A Perspective on Grades

Parents Talking to Male StudentAs your freshmen approach the end of their first semester, we’re hearing a lot of conversations about grades. Your freshmen are feeling pressure to “do their best,” and to them, that means the pursuit of the “A.” But it doesn’t need to be that way.

First, you should know what we’re hearing from your students. We have a lot of students say they feel a lot of pressure from you, their parents. That may surprise you, because all you have been doing is offering encouragement and support.

  • “You can do this.”
  • “I believe in you.”
  • “Just do your best.”

While what you’re saying comes from a place of support, many students tell us what they are hearing is something quite different. Here’s what we hear:

  • “My parents say they think I can do this. What if I let them down?”
  • “I’m so scared, because my parents believe in me, but I know I can’t pass this class. I don’t know what to tell them.”
  • “They want me to do my best, and I’m going to get a D. They are going to think I’m not doing my best, but I am. They’re going to be so mad.”

So let’s take a step back and admit that to students, grades are measuring their success. Grades determine their future, and reflect directly on them as people. In their minds, if they can’t get the A, they’re not good enough. Maybe scholarships are attached to a certain GPA, maybe some of your students can’t continue in a major if they fall below a certain GPA. Enter the pressure and the stress.

What is important here is perspective. I am not advocating getting D’s in every class (we have support here in the Success Center if you find your student is struggling that consistently). But a grade is not something that is necessarily “achieved.” It’s a reflection of a student’s ability in a certain field of study, and it’s a really good compass for guiding these teenagers through decisions.

Here’s an example: I started out as a double major in Mathematics and Computer Science at Ithaca College. During my first semester, I was lost. I got a C+ in my Computer Science class, and a B in my Math class. It was my worst semester in terms of GPA. It also showed me something very important: When it came to Computer Science, I was average at best. That grade of a C+ was telling me that I wasn’t good at what I thought I wanted to do. What I was good at was discovered through my involvement, and through other classes that I enjoyed and did well in.

That C+ was the best thing that could’ve happened to my career as a Computer Systems Analyst. It ended it at age 18. It was an accurate measurement of my ability within that discipline. It allowed me to pursue something I was meant to do.

Your student may be “locked” into a career or a major. Or, your student may be completely exploring options. Either way, remember what you were like at 18. More importantly, remember what you liked at age 18. If you had held me to all of the things I thought I wanted as an 18-year-old…well…let’s just say I’d wouldn’t be here, helping you and your student right now.

So when final grades come in, use them as an opportunity to have a real and honest conversation with your young adult. Instead of “encouraging” him or her, ask what their grades mean to them. Ask them if they are using the right resources, and ask how they might do things differently in the Spring. Most importantly, don’t worry that a career or future success was gained or lost in the first semester of college.

It wasn’t for me, and it isn’t for them as well. It’s is, however, a great opportunity to talk to your student as an adult, make decisions together, and move forward in the right direction. Students shouldn’t chase A’s. They should chase fulfilling experiences, and the A’s will find them.