What grades are good for

2010 March 15
by Evan Lenz

Grading as an educational methodology does a great job at helping you learn, especially went implemented from an early age. Below are five things you are likely to learn.

1. An inflated sense of self

Whether you get A’s, F’s, or anything in between, you learn that life is largely about what people think of you. If you are a star student, then you are placed on a pedestal, groomed and adored like a well-bred animal, and showered with awards and accolades. You learn that you are the one that is “most likely to succeed.” A friend recently reflected on how difficult college was. His previous schooling had taught him that he could do no wrong, that everything he touched would turn to gold. When he failed his first test, it burst his inflated sense of self and sent him reeling into depression.

If you struggle to get even decent grades, then you get your own set of labels. You learn that you are learning-disabled—that you are unable to learn. You are defective. You require special classes, medication, and tutoring. You are the most likely to fail in life.

Constant evaluation makes life all about you and what people think of you. You either please them or disappoint them. Either way, all eyes are on you.

2. An abdication of responsibility

Grading encourages you to abdicate all responsibility for evaluating your own learning. That’s somebody else’s job. Other people know better about not only what you should be learning but how well you are learning it. This is their game, and it’s your job to play it. Why you would want to learn something, what you would apply it to, what meaning or importance it has for you, what enjoyment you get from it—these are completely irrelevant to your grade. So why even pay attention to these considerations? They are a waste of time. They’re not going to help you pass that next test.

3. An extrinsic orientation

Grading takes your attention off what is being learned and whatever intrinsic value it might have for you. Whatever you’re learning is merely a means to an end. You learn things so that—so that you can get a good grade, so that you can go to college, so that you can get that scholarship, so that your parents will be proud of you. You learn to de-value enjoyment and engagement for the sake of enjoyment and engagement. Constant grading is a great way to prepare you to be an adult in a materialistic society in which you are always working for tomorrow, because what you have now is never enough.

4. A competitive mindset

You learn that your classmates are your competitors. Only one person can be valedictorian. Not everyone can enroll in the gifted class. You quickly learn your station in the caste system, whether you are more of a winner or a loser. Everyone else is a threat. You happen to share a classroom with them, but you soon learn that you are on your own.

5. A judgmental attitude

If all goes well, you adopt grading’s value system as your own. You learn to put labels on other people. You learn to size them up at a glance, to quickly categorize them and judge them and assume you know what kind of person they are (bright, lazy, dumb, diligent, unmotivated, etc.).


Don’t let anyone tell you that grading doesn’t work. You can learn a lot from grades.

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3 Responses leave one →
  1. Todd permalink
    March 15, 2010

    Grades are in fact extremely powerful, they have the ability to do a number of things such as you touched on. But they are a necessary evil in any merit-based system. It would be difficult to build a solid organization on any other foundation if you want people to really reach their full potential. So why is it such a good idea to limit evaluations until later in life when criticism that you are not accustomed to can be that much more devastating?

    • Evan Lenz permalink*
      March 16, 2010

      Grades are useful to a very limited extent. When implemented from an early age, their liabilities far outweigh their usefulness. The balance starts to shift under certain circumstances: the student is old enough to choose a structured context (class) in which to learn the subject based on their interest, and they have requested help from someone else in evaluating how they are doing. The key thing is that the responsibility for one’s education—for doing the learning and evaluating the learning–should never be shifted off the person’s own shoulders, which is what is effectively done in the context of compulsory schooling. People that have matured while being in charge of their own lives and their own learning are less likely to be devastated by someone else’s evaluation. They’ve had plenty of chances to learn from failure—self-evaluated. They’re more likely to effectively utilize negative feedback from others, rather than internalize it.

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