Don’t judge me, Grades!

Don’t judge me, Grades!

I have a confession. I am very competitive. I want to be the best at everything I do. And in school, I care about my grades. A lot.

I am trying to focus more on learning and expanding my horizons. But grades still loom over me. Judging me. An indication that I could do better, that I should do better.

I keep having to remind myself that grades are not the end-all, be-all, that grades do not indicate my value. But the number is there, proof that I did something wrong. And I strive for perfection.

But I don’t try to be perfect in other things that I do outside of school, such as learning a sport, an instrument, or a new language. I know I am not perfect, and I don’t strive for perfection. I just want to be able to learn and explore and do new, cool things. So why the difference between how I learn in school and how I learn things outside of school?

Let’s do a simple comparison.


In addition to the big differences in the learning environment and my personal goals, a few differences jumped out at me. When playing soccer, I was willing to take a risk and try new things. In classes, I tried to make sure I didn’t make a mistake.

Another difference was that I reflected on my performance and assessed myself more in fun activities than I ever did in school. And while I often had feedback from someone else (my soccer coach yelling at me for not shooting on frame, for example), I would take that feedback and reflect on my performance, what went well, and what didn’t go so well. And I would work to do better next time. Whenever I got a grade back in school, on the other hand, I was embarrassed at the mistakes I made and quickly put my test away never to look at it again. There was no room for errors. There was no reflection. Learning in school usually consisted of me trying to do something and being evaluated by an external source (usually the professor). I didn’t really think about what I was doing or why. I didn’t evaluate myself. I waited to be evaluated by someone else.

A powerful form of assessment is self-assessment. I use it naturally in everyday life. But it is not always present in the classroom. However, self-assessment and metacognition (thinking about your thinking) can encourage people to think about their current understanding of a subject and what aspects of a topic are confusing. They can help students compare where they are to where they previously were in their understanding. Self-assessment and metacognition can help people understand their strengths and weaknesses, how to improve, how to expand their abilities, and how to learn.


14 thoughts on “Don’t judge me, Grades!

  1. Awesome post!

    This makes me think of playing high school football. After every Friday night game, we would head to the school Saturday morning, do a short workout, and watch film together as a team. Coaches would point out things that we could have done better and things that we did well. Then, during the next week of practice, we would all work to get better with that outside perspective on ourselves in mind.

    I never thought of that as assessment! I wonder what a similar assessment technique for education could be. What if we looked at assignments and/or projects as a class and the teacher guided the students in some community self-evaluation. Then, the point wouldn’t be getting a better grade for yourself, but working to get better together next time.

    1. I think that is a great idea! I think it can be very beneficial for students to reflect on their work, and get feedback from their peers and the instructor. Great suggestion!

  2. Thanks for the post! I think your experience is common, but I feel that some students thrive in this system and I’m one of them. I was very competitive about my grade (with myself) and actually enjoyed taking tests because it allowed me to know whether or not I sufficiently mastered the material. But it wasn’t really about the grade itself, it was about how well I knew the material and the grade was a signal of this. I didn’t only provide enough information to get an A, I provided enough information to show myself I knew it better than necessary to get the A. If I missed a question, I wanted to know why, because it wasn’t the grade, it was about knowing the correct answer. But the grade was the signal. Would lengthy feedback serve the same purpose? Probably, but I just want to see the grade and move on!

    1. Thanks for sharing your perspective! I think you bring up a very valid point. But for me, I did well on tests but that didn’t always mean that I new the material well. I could do the specific types of problems on the test, but that didn’t mean that I could apply that knowledge in different contexts. I think one thing that is interesting to consider in all of this is the transferabilty of that knowledge. For me, reflecting on the different applications of the material or the more general concepts would have helped me to learn the material and see the different applications. But I am curious to hear what other people think!

  3. What a great post. I love the comparison between sports and academics and appreciate your frankness about both! And your attitude toward grades hits very close to home with me — I thought A was the only acceptable grade, and didn’t really mind tests. Like Ben, I kind of enjoyed taking tests because I liked demonstrating that I could do it – that no matter how hard it was I could study enough and figure it out. But it is all about perspective, and that’s why I really like your reflections on soccer. Some people do respond well to testing, but many don’t. And even the same person might have different sensibilities depending on the context. I bet you are a terrific soccer player!

  4. Wonderful post! I can strongly relate with the feelings you have about assessments especially the part about self-assessment. I wish I could relate about soccer playing too but playing good quality soccer seems to be beyond my current skill set!
    Do you think the continuous feedback (or somewhat real-time; eg. from your soccer coach) helps you as well as compared to say end of the match feedback?

    1. I think continuous feedback in an activity like sports was extremely important. And your comment brings up a really good point about educational contexts too! I think students really benefit from feedback during the entire semester instead of just at the end. Thanks for your comment!

  5. What a great post.

    I really like the phrase “When playing soccer, I was willing to take a risk and try new things. In classes, I tried to make sure I didn’t make a mistake”. YES! and thinking forward, don’t we need (in engineering education) students that want to take risks and try new things? Isn’t that the point of engineering? Also, we want engineering students to make sure they don’t make a mistake. So I think it shows the importance of balance when we develop our assessment strategies.

    Thanks for sharing!

  6. I’m a little confused. I am having trouble understanding how you can simultaneously expect yourself to perform perfectly academically but admit that you are not perfect nor care about perfecting other activities. I am also having trouble believing you didn’t reflect on your school assignments. Sure, maybe you would put them away right after it was returned but for someone so concerned with grades and having “no room for error” have you never looked at an old test in preparation for a final?

    And if you are still striving for perfection I’d like to offer some advice. Realize that the only constant in the world is that it is changing so perfection will always be fleeting:

    “One minute was enough, Tyler said, a person had to work hard for it, but a minute of perfection was worth the effort. A moment was the most you could ever expect from perfection.” ~Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club, Chapter 3

    1. I appreciate your perspective, but I think we just view things differently. For me, my goal in school was to get perfect grades for several reasons that I will not get into now. But in other activities, my goal was to get better and improve. It was a different context and I had different expectations.

      And there is a big difference between reflection and simply identifying errors or seeing what problems you got wrong on a test. For me, I would look at the solutions posted online and make sure that I could do the problems before the next test. But I did not truly reflect on what I did and why I did it. It is this step of reflection that is so valuable.

      Thanks for your comment!

  7. Wow! This is an amazing post. I love it!

    In that comparison box, lies why people are hurt by grades more than ever. Goals in a class are get an A. Goals in real life are pursue something you love. What a huge difference. Yes, I can totally agree with you. I never thought about what I did wrong on say a final… It was too late to improve my grade, or maybe I did make the cut for the grade. However, when doing something I like on the side, I would analyze it and see how to be better. And seek advice from people who are good at what I’m trying to do. However, with a particular class, it could just be a combination of nightmares after the fact… and they fade away once grades come out… and that’s about it.

    Nice post! Thanks for that!

    1. I really like your point about seeking advice from people who are good at what you are trying to do. How can we incorporate that into a classroom? Thanks for your comment!

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