What Do We Do When We Talk About Grades

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Published on April 13, 2016

Last semester, I failed a midterm with a spectacular 38/100.

It was the first time I’d gotten an F at Columbia, and my brain had a minor crisis as I stared at the red marks on my blue book: “I’m going to fail this class. Fuck. Am I the only one crying? No one else is crying. I am irresponsible. I’m going to fail.”

I hid my blotchy, red face as I exited the lecture hall, hoping nobody had seen the tearfest. Balanced adults don’t cry about their grades. Balanced adults aren’t petty and undeserving. They are mature and responsible, and they use their mistakes as a starting point for improvement.

Here’s the thing: I am not a balanced adult. Instead of addressing my failure and holing myself up in the library to go over the material, I decided to ask everyone around me if getting a failing grade at Columbia was really that big of a deal. I was hoping my friends and acquaintances might open up and tell me that they, too, had gotten F’s or D’s before. Misery loves company, and my misery was thirsting for a friend.

It turns out that starting with the jovial ice-breaker, “I’m failing a class! How are you?” doesn’t guarantee your friends will tell you about their own failures. The only answers I got were cheery versions of “Everything’s going to be OK!” and “Don’t worry about it!” They were telling me it was OK to fail, but somehow I was the only one actually failing. I was not reassured.

I decided to expand my search and take the question to a larger group of people. I wanted to know whether getting an F on my college transcript was a big deal—and more broadly, if grades mattered at all. The more people I spoke to though, the more I realized that the question wasn’t whether grades mattered, but rather, why they mattered, and in which context.

To answer the question, I interviewed students from all four of Coulmbia’s undergraduate schools, each of them studying different subjects. Every student I interviewed had different interpretations of what their grades meant, but for the sake of space and time, the 70 pages of interview transcripts had to be edited down.

Here are five perspectives on what grades mean and whether they really matter.

Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Alice Duquesnoy, a senior at the School of General Studies, is in her final year of the dual degree program with Sciences Po in France. She came to Columbia intending to major in neuroscience and is now graduating in May as a psychology major. The interview was conducted over several conversations, during which she occasionally spoke to me in French. Pauses for Duquesnoy’s smoke breaks have been edited out.  

Have you ever gotten a failing grade at Columbia?

At Columbia? Yeah. One failing grade. For a class that I later dropped. It was Intro to Bio with Dr. [Deborah] Mowshowitz. I think I got a 15 percent, but she added 10 points to everyone in the class which made it 25 percent, which is still very far from a passing grade.

Why did you drop the class?

I dropped the class for a wide variety of reasons. I wasn’t prepared for such a challenging class. I was just coming in from Sciences Po, transitioning, and wasn’t prepared for that.

What happened when you dropped the class?

Well, I was super sad, because dropping that class meant giving up the neuroscience major. That was a requirement for that major and that was the major I was going to do. Failing that class meant not being able to do the major, so yeah, it was a bummer.

I didn’t take it very personally. In Sciences Po I used to fail like one class per semester. [Laughs] It’s not the first time that I received a bad grade ever, so I don’t feel like it was that big of a deal. And also, there was no injustice. In front of that exam, I was unable to answer any of the questions. It’s not like I answered tons of stuff and it was all wrong—I literally couldn’t produce anything. So it’s kind of my fault.

Have you ever been embarrassed by a grade?

I don’t know if embarrassed is the right feeling. I got a C-plus in stats; I’m kind of ashamed. Well, ashamed is a big word. I should do better, you know? But “embarrassing” is a feeling that you have as a result of other people, right? You’re embarrassed because, well, your grades are kind of about you. Unless you’re in those curved classes. I’m upset, but it’s emotions that are about me, not about how other people see me.

What’s your GPA?

3.56, I think?

Are you happy with your grades?

Yeah. But… yeah. I’m not happy or unhappy because of my grades, in general. But I am still super stressed out at the end of the semester to get my grades. I check every day on SSOL when they post it.

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Why?

I want to know! I worked hours and hours and hours on these classes and I want to know how I did. Usually it’s also because I respect my professors, so I’m eager to know how they evaluated me.

You’re pretty up-front about your grades.

Yeah. I mean, I’m not going to tell anyone if they don’t ask me, but if they ask me… Or if it’s someone who asks me—you know those people who, at the end of the day when you get your exam back and will be like, “Oh my god, oh my god, what did you get?” They really want to know that they got better than everyone else. Then I take pleasure in not telling them, but that’s the only situation.

