From the moment we entered preschool until now, we have received constant, systematic training on how to exist. The cycle of socialization follows us throughout our lives — don’t speak in class unless you are spoken to, don’t question authority, sit still for eight hours, study until you receive at least an 80% on the state-mandated multiple choice exam. Absorb information until you can regurgitate it in your sleep, then come back the next day and do it all again. These norms of behavior — specifically, imitating and obeying authority — are so deeply internalized in students’ psyches that it doesn’t even occur to us to act differently. So by the time students enter the workforce, we’re perfectly socialized to be the perfect employee.
Grades in particular are one of the most important tools of coercion that the education system possesses — they shape everything from our interactions with learning to our general perceptions of ourselves as human beings. In my two years at Penn, I’ve seen people, myself included, become entirely dejected over one bad grade. I’ve seen people question their future job prospects after receiving a B. Grades are often inextricably linked to a students’ self worth.
School sometimes just feels like an elaborate circus act, jumping through hoops and rings of fire in the hopes that the judges will throw up a passing score. But while most students are likely fed up with the grading system, we’ve never really envisioned an alternative. Going “gradeless,” especially at a pre-professional, Ivy League school, seems laughable at best and impossible at worst. What about graduate school applications? How will we graduate? If I put in fifteen hours of work per week, how will I be differentiated from someone who sleeps through each lecture?
Research studies comparing students that are graded to those who are not show striking differences — graded students tend to quickly lose motivation and interest in their studies, viewing each lecture and assignment as a chore that will quickly become irrelevant after the final. Learning is no longer done for the sake of learning or experience: the entire process is merely a performance to attain that coveted A. Grades can even be a direct obstacle to learning — in one study, students who were told they were going to be graded had more trouble comprehending and remembering a lesson than those who only received qualitative feedback. But perhaps most importantly, grades serve as an obstacle to meaningful engagement — students given numerical grades are significantly less creative and less likely to take risks.
When I was introduced to “gradelessness” in high school, I also thought it was ridiculous. I was stressed and overworked, and wanted nothing more than to throw in the towel. Fear of Fs and truancy notices was the only thing that dragged me out of bed at 6am each weekday. So without grades, where would I find my motivation? Yet, when the looming fear of that omnipotent final letter grade disappeared, the circus act disappeared. I actually took the time to explore, learn, and fail. I had my moments of stress, but I never thought failure was the end of the world.
Despite the education system’s reverence for grades, they’re largely arbitrary. I’ve received bad grades in classes that I’m truly passionate about and good grades in classes where I Spark Notes-ed every reading. I’ve been curved down in classes simply because students performed a little too well.
Even with our pre-professionalism, Penn is exactly the place that ought to revolutionize education. With our notoriously stressed out students and abysmal mental health support to match, why shouldn’t we approach education differently? Maybe we can’t instantly abolish grades at the institutional level, so let’s start small. Have students set expectations for themselves in the beginning of the semester, and then have them self-evaluate if they’ve met those expectations. Instead of three hour long cumulative finals, ask students to assemble portfolios or presentations to showcase their progress. Give students agency within the curriculum to take risks. Turn the classroom from a place of coercion and conformity to a collaborative, open space that stimulates innovation and curiosity. Most importantly, encourage experimentation, even if it results in failure.
Your ability to succeed in school indicates absolutely nothing apart from how well you can conform to the education system. But no matter how ingrained the current education system seems to be, there is always room to build different indicators of a students’ knowledge and engagement outside of a sterile and unforgiving system that tells students they can be objectively ranked. Grades are a construct, but our natural creativity is not — and that is what schools ultimately need to nurture. Let’s start educating people, not robots.
TAJA MAZAJ is a College sophomore studying political science from King of Prussia, Pa. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.