Ellison: Shaking the grade

For the next two weeks, we will all engage in a furious dash to the end of the semester, churning out papers and cramming for finals. Why?

Is it because we really want to learn everything we possibly can in all of our classes? While I recognize that just about all Yale students value knowledge and would seek to learn regardless of any requirements, for the vast majority of us, there is something else going on: we want to get good grades.

Given the current incentive structures we face, this is entirely understandable. We need good grades to get into good graduate schools or get good jobs, which are both worthy goals. As such, we structure our academic lives differently than we would if knowledge was our principal objective. Many of us select our courses with our GPAs in mind. Particularly with courses we take to fulfill distribution requirements (that we are required to take for a grade), we seek out “guts”; there is even a semesterly “gut list” that circulates its way around the undergraduate population to assist us in our quest.

And often, rather than focusing on what we want to learn and why we want to learn it, we focus on what we have to learn to get an A. We learn the material, but after the exam is finished, we retain much less of it than we would had we learned it because we were interested in it. (Granted, perhaps we are not interested in the material and would never have learned it had we not been required to — this further underscores the problem.)

All of this begs the question: why do we have grades?

I have heard the argument that we have grades so that we can be evaluated and get a sense of the quality of our academic work. But what does an A really mean? In most cases, it is up to individual professors, who frequently disagree on the matter. And if evaluation for the purpose of improvement were the real reason grades exist, surely such improvement would be accomplished much more effectively by having students sit down with professors and TAs to discuss their academic strengths and weaknesses.

Some might also argue that grades are useful for graduate schools and employers in selecting students and employees. It is true that they are used for this purpose but the way in which they are used does not defend their existence.

Grades would be understandable in fields in which succeeding at the next level required a certain body of knowledge and certain letter grades in certain classes signified certain levels of knowledge.

But in the vast majority of fields, this is not how grades are seen. Law schools do not care what you have learned, only that you have gotten good grades. Grades certainly matter if you’re trying to garner a coveted banking or consulting job, but as Matthew Shaffer reported on this page (“Yale is not a trade school,” Sept. 15), a recent alum working in this sector commented, “I haven’t used anything that I learned from my economics major.”

Here’s something that I learned from an economics class: grades at Yale are a signaling mechanism, doing little more than signaling to graduate schools and employers how successful we were in learning things that had very little to do with what we’ll be doing in graduate school or at our jobs. If we were able to do the work necessary to get As in college, they surmise, we will be able to do the work necessary to perform well in other endeavors.

They may very well be right; I am not saying that Yale grades are an ineffective signaling mechanism. And those who look at our grades to make hiring and admissions decisions probably wouldn’t be very pleased if Yale eliminated grades completely.

But I think a Yale undergraduate education should be more than a signaling mechanism, and it is undeniable that much of what we do academically is intended to signal, not to pursue knowledge. Eliminating grades would eliminate the incentive structure that leads students to pursue As at the cost of true academic and personal enrichment, which should be the goal of a liberal arts education.

There is precedent for such a move within our own university at Yale’s law and medical schools. A law student identified only as E.K., blogging in 2007 on the law school Web site, writes, “Our grading system and curriculum allow a level of flexibility and freedom that is unparalleled … Yale allows you to make your education truly yours without worrying about grade competition … We compete not with each other, but with ourselves. We set our own goals, and we work hard to achieve them.”

These goals are even more important in the context of an undergraduate education. We need only look at other parts of our campus to see how they would be advanced by the elimination of grades in Yale College.

Matthew Ellison is a senior in Branford College.


  • The Contrarian

    There are two meaningful ways to grade. Either have no grades, or Pass/Fail since everyone at Yale, as well as thousand of others who applied, can handle the classes. Or, have a strict grading system with only a few A’s, more B’s, mostly C’s. Not sure about Yale, but at Harvard in the early 60’s, you could get a 92% and still get a C. A’s meant something back then, now we have “A for Average” as a result of ridiculous grade inflation and the accompanying smugness.

  • Recent Alum

    The Contrarian: Harvard Prof. Harvey Mansfield explained how grade inflation arose as a result of affirmative action, and as long as there is affirmative action, it is not realistic to expect an end to grade inflation. I would much rather see Yale keeping its current grading policies than turn to a pure pass/fail system.

  • GradesHUrray!

    College is silly.

  • Recent Alum

    A third way to grade is to do what Harvey Mansfield does: give one letter grade (usually between a B+ and an A+) that reflects the school’s grading policies, goes on the transcript and is sent out to grad schools/employers, and another grade (between a D and, in very rare, exceptional cases, an A range grade) that reflects true merit.

  • y09

    Harvey Mansfield is a pretty well known racist and misogynist, so I’m not sure what that says about you, Recent Alum.

  • Recent Alum

    #5, and what does it say about you that you feel the need to anonymously make over-the-top accusations against a Harvard professor (who has taught there for almost 50 years)? Are you threatened by the pursuit of Manliness? Or is it that you are yourself a beneficiary of affirmative action and take Mansfield’s views personally?

  • Yale ’08

    Though there may be some indirect correlative with affirmative action and grade inflation, its not supported in any strongly empirical sense. The much more likely culprit is many, many more people having access to and getting a college degree these days than four or five decades ago.

    In the 50’s, when some white, wealthy male who was the scion of a big dynasty graduated from HYP, no one gave a damn what his grades were. Just to have traveled through those hallowed halls was enough; the family connections would make up for any further deficiencies. With millions of college graduates today, grades are arguably extremely important given that the competition is much steeper.

  • #5 again

    Actually, I’m a stereotypically-manly white male, so neither. And they’re hardly over-the-top.

    If you’re going to blame affirmative action for grade inflation, it requires
    that you think the beneficiaries of affirmative action (non-whites) are too stupid to pass with out it, and so grade inflation had to occur.

    As for the misogyny: “[Women] innately have less capacity than men at the highest level of science…It’s common sense if you just look at who the top scientists are.” This isn’t just sexist, it’s stupid. There are a lot of factors that affect who holds which jobs, and he’s ignoring every single one of them in favor of an unstaisfactory monocausal explanation.

  • idiomatic

    Here is something for the letter writer to look up: “to beg the question”.

  • SaveOurWords

    Thank you idiomatic. Its such an excellent original meaning, why make it synonymous with “raise the question”?