What does university reward in terms of grades?

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Image credit: Hayley Powers via The Artidote

At the end of my first semester in university, I had a less than satisfactory cumulative average point (CAP). I was really disappointed because I was expecting to do better (first world problem I know– I’d completely missed out on the fact that I was currently receiving a university education in one of the top institutions in Asia).

At some point, I stopped clinging so tightly to the end-result and tried to focus on learning as much as I could, for every class. It was also perhaps most ironically, that I started to do really well once I stopped expecting much. That was when I questioned: What is it that university rewards in terms of grades?

Was it the amount of content you could spew within a span of two hours during the exam? Was it the number of empirical examples provided to substantiate your point? Could it perhaps be the originality of your argument?

For secondary school and JC, it was mostly rote learning and regurgitation of certain essay ‘templates’ that would guarantee good scores. I think in some senses, university does privilege candidates with such a background. I say this because I believe content and empirical examples to be a necessary but insufficient condition for doing well.

Why insufficient?

Because university grades also (attempt to) measure curiosity, independent thought-development, and synthesis. At least in my opinion.

One thing I disagree with for the university grading system (especially for FASS), is timed exams. I believe that timed, closed-book exams aren’t really useful in determining curiosity of the student, nor the ability of the student to formulate good questions and develop sound solutions with the help of research. Timed exams are less about independent research and arguments, but more about how much content you can reproduce.

Sure, the ability to respond under pressure and time constraints is a practical skill. However,in most practical situations, we are required to first, identify a problem, research on a matter, and sometimes even consult with others before formulating a solution. To that end, I believe that research papers and projects are a better way to evaluate a student in a more holistic fashion. I also believe that research papers were where I was more likely to do well.

Through a research project or paper, I could synthesize what was taught with what I independently researched and thought about. I realised that the more I was passionate about the topics I was studying, the more I was willing to read and research about them. I wanted to develop my ideas, speak to people about it and get feedback. I also tried to explore unconventional angles to frame creative research questions or to approach the same topic with a different lens. All these contributed to me not only having a decent (and clear!) grasp of the content and having necessary examples/cases to support my argument, but also enabled me to construct original arguments. I was rewarded for displaying all these in my papers.

I have suggested what I think is the reason for me doing well in school, but I don’t claim that this is the golden formula. It has worked for me, but there are so many other factors at play in determining one’s grades.

For instance, I am aware that I have been extremely fortunate and privileged to 1. Have been given the opportunity to be in school and 2. Have a very supportive family that ensured I could concentrate on getting my degree without having to worry about family finances during this time. I did not have to juggle work and school just so I could help support my family. In other words, I had the luxury of time to concentrate on school. Many people do not have this opportunity.

Secondly, I know of many deeply curious and intellectual individuals who seemingly ‘do not do well’ in school. It just so happens that my intellectual development and how I presented these developments also coincided with the testing system. People learn and grow in different ways, and this doesn’t necessarily manifest in the current modes of testing.

In conclusion, while I have somehow figured out the ‘sweet-spot’ for doing well in university, these operate on certain crucial premises that do not apply equally to everyone. It doesn’t mean that they have not learned or developed as much as individuals who received good grades. Yet, society still privileges (to different extents) paper qualifications and first class honours – the holy grail of CAPs.

Perhaps we should also be asking: If grades are an imperfect indicator that operate on certain assumptions, what else can we use as indicators of an individual’s skills and thought-processes?


Image credit: From The Marquette Educator

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