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An Open Letter to My College Freshman, Part 2

Dear M****,

The closer we get to your move-in date, the more I find myself ruminating on tidbits of advice that I wish I had known when I left for college (and advice I wish my students received). In my experience, one of the least understood aspects of college life, believe it or not, is grades.

There is a ton of scholarship on grades as indicators, and the majority of this scholarship suggests grades are not reliable and they do not improve student learning. This does not change the fact, however, that we have an educational system based on grades. Some students pride themselves in their A+ status. Other students are content with what we used to call a “gentleman’s C.” In a study a colleague and I did, we also found that students desire grades. In their minds, grades communicate something of great value in terms of their worth and standing.

Personally, I dislike grading, and I wish it wasn’t our primary means of assessing student learning. But grades are likely here to stay, so I am going to give you some important truths about grades in college.

1. A grade should not be your goal. Do I want you to earn the grades I know you are capable of earning in college? Yes. Would I be unbelievably proud if you graduated with the coveted red cap? Of course. Do I want your sole focus to be on the grade instead of on challenging yourself, taking risks, and truly learning about topics about which you are passionate? Nope.

2. Grades are subjective. There are two primary types of courses in college: content-based courses and process-based courses. In content courses, your job is to show you’ve mastered the content in ways that can be assessed somewhat objectively. In process-based courses, your job is to illustrate that you are willing to put in the effort and to show growth—a much more subjective measure. Every faculty member grades differently and with different standards for each of these types of courses. You do not automatically deserve an A. An A at the collegiate level should mean you have shown excellence. So, when doing your work, ask yourself whether you believe you are submitting excellent work—your best work in the spirit in which it was assigned. That will tell you what grades you likely deserve.

3. Extra credit is for high school. Most college professors do not give extra credit, and if they do, it is in the syllabus from the very beginning. If it is offered in the syllabus, then do it. If you find yourself in a sticky situation because you did not do what you were supposed to do for your class, should you ask the professor if there is any extra credit work you can do to “make up” for your mistakes? Absolutely not. Instead, communicate with the professor that you recognize you made a mistake, tell them you intend to be diligent from here on out, ask if they have recommendations for how you might study/write/do better, and then DO IT.

4. Do not be a grade grubber. A student trying to convince a faculty member to give them a grade they didn’t earn is frustrating. If you legitimately think there was a mistake in a grade you received, should you talk with your professor? Yes! You should definitely have that conversation. But questions about your grade (e.g., can you help me understand why I earned a B+ when my LMS shows that I have an A?) and begging for a higher grade because it will lessen consequences are two very different things.

5. Productive failure is a thing. You are going to mess up. You haven’t been taught to study the ways you will need to in college, and you have never received a bad grade in your life. When you get that first C (or F) on a test, LEARN from it. Do not decide all is lost. Do not change majors. Figure out if your grade was due to a lack of effort on your part (and if so, put in the effort), or if you needed to study/write/think differently in order to get to the next level.

6. Academic honesty is more important than ever. You will have more ways than you can imagine to cheat in college. Paper mills at your sorority. Websites where students can upload their notes and copies of tests. Friends in the lounge who will offer to write a paper for you for cash. Two things: 1) it is now easier than ever to cheat, and that means it is easier than ever to get caught; and 2) you are only cheating yourself. I always give students grace and assume if they resort to cheating they are desperate. Listen to me: I am in the minority. Most faculty will immediately fail you for cheating.

7. Be diligent. I know this is a word that comes up a lot for me, but that is for good reason. Teachers are constantly weighing. Weighing their words. Weighing their actions. We overthink everything because we have to. If you are borderline for a grade, a professor will make a decision based on your diligence. If they know who you are and know you’ve been diligent, they are far more likely to give you the higher grade in the end as they weigh what grade they believe you ultimately deserve.

Much of my research has focused on how we assess students, so I understand grades and their impact from a scholarly and a personal perspective. Your job in college is to learn. It is to devote yourself to being openminded, to creating knowledge with those around you, and to becoming a better human in the process. If you prioritize curiosity and a desire to learn, the grades will follow.

All my love,

Your Professor Mom


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