As an international student, the concept of the 'GPA' — the grade point average — was foreign to me. Since coming to Penn, long gone are the days where homework did not count towards your grade, due dates were for guidance, and the fate of your subject rested solely on your final exam. Having spent several years in the British education system, I was intrigued by this strange sounding acronym, and the possibility that I wouldn’t have to subject myself to the soul-destroying grind inevitable before the only graded examination. However, despite my love and gratitude for my time here thus far, I could not be longing more for the good ol' days of the final slog.
This is the problem for me: the GPA system requires a type of worker that excels at small, repetitive tasks. Constantly having to submit a problem set, a response, a pre-lecture quiz, there is not a week when due dates are not imminent — students are in a constant state of work. Of course, we are at university and we are meant to be working, but the GPA system is regressive to our academic growth. There is no time to listen to this podcast my professor mentioned or look further into that concept — I simply don't have the time. I am not suggesting that we are given too much work. However, I think the type of work that we are given is not always useful to the development of our intellectual curiosity. Having the time to exercise agency in further exploring each of our subjects outside the classroom is the recipe for deepening our knowledge and passions.
Having to constantly complete assignments, I find that I enter an almost auto-pilot-like state towards each of my subjects outside of instruction time. And the pressure is on, because every homework counts towards my grade. This is not just a problem that international students notice; Tyler Chaud, a college student from New Jersey, said “many times a student picks an easier course that is less interesting to them, purely to boost their GPA.” This is another foreign dichotomy I have found myself considering for the first time. For those students who are particularly concerned about maintaining a 4.0, there is certainly a way to curate your course cart to complement this aim. But at what cost?
A new international student might argue that this is a wonderful system, because you don't have a large and stressful final exam to deal with! But with a GPA, you get both: The tedious homework assignments and the final exams. The fact that my final 20 page essay is only 35% of my final grade does not make it any less anxiety-inducing (I say that from experience). However, it will nearly always be of inferior quality and depth than something I would have had more time and space to construct.
Before coming to Penn I did not consider myself an anxious person. Even though my final exams were the sole determinant of my university outcome in the U.K., I experience worse academic anxiety at Penn than I did in high school. In a competitive environment that strives for academic excellence, we may benefit from some time to recharge and reflect on why we are studying what we are studying.
To me, the GPA system is somewhat reflective of certain aspects of American life. Namely, the ‘hustle culture’ that pervades campus and corporate America. Assuredly, ambition, drive and endurance are crucial and necessary qualities for hard work. However, when that ambition is misplaced to a degree where you have no further interest except getting an A, this is harder to reconcile. Penn’s 'work hard, play hard' ethic possibly derives directly from this culture of incessant work, and that the accompanying necessity to release from these stressors which may result in equally unhealthy and unsustainable ‘playing’.
So, what's the solution for the GPA? Removing it entirely may not be feasible, as lots of students don’t share my opinion on the grading system. In fact, many students love it, depending on what they were exposed to in high school. And I’m not suggesting that we should derail the entire foundation on which the American university education system is built. However, I would like to reflect more deeply on the true value of some aspects of this structure. Perhaps there is some value in forcing students to exercise more agency within their field of studies, instead of spoon feeding them with quizzes and reading responses. Give students the freedom and time to pursue their individualized interests (or to choose to not do so). Perhaps, in doing so, we will see a more authentic emergence of passions, which were previously held captive by the shallow bonds of the GPA.
ANNI PARADISE is a College sophomore studying environmental studies and international relations from London. Her email is email@example.com.