What’s the Point: Grades or Learning?

by Jim Rickabaugh

As parents and educators we can find ourselves urging learners to work hard so they get good grades. On the surface, this may seem like reasonable advice. We want students to be successful and grades are intended to be at least one indicator of success. However, with some reflection, we can see that such advice may actually be undermining the very thing grades are intended to reflect: learning.

Grades are not the point. Learning is the point. We do far better if we encourage learners to give full effort and attention to learning and allow grades to follow as an indicator of the effectiveness of their efforts. After all, grades should be nothing more than a reasonably accurate reflection of the learning students have gained.

When we imply that grades are the point, we risk conveying to students that success is in the grades, not the learning. If grades are what really matter, then learning is only one way to get them. Consequently, students may view any path that leads to good grades as a path to success, including strategies that produce good grades, but do not include learning. Copying, plagiarism, and other forms of what we call cheating come to mind. We need to think carefully about the ways in which our words might be interpreted.

Our interest in having students be successful learners who earn high grades might be better presented as “work hard, build your learning and the skills to be a good learner, and good grades will follow.” Framed this way, grades become a reflection of learning, not the purpose for it.

Some people may argue that grades are important for students to be accepted to the post high school institution of their choice. This is partially true. Good grades are one criteria to which many admissions officers refer. However, even if good grades play a role in getting students into the school of their choice, good learning will be needed to keep them there.

Of course, others may claim that students will not motivated to learn if they do not feel the pressure of grades. While this opinion might be shared widely, human nature and experience reveal that people are naturally learners. In fact, many students who do not give much learning effort in school are focused and accomplished learners outside of school in areas of interest to them, including students who are dedicated video gamers.

So the question is not whether students are willing to learn. It is whether students see a reason or purpose for their learning. We must share the value of what students are asked to learn, engage them in identifying a reason or purpose for their learning, and make clear ways in which they can use their learning to make their lives better and become more powerful, influential people.

In the end, it is not grades themselves that are a problem. It is the significance we attach to them that can undermine and distract from what is most important – the learning.