The Thursday night dilemma

Part 1: The first in a series about grades at Colby

It’s a Thursday night after a long day of classes and a three-hour track workout; I’m sitting in Dana, scarfing down a bowl of pasta when my phone buzzes, reminding me about an extra credit talk in five minutes for my history class. To go or not to go? What would be the consequences if I don’t go? Do I really need the extra points?

When faced with a situation like the one above, I sometimes find myself making my decision based on whether I can get the grade I want without showing up. That’s not something I’m proud of. The extra credit talks I do attend are often incredibly engaging, worthwhile experiences that enhance my understanding of the subject or open my eyes to something new.  I know this, yet I still do the grade-calculation in my head. In an increasingly grade-driven atmosphere, it’s sometimes difficult to remember what we are really here for: an education.

This may seem existential, or an easy excuse to throw out when you get a failing grade; however, it’s been proven that we learn better by being wrong. If you get a question wrong once, you’re more likely to remember the answer than if you had never tried in the first place. So why promote a system that discourages students from trying because of the possible consequences of getting a bad grade?

Some might argue that without grades, there would be no motivation for students to try. But with grades, students will never learn to be intrinsically motivated. Something that’s bothered me ever since my junior year of high school, when my English teacher opened my eyes to this phenomenon, is that students can walk away from a semester receiving all As, but not  having truly mastered the material. Or worse: students can receive a C for a semester where they worked the hardest and felt they learned the most. My English teacher used to tell us that if you were receiving all As, you weren’t learning anything. This frustrated us, conditioned as we were to be perfect students, striving for the 4.0 at a New England prep school, painfully aware of the millions of students worldwide that I were competing against to be accepted by a good college. I won’t blame my high school for creating this environment. And I won’t blame Colby for the fact that I can feel it to exist here.

In fact, I felt lucky to be at a place like my high school, where students had a variety of interests and talents and were often genuine in their efforts. And I feel lucky to be here at Colby, where a majority of students attending a talk by a visiting professor are there not solely for extra credit for a class, but because of genuine interest in the subject. No, this is not my high school’s fault, and this is not Colby’s fault. These places are just microcosms, symptoms of a larger disease. 

America is obsessed with quantifying everything. I learned in a Career Center workshop this January that potential employers look at your resume for an average of six seconds before deciding whether to throw it out or give it another glance. So, when applying to jobs while in college or just out of college, you’d better have a solid GPA that jumps right out at them. This is a continuation of high school, where we went to extensive SAT classes just to get a good enough score to get “on the table” at the college of our choice.

Perhaps we are lucky to be in a world full of intelligent, hardworking people that all must compete for limited positions. But are we wasting our time fighting to get the A, the 2400, the check-plus at the expense of personal growth?

I said earlier that this is a larger issue, that my high school, and Colby, are just symptoms of the disease that’s riddling the American education system. But how do we get to the root of a disease? Start with the symptoms. In an attempt to understand this issue, therefore, we must start with what we know. What about Colby perpetuates the type of learning environment that I described? What doesn’t? I want to hear from you.

NEXT WEEK: I’ll investigate how this problem applies (or doesn’t apply) to Colby students. Email to tell me what you think.

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