I got really frustrated because last semester I did five seminars—so five research papers—which are 20 pages long. You put tons of hours of work in this, and I got no feedback from any of my professors on all of my papers. From my final grades, I was able to deduce the grades that I’d had on my paper, but no single professor had emailed or sent back a copy.

Professors require that we give them an evaluation, and they don’t even have the decency to give one back to us. How can you progress? What’s the point of making me writing a paper if you’re not going to tell me anything about it?

Do you feel like your perspective on grades has changed since you got to college?

When I was in high school I was intense on grades. Then I got to Sciences Po, a couple thousand miles away from my parents, and I was like, “Yay, now I can finally be mediocre,” which was really exciting.

At that point I really didn’t care about grades—I mean, I still don’t care about grades, but just differently. I want to get good grades, but not for the grade as much as because I like the class, and I just want to be good in that class. I want to learn that stuff. Whereas in Sciences Po, I didn’t really take things seriously. I didn’t care about grades, I didn’t care about learning the material, I didn’t care about learning, period.

Now I care more, but I don’t think it’s because I’ve been pushed to because of the competitiveness here. I think it’s because I feel like I’m more up to taking the opportunities for learning here. But I think it’s more me than the environment.

Do you think Columbia can have that effect?

Well, also there’s the financial thing, right? When you’re paying this much money, you feel like you have to get the most, and best, out of it.

What does “getting the most out of it” mean?

Well, everything. Learning the most, using the most resources that you have at hand, and also getting the best possible job at the end, which includes having good grades. Or it also means joining clubs, meeting new people.

What matters to you?

I mean, you’re here to learn things, not to get good grades. Or so I see it. [Laughs] So when I study for an exam, and you give me back just my grade and don’t allow me to have access to my feedback on my performance—this is not what education is. I think it’s weird and is part of the whole competition-driven functioning that goes on here. I think that’s what all schools tend toward. It’s messed up, because it’s not what’s best. If you don’t have access to your mistakes, you can’t not make them again.

I mean, it matters—failing. It matters. You’re happy when you get a good grade, you’re sad when you get a bad grade. You failed something—that matters. But it doesn’t mean that you are a failure. It’s just in that in that specific area, you didn’t do as well as you should have, could have.

I think people often think that it’s a grading of you. This is why people are afraid of saying their grades: because they’re afraid of being judged. The anxiety over grades exists everywhere, no?

What do you see that shows an anxiety about grades?

Well that there’s this sort of secret about it. When professors give back papers, they always give it face down so that no one else can see it. Or you’ve never seen students get back their copy with their finger intentionally trying to hide that specific thing—they’re not hiding their answers, they’re hiding their grade. There is an anxiety about it. But at the same time it’s tough, that’s always how we’ve been evaluated.

After academics, how are you evaluated? By your salary. And there is an anxiety about that in the professional world. I can’t remember if it’s in the U.S. or in France where you never ask salaries. I think in France. In the U.S. it’s OK to ask people’s salaries? It’s kind of the same thing. You get a bonus, or you don’t. You get an A-plus, or you don’t.

Dani Kohanzadeh is a senior in the joint program between the School of General Studies and the Jewish Theology Seminary, majoring in philosophy and Jewish ethics. This interview was held over several conversations. Our last conversation was held in the Bayit, the Jewish pluralistic food co-op, where I followed her in and out of her kitchen’s walk-in fridge as she made herself salad for lunch. Her culinary experimentation in making Caesar dressing was a success.

Have you ever gotten a failing grade?

No.

Have you ever been embarrassed by a grade?

Yeah. I had a really close relationship with a professor and really wanted to impress him. I didn’t necessarily feel like I deserved a better grade. I thought in truth that the grade reflected the amount that I knew about the topic. It was only embarrassing because it was a reflection of my insecurities in the class.

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Do grades matter to you?

That’s such an open-ended question. Yeah, they’re important—they’re important among many other things.

In what context are they important?

I don’t want to get an F in a class because I don’t want to take it again. I’m paying for a quite expensive education, and I’d like the time that I invest in something to matter. I have a good amount of confidence that I shouldn’t have to fail anything that I take, because I’m pretty self-aware, and I take classes that I can handle.

There are small moments where I’m kind of like, “Oh wow, it’d be nice to have a great GPA,” but I think that it’s because there’s such a competitive thing at this school that I don’t get caught up in it, but for a second I might. I might realize that a lot of students here do have great, great, great GPAs that they work really hard for.

How do you know that they have great GPAs?

I guess there are some students that talk about their great GPAs. When reporting grades for this student group that I’m in, you have an option to “reply” to an email and report your GPA or “reply all.” It’s happened before that members of the group have accidentally replied all. And it also just so happens that they have a perfect GPA.

I don’t know what I would do if I had a perfect GPA that I worked really hard for. Maybe I also would reply all. That’s a joke—I probably wouldn’t reply all. I would probably keep it a secret, the way that it’s meant to be.

It’s probably meant to be a secret?

I don’t think that you’re supposed to walk around and talk about your GPA. I don’t really want to talk about grades with that many Columbia students, because I think that a lot of Columbia students are thinking about their grades a lot. I don’t want to get a “reply all” email about your GPA. I would love for you to come to me and tell me how proud you are and how hard you worked and how happy you are about the grade that you received.

I don’t want to talk about GPAs, and I also think that I don’t value my GPA that much. That’s not because I don’t care about school. I really do care about school. That’s not my measurement for success; my measurement for success is not my grade or my GPA in general.

Would you consider sharing your GPA with me?

I would consider it. I probably wouldn’t do it. What would the purpose be? Why?

I’m just trying to gauge if are there people prepared to share their GPA if it’s going to be published.

I think there are, and I can entertain that idea for a second, but then I realize that I don’t want to. It’s so easy, especially on paper or on your computer when you’re reading this story, to have that be an almost all-encompassing characterizing practice. You can easily make other judgements based on that stupid number that I’d rather you just not even begin to make.

Ephraim Park, a senior at the School of Engineering and Applied Science majoring in computer science, was originally a student in the class of 2014. He returned to Korea after his first year to fulfill his military service, resuming his studies at Columbia two years later as a sophomore. He will be working at Facebook once he graduates in May. A self-professed introvert, Park informs me that he has been trying to listen to his inner voice when it tells him to try new things.

Have you ever gotten a grade you were disappointed by?

Yeah. For example, I took Japan Civ, I thought I was going to get A, and then I got B. It was kind of frustrating, but I don’t really stress too much over my GPA, so I was OK.

Have you ever gotten a failing grade at Columbia?

No. [Pause] Yeah, I have a pretty good GPA. [Laughs]

Have you ever been embarrassed by a grade, even if you haven’t failed?

[Pause] I don’t know. I usually don’t say this, I don’t know. I don’t like bragging, but since this is the interview about GPA—don’t put this in the… I have a 3.99 GPA.

You said you weren’t embarrassed by a grade. What stops you from wanting me to share this?

Maybe it’s just Korean culture, but it sounds like I’m trying to brag about my GPA. I don’t know. I mean, if you really want to put it on, you can. [Laughs] I guess I don’t really like showing, “Oh, I’m doing great, look at my GPA.” I don’t know. It just feels like I’m bragging about this stupid thing.

Do you ever feel like you failed at Columbia?

Not really. It’s not because I did great in every class. I mean, I put in effort in all classes, but another part is that I’m not taking classes that I think I may fail. So that’s why I don’t fail. It’s not that I’m doing good, it’s more this selective thing that prevents me from failing.

But I guess one thing that GPA stops me from doing is—since when I was really young, I knew I was a math and science person, not a humanities person. I got to Columbia, and Columbia has really good humanities courses. But I’m a SEAS student, and we can only pass/fail two classes in our whole four years. And if we pass/fail a class, the credit doesn’t count toward your graduation credits.

If I want to explore other classes, I have to take it with a letter grade, and that stopped me from taking hardcore—or, I shouldn’t say hardcore—but philosophy classes, more writing classes, or literature, or film studies classes that I’m interested in. Then I would be competing with people who are majoring in that class, and I’m not confident in my writing and stuff.

So even if I put in much more time than them, I wouldn’t be getting—this is all my assumptions—but I wouldn’t be getting as good GPA. That stopped me from taking humanities classes.

Do your grades matter to you? Or do you think they reflect something about you?

I actually don’t think GPA is a good measure of how intelligent you are. It’s just an OK measure, or a good measure, of how disciplined you are. Especially in engineering classes. If you put in more time, I think the time that you put in and the GPA has a positive correlation. Not this year, but until last year, I spent significant amount of time in Butler [Library], studying all the time.

Why?

One thing, I think it’s actually quite a stupid reason, but if you get high scores—it just feels bad to go down. That’s one thing.

In comp sci, when I try to get a job, there are many things that I could put on my résumé. In tech, there are many things that you can do, like you can do side projects, you can participate in hackathons, there are many events that you can go to other than schoolwork.

I’m more of a theoretical guy. I didn’t do side projects and stuff, so I didn’t really have a competitive edge compared to other people. So I was like, OK, I’ll just show them a good GPA and use that as my competitive edge to get a job. I think that’s the major reason why I put all this time to get a good GPA. And also, when I’m taking classes—it’s good to learn, right? So I try to learn. But I honestly think that if I had a more active personality and a less high GPA, I would change it.

What do you mean?

I told you that I focused on GPA because I felt like, compared to other people, I didn’t have a competitive edge. So that’s why I tried to make GPA my “thing.” One of the reasons I never really had other “things” is—I think the major thing is that I’m more of a theoretical person. But the other reason is that I’m not as active as I want to be, in my personality.

I’m more an introverted person. [Pause] And I become more introverted when I speak in English. And that is a really bad thing to have if you’re going to university in the U.S. [Laughs] I ended up hanging out mostly with my Korean friends, which is not bad—I mean I love them, but that kind of blocked me from participating in more student groups or other activities I could have done.

Some introverted people like being introverted, I think. They like spending time with themselves. If God gives me the option to be more active—and “active” I’m using as a very vague word here—if God gives me the chance to be more active and have a less GPA, I would probably switch for that.

I have aspirations, respect for people who are very determined, who know what they want to do. I think it’s much better to know what you want to do in life and have a less high GPA. It would be perfect if you had perfect GPA and you know what you want to do in life. But if the only options are, A: you don’t know what you want to do in life but have a good GPA, and the other option [B] is you know what you want to do in your life, option B is much better.

After I got the offer [from Facebook], I was thinking, what do I want to do with my life? What do I like? I found out that it was really hard for me to answer that question. It was really depressing, because I’m 25 years old now, and I don’t even know what I like. So ever since then, I try to… listen to my inner voice. What I want to do.

Are you paying less attention to your GPA this semester because you’re paying more attention to your inner voice?

Yes. And I’m taking a creative writing class this semester.

Do you like it?

I like it. It was a good decision.

I spoke with Amani Garvin, a first-year at Columbia College intending to major in astrophysics, during a stroll in Central Park. While we were walking, the interview about grades evolved into a conversation about writing, what it means to be bisexual and black in ROTC training, and what poetry has to do with outer space. Also puppies. There are a lot of puppies in Central Park.

Have you ever gotten a failing grade at Columbia?

Yeah, I failed my last physics final, I’m pretty sure. [Pause] Well, what counts as a fail? Is a D a fail?

I don’t know, what do you think?

Yeah. Yeah, I would count that as a fail. I failed it because my ex-partner broke up with me literally two days before, and I just could not focus on anything. I was like, “You know what, my midterms are fine. I’ll get like a B-minus.” And I walked in, and could only do two problems out of six, and just fucked up.

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Is that the only grade you’ve ever failed?

Yeah. The only thing I could think of was a low C on a relativity midterm, but that was curved, so it was fine.

Have you ever been embarrassed by a grade before?

Yeah, I mean, I don’t like failing. I guess that last physics final really killed me. That just made feel like, wow, I shouldn’t be studying what I’m studying. But then, the cool thing about physics is that you basically take the same classes over and over again, just at a deeper level of math. Doing electromagnetism and thermodynamics now has really boosted my self-confidence, because I guess I’m really good at it. Part of it is just realizing that you get that second chance, and you move on.

Why does the grade matter to you?

Part of it is my job. I’m an ROTC [Reserve Officers’ Training Corps] and I’m getting paid to go to school. So this is literally my job—to get good grades. At the end of the year, my platoon leader is going to write a report on all the things that I did. I tell him what I’ve been doing at Columbia, volunteering-wise, school-wise, how I’ve done, and then he ties that into how I’ve shown leadership qualities throughout the semester.

I’m also just a super overachiever, it’s just the way I’ve been taught. It’s the way everyone at Columbia, I feel, has been taught—to judge themselves based on their marks. Just in the fact that we’ve been rewarded for basically being in the top 10 percent of our class. And then I’ve also been rewarded doubly, because I was chosen as a Kluge Scholar, so I was like, OK, better keep this up. And then getting that grade [D in physics] was like, “Well, shit.” You know—imposter syndrome, the sense that I don’t deserve to be here.

The interesting thing about physics is that the way you perform depends on how much work you put in. If I do all the problems in the book, there’s no way I’m not getting an A on the final. But if I’m too emotional to even get out of bed, then that’s going to fuck me up. I guess