The arrival of fall means a couple of things: pumpkin and apple-scented everything, increasing anticipation over Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas, the ability to wear layers and midterms.
One can feel midterm assignments and exams approaching with the heightened tension and stress in the air. As a teaching assistant, I prepare myself for the usual emails I receive around this time of the semester of students asking for added grace. Grace is always given, but I wish that students wouldn’t worry so much about grades.
This is not going to be the part where I say that grades have little meaning and one should focus on the joys of learning. I know that from a child’s first report card, grades are given certain values and used to determine how “good” a student is from kindergarten to college. But they are not everything.
The current undergraduate grading system utilizes the letter grades A, B, C, D and F — with a few exceptions to include pluses and minuses. The University Registrar's website expands on each grade, stating that the A is “mastery of course content” and an F is “for whatever reason, an unacceptable performance.” The nine grade designations that fall in between the two set students up for stress as they seek to navigate the system and strive for success.
The grade points assigned to this system make it so that the pluses and minuses have significant weight. For example, a B+ is a 3.3 while a B- is a 2.7, meaning that the added plus or minus can change your overall grade point average. This small decimal number is what jobs, internships and graduate schools see when looking over piles of applications each year.
While the importance of GPAs for post-college opportunities seems staggering, grades make up only one part of your resume or overall portfolio that marks your time spent in school. This is a lesson I learned as an undergraduate that stressed over the impact that low grades would have on my GPA.
I remember my first semester receiving a C on a paper and getting D’s on both the midterm and final of a psychology class, no matter how hard I studied. I was at the top of my class in high school, so not doing well was not something I was used to. My grades suffered that first semester and I focused so much on recouping my GPA, but those early grades still hurt my GPA up until graduation.
I thought that this meant I wouldn’t be able to get the jobs I wanted, or go to the schools I wanted to get into — but I found that was not the case. After taking a gap year and coming to UNC, I remember speaking with faculty during my welcome week who talked about how much they enjoyed my letters of recommendation and asked about the extracurriculars and jobs that I held in school. These other parts of my application made me an ideal candidate even over others who perhaps had a perfect 4.0.
I don’t blame students for feeling stressed by the letter system. The difference between some grades can feel arbitrary and professors use different standards to grade at different degrees of severity.
The adoption of a more relaxed grade system as was done during the pandemic could relieve some stress that undergraduates may feel. Further, the graduate student system — which operates as high pass, pass, low pass and fail — offers a more flexible standard for categorizing student progress and achievement throughout the semester. I find that since being a graduate student, there is less stress about assignments even though the workload is heavier.
As midterms creep up on us over the next few weeks, I encourage students to not worry about every little percentage and take their grades as an accurate reflection of who they are. Learning is a process and grades do not overdetermine how capable of an individual you are.
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