05/21/2014 04:42 pm ET | Updated Jul 21, 2014

The Social Construction of Grades

At least once a semester I tell my students that grades do not matter. When I tell them that grades don't matter, I am typically a little huffy about it. I recognize that it is a tough pill to swallow when we're taught that the only way to know you're doing well is if you receive good grades.

I was no different from my students. In high school and college, I cared deeply about my grades. I was a mostly an A student. I think I have received 2 C's my entire academic career. And you know what, I survived it. Those C's were crushing, but I deserved them.

I didn't just get those C's, I earned them. The semester I got a C in Accounting, I checked out halfway through, too tired and thrilled with my thrice weekly trips to New York City to intern at VH1 in Talent and Casting. The semester I squeezed by with a C in Economic Development, I was too cavalier about doing well and spent time on anything but that class, including my senior thesis, even though it was Economic Development I needed to pass to graduate.

I never went to those professors to argue those grades even though in theory, those C's could have threatened my career prospects. I earned them, so why argue them?

Tell that to some of my students.

Grades are a touchy subject in [higher] education because in theory, the stakes (and the costs) for graduating students are quite high. 13 years ago when I graduated from college, the labor market was robust and even with competition among applicants, many students found themselves employed in some fashion after graduation. Current college students face a bleak labor market and they are assuming heavy debt for the privilege of that piece of paper.

And so, grades have taken on an entirely new meaning. Students feel an entitlement to their grades because good grades signify a good education. And yet, grades have meaning because we say they have meaning.

Every semester, I face the same issue other professors face when they enter the classroom. I am there to teach students something new, to help them expand their worldview and become critical thinkers, and to enhance some of their existing skills. My students are there to get the piece of paper on their way to getting a job.

The mismatch is our purposes cannot be understated. My narrative is informed by a romantic notion of higher education and their narrative is succinct: get a degree to get a job.

I would be naive to think my students have come to college to discover big ideas or to expand their horizons. There is little room left for intellectual curiosity, critical thinking, career exploration, or other frivolous endeavors. Their pursuit feels purely utilitarian. And when you overlay the two narratives, there is complete disagreement over what we're doing here.

So, it's no wonder that professors are surprised by, frustrated by, and overly angered by grade grubbing students, demanding better marks. From our perspective, the grade should match the effort. From the student's perspective, however, the grade could be the difference between a GPA that gets them into law school or that kicks them to the curb. In their minds, showing up and listening is the same as above average work. Showing interest at all is really good and demonstrating engagement at a superficial level is truly excellent.

Many teachers would probably agree on what constitutes excellent work or what constitutes below average work. It's the morass of purely average work put forth by relatively smart students that is mislabeled as above average, very good, excellent, and in some cases outstanding. I have faced many students over the last few years whose work has been average (and with a little work could be excellent) and who told me stone cold seriously that they have never received a B.

I can't be that off the mark. But apparently, average work on my watch is another educator's version of excellent work. And the subjectivity is confusing to the students (and sometimes to their parents).

The real issue for me around grades is that students have no other intrinsic motivation that some socially constructed meaningless label assigned at the end of the semester. My husband argued with me about the reason students take a class. He thinks students take a class for one of two reasons -- because they're interested in the topic or because it fulfills a requirement. Knowing that I sounded completely idealistic, I wondered about students who take a class to develop a skills, who might not be interested in the topic but who want to the challenge themselves. He laughed and said that's a distant third reason to take any class for most college students.

The grade is the single motivating factor for students in higher education today. In their minds, the grade signals something to the world outside of higher education. They spent four years of high school striving for near perfection on their report cards and now they want the same gold stars in college.

Thankfully, my grades are posted and if you ask me, they're also final.

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