, Farish sought to introduce more fairness and objectivity into the task of evaluating undergraduates. In the United States, formal grading systems started in the late eighteenth century and continued to develop in a variety of ways throughout the nineteenth century. It was not until the mid-twentieth century that the letter grade system most familiar to us today began to become the prevailing norm.
While formal grades today are often the focus of much contention, both in favor and against, there continues to be no other better alternative that is widely accepted in providing a reliably fair and objective way to determine whether a student has successfully gained knowledge and skill in a particular subject area. This is because formal grades represent clear and explicit expectations that are publicly shared between the student and professor. Grades obligate the professor to make clear what students must do if they are to master the knowledge and skills taught in the course, as well as accurately certifying the degree of their achievement. Conversely, grades guide the student in recognizing where their various proficiencies and deficiencies lie in the subject area, allowing them to focus their efforts accordingly. For some, mastery of certain subjects will simply be out of reach, and that’s okay. Grades are not evaluations of the quality of the person, but rather of the work completed. Nevertheless, if students want to advance in their knowledge at all, they must “work heartily,” and grades are helpful tools for assessing such effort along the way.
Now, it is true that at the college level there will be a temptation to think that mastery is not a necessary goal, and slip into a “Ds get degrees” type of mindset. In addition to obvious biblical commands and prohibitions against this, there are several practical matters that demonstrate such an attitude to be short-sighted. Financial aid, scholarships, grants, and other academic awards are available to students who meet certain GPA criteria. Most colleges are not content with minimal performance, and so students must maintain good GPA standing to avoid academic probation or dismissal. Certain upper-level courses will sometimes have prerequisites that go beyond a passing grade in a previous course. Lastly, a college student must recognize that a bachelor’s degree is an entry-level credential into the professional job market. Aside from “on the job” experience and learning, if students want to advance to higher level professional positions, they may want to consider pursuing a graduate degree. A poor undergraduate GPA will likely keep such opportunities largely out of reach.
Finally, it must be said that there will be times that grades will not and should not matter. Life happens, and there will be occasions when a particular grade may need to suffer to honor the Lord in your various obligations and relationships to your family, church, workplace, etc. Also, none of us are immune from the temptation to turn grades into idols, and they can be powerful ones indeed. Don’t sacrifice your soul for the sake of your grades. Rather, always rest in the declared grade of “righteous” that is yours in Christ, who accomplished it on your behalf and imputed it to your account.