I once took a class with a hard-marking teacher, and before returning our first essay, he talked about the grade distribution: there was one A-, one B+, and the rest of the marks were Bs or lower. A week later, after some students had complained, he said we could revise our essays and hand them back. Everyone who did so gained one grade, from, for instance, A- to A or C+ to B-.
That day, as I waited to get my essay back, I was incredibly anxious, hoping I would be either the A- or B+. Looking back, it’s not surprising I felt this way; after all, as an Honors student, I could have been kicked out of my program if my marks were too low. I felt that same anxiety every night before my essays were due: Is it good enough? Have I missed some arguments? Are there grammar mistakes? Logical errors? I wanted my essays to be perfect, because then I could get an A, which would mean having a 4.0 on my transcript.
Looking back on my undergraduate years, I realize that most of my stress and anxiety came primarily from this desire for a 4.0 — for what I thought was perfection, a result of the grading system: by placing students along a curve, someone can be “the best” and someone else can be “the worst.” This kind of linear grading system means mistakes are punished and students learn to compete with one another; if, after all, the other students in the class do worse than you, your GPA will be higher.
Most of my stress and anxiety came primarily from this desire for a 4.0 — for what I thought was perfection.
If the university adopted a pass/fail system, life as a student and teacher would be a lot different and perhaps better. Having a pass/fail system would have allowed me to not obsess and panic at the last minute; I would have still tried to do well but not to have been perfect, which would have relieved a lot of anxiety and late nights. Moreover, a pass/fail system would promote community, allowing students to help, rather than compete, against each other. For teachers, such a system would make grading less agonizing; rather than trying to situate students along the scale, they could see if the students achieved the goals set out in the assignment. If they have, the students pass, and if they haven’t, they fail.
Of course, this system isn’t perfect. The linear scale makes it easier for graduate programs and employers to distinguish students based on marks. In this system, students would instead be distinguished by smaller bodies of work, writing samples and statements of intent and reference letters — things that are not as contingent on long-term success but that are easier on people struggling with mental health issues, family issues, lower income and hard courses, all of which are things that can lower a GPA. While this system could, theoretically, de-motivate students, it would also suggest that university is about learning, rather than being the best, and about improving, rather than perfecting.
Student Voices is a WOA blog feature that presents the experiences and viewpoints of current Arts students. Through their posts, you’ll experience the creativity and passion of our students as they present glimpses into student life. The views and opinions expressed within these posts are solely those of the authors.