GRADES! — Do college students stress about grades? Prompt design Glenn Zucman/AI illustration DALL-E 3.

What would college without grades be like? Would no student ever do any work again? Or would it be an invitation to let go of the distraction of points and grades? 

We humans are lazy, or maybe stingy, or efficient. Our ancestral heritage is to keep calories burned equal to or less than calories consumed. If calories burned are greater than consumed for too long, you’re dead.

This is why we’re here, but it lacks an off switch. When calories are abundantly available, we don’t know how to stop. And when being efficient isn’t in our interest, we don’t know how to stop that either.

Why do college students cheat? Aren’t they hurting themselves? Sure, but cheating is efficient. If you want a high test score, cheating can get that for fewer calories. But, if the result you seek is “learn a body of knowledge,” then cheating doesn’t get you that at all.

So, why are students in college? To minimize the caloric cost of earning high grades in meaningless classes? If yes, then cheat. But, if yes, then why go to college at all?

What if you’re in college to learn a skill? Or build a career? Or become a more complete person? In these cases, cheating keeps your calorie cost low but does not achieve your goal. In these cases, don’t cheat. Do the work. Burn the calories. 

Capitalism encourages productivity. The problem with capitalism is that it tends to misplace our motivation. We start careers with intrinsic motivation: feed my family, change the world, tell a story, make a widget. After enough time in the world of money and power, it’s hard not to let those early, intrinsic motivations fade out. A career that started with a vision of a better world evolves into the accumulation of wealth and the manipulation of people.

College students don’t collect a salary. Are they free from the rot of capitalism? No. Instead of money and power, students earn points and grades. Money and power make us forget our goals. Points and grades make students forget that their goal is to build a better self or a better future. We become obsessed with points and grades as if they were ends in themselves when they are meaningless.

Why do instructors have to take attendance? Why don’t students want to attend class? When we do show up, why do we sit in the back of the room? When it’s a Zoom class, why do we keep our cameras off? Why do we try so hard to not be present in the thing that we came here to do?

Is it because we learned in high school that it was cool to be stupid? That smart kids were losers? Is it because what they teach in school is meaningless? Is college only hoops to be jumped through before we can start our real lives?

College shouldn’t be an endless stream of coercive tactics to force students to attend and learn. The knowledge on offer should be valuable. The hunger for it should be great. Take attendance? There should be a fire marshal turning students away because the room is beyond capacity. If you have to take attendance, you have already failed.

Even self-aware people benefit from the occasional carrot dangling in front of them, and a forward-nudging tap on their backsides. If points and grades were gone, would all motivation be gone too?

Some people organize their own carrots and sticks to facilitate achieving their goals. Self-organized carrots are a different thing from institutional carrots. When an institution, or faculty member imposes a regime of carrots and sticks, it’s external to the learner. They produce external attributions that don’t give the students agency in their education. “I didn’t do well because I am a high achiever. I did well because I was forced to.” 

External carrots don’t have long-term value. Individualized carrots, defined by the learner, are a different experience. Maybe you set your own student goals because what you’re learning matters to you. Now you don’t attribute your performance to the college or the professor. Instead, you make an internal attribution. “I did the work because it’s who I am, because it’s important to me, because I’m a high achiever, because it builds the life I want to live.”

College without grades would be messy. But life is messy. Achievement is messy. Walking a fulfilling, personalized path is messy.

No colleges are likely to abandon grades any time soon. Since the institution won’t do it, it becomes our responsibility to do it for ourselves.

Read many college catalogs to find the one whose terms best suit your goals. Then negotiate with your adviser. Substitute more meaningful courses for less relevant requirements. Make your education yours. Pursue it with every fiber of your being. Burn the calories to build the life you choose. McDonald’s is just across the street.

GRADES! — East LA College sophomore dance major Taija Sandoval swims in an ocean of grades. Photo illustration Glenn Zucman

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