Don’t Get Good Grades

Why the methods of pre-college education are ineffective, and the basic solution to fix them.


Tony Wagner’s view of the essential skills to be gained from education.

For much of my educational career, I, like many students, have held the expectation that good grades = good college = good career. Even as a pre-teen, I would drive past campuses like WashU and Mizzou with this equation in mind. But even more than this, I loved to learn and challenge myself. So, upon entering high school, I used three specific things to attempt to accomplish these goals: a 4.0 unweighted GPA, a high ACT score, and an extensive list of AP classes on my transcript. But as time went on, and my workload increased, my ability to pay attention in class, retain information, and have a general motivation to actually care about what I was learning decreased. I quickly realized that the pursuit of these numbers was making me lose my love for challenges and discovery of new things\; I wanted easy grades in classes that were not designed for such ease.

While this same passion for learning varies in each student, as well as the rigor of the class schedule, it seems to be that grades are the end-all-be-all. But in a college application culture where impressive transcripts and high standardized test scores are increasingly common, being a stand-out is more difficult than ever. By the time they arrive at college, a place of higher learning where they are encouraged to study whatever fascinates them, it’s very possible that the new freshmen will be burnt out. So, at a place like Westminster, where it seems like the sheer entrance into college, and a good one, too, is the final goal, will students even be ready for the structure and rigor of college? And, more pressingly, is curiosity being cultivated now for that time?

Even if a student does not consider themselves an avid learner or high achiever, the school still has the responsibility to stretch him. In Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel, various learning pitfalls and solutions are discussed. One of these is the “errorless learning” method, which they believe to be the culprit of inactive schooling.

“The theory of errorless learning gave rise to instructional techniques in which learners were spoonfed new material in small bites and immediately quizzed on them while they still remained on the tongue, so to speak, fresh in short-term memory and easily spit out onto the test form… since those days we’ve come to understand that retrieval from short-term memory is an ineffective learning strategy and that errors are an integral part of striving to increase one’s mastery over new material,” said Brown, Roediger III, and McDaniel.

While a system of spoon feeding for the purpose of good grades is beneficial for the bolstering of one’s profile, it limits the student’s resiliency.

“In our western culture, where achievement is seen as an indicator of ability, many learners view errors as failure and what they can to avoid committing them. The aversion to failure may be reinforced by instructors who labor under the belief that when learners are allowed to make errors it’s the errors that they will learn,” said Brown, Roediger III, and McDaniel.

In the classroom, tests are supposed to be the ultimate evaluation of one’s knowledge. However, the approach of the student during the test is not nearly as proactive as it should be.

“Students who have a high fear of making errors when taking tests may actually do worse on tests because of their anxiety. Why? It seems that a significant portion of their working memory capacity is expended to monitor their performance…, leaving less working memory capacity available to solve problems posed by the test. ‘Working memory’ refers to the amount of information you can hold in mind while working through a problem, especially in the face of distraction,” said Brown, Roediger III, and McDaniel.

In an article by THNK School of Creative Leadership, the flaws in a grade-based educational system are further expressed.
“Grades, ideally intended as an effective means to learn, have transformed into a goal in itself. Grades force students to memorize those details necessary to pass a test, often disregarding true comprehension of the subject matter. In this process, the student’s personal development is becoming a footnote, overshadowed by the imperative significance of grades,” said THNK.

With grades as non-holistic measures of a student’s success, student’s development is not being properly strengthened for the long-term. THNK claims that students will encounter quite a different environment in the workforce.

“Interestingly, the importance we place on grades within the perimeter of educational facilities does not coincide with the importance companies place on grades. Google’s former Senior Vice President of People Operations, says, ‘GPA scores are worthless as a criteria for hiring, they do not predict anything.’ Perhaps society’s structural dependence on grades has led to an inflated level of importance that may lead us to develop suboptimal skills that do not translate directly to the workspace.”
A study to more closely examine the correlation between grades and career success was presented in an Atlantic video produced by Jennifer Vance titled “Do Perfect Grades Matter?” Conducted by Boston College, the study followed over eighty high school valedictorians for 14 years to follow their professional path.

“Overall, the best and brightest ended up well-adjusted, successful adults with professional careers. But none were categorized as visionaries or trail blazers. Many of the valedictorians admitted they weren’t the smartest students. Instead, they described themselves as the hardest workers who gave the teachers what they wanted, rather than exploring the material on a deeper level and taking risks,” said Vance.

If the top students basically described themselves as mindless cogs in the GPA system and were simply “well-adjusted” as a result, the means by which high school prepares students needs to be challenged. Especially when companies say that GPA does “not predict anything,” there must be a better way. In Make It Stick, once the authors have stated that risk-averse behavior is harmful, the obvious solution is to embrace the challenges in learning for a richer education.

“Failure underlies the scientific method, which has advanced our understanding of the world we inhabit. The qualities of persistence and resiliency, where failure is seen as useful information, underlie successful innovation in every sphere and lie at the core of nearly all successful learning,” said Brown, Roediger III, and McDaniel.

Even more than simply failure, though, the effort to push through it is what marks breakthroughs.
“It’s not the failure that’s desirable, it’s the dauntless effort despite the risks, the discovery of what works and what doesn’t that sometimes only failure can reveal. It’s trusting that trying to solve a puzzle serves us better than being spoon-fed the solution, even if we fall short in our first attempts at an answer,” said Brown, Roediger III, and McDaniel.

Tony Wagner, a leader in effective education, studied education at Harvard, taught K-8, worked at Harvard for two decades, and is currently a senior research fellow at the Learning Policy Institute. Wagner’s experience has led him to much the same conclusions as Brown, Roediger III, and McDaniel as far as what is actually critical to develop in students.

“The capacity to innovate- the ability to solve problems creatively or bring new possibilities to life- and skills like critical thinking, communication, and collaboration are far more important than academic knowledge,” said Wagner.

In all, while it is clear that grades do not really determine long-term success, and genuine curiosity and failure along the way are important, there is still much research being done to figure out how this can be carried out. At Westminster, methods such as problems-based math classes, socratics, and essays, yes, even essays, are some ways in which critical thinking, corrective, and communication skills are being administered. I would still petition, however, that our administration and teaching staff continue to research and implement new ways of learning that will not just boost the school’s graduation rate or average ACT score, but set a precedent for curious thinkers in the pursuit of exploring God’s amazing creation.