In grade-obsessed society, learning gets left behind

By: Steve Byrd
Christian Science Monitor
May 25, 2004, Tuesday

As the semester winds down, student anxiety tends to rise, usually to extraordinary levels. Here at the University of Texas Austin, the libraries shift to a 24-hour schedule so students can study for finals and write papers. To help ease the tension, stress-relieving sessions and massage therapy are offered to students.

E-mails and visits to my office tend to focus on the final exam and final essays in my Brazilian Portuguese language classes. And often times, they inquire about what really disheartens me: their grades.

Although I cannot and should not categorize all my students, many have reduced me to being the bearer of the good and bad tidings, not as their teacher. Throughout the semester, I have given my heart to these students to teach them about the wonders of Brazil and the language. Yet, in the end, have they watered down everything they have learned to a letter grade? Is this what all their stress is about: a result?

I spent most of 2002 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. While there, I had the wonderful opportunity to teach an English/American culture class. Surprisingly, not one student asked me about grades during the entire semester. They accepted their scores with dignity and never once challenged me on a particular grade. I found this fascinating and the exact opposite of American standards.

Of course, their classroom manners weren't the best - arriving late, answering cellphones, and frequently turning in homework after it was due. But grades were never an issue. It truly was a productive academic environment - the focus was on collaborative learning rather than individual grades.

Other than my Brazilian experience, my favorite story about grades is from MIT Professor Noam Chomsky. During his junior high school years, he went to an experimental school run by Temple University's education department. With no grades or competition, each student was simply encouraged to do his or her best. Chomsky recollects this school as a wonderful and influential experience.

His parents then sent him to a competitive high school for college-bound students. Chomsky realized that grades and success were all that mattered, and school suddenly became a scary place that he admits he hated: "If I got a B in something, it was tragic," he writes in a letter. "I even got a D once - in English grammar, a subject that made no sense at all as far as I could figure out."

Since joining the linguistics faculty at MIT in 1955, he has changed the face of linguistics, and especially the English language, with his theories on generative grammar. The point here: Grades aren't everything; excellence is.

Of course, who can argue that earning a good grade is not important? I, too, must admit that I become preoccupied with grades in my own graduate classes. And as a teacher, I love to give A's, but I want my students to understand the pursuit of excellence, which is the truer secret to education.

When "get results now" prevails over "achieve excellence," it's very tempting to renounce our integrity. In fact, in a New York Times article on Internet plagiarism in US colleges (Sept. 3, 2003), one student commented: "Maybe schools and parents should focus on learning instead of grades."

Even worse, students are observing that everywhere in society, from academics to sports, from business to politics, "good grades" are of paramount importance - even at the price of dishonesty. But the solution is simple: We need to focus on learning and improving, letting the "good grades" come naturally.

Steve Byrd teaches Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Texas-Austin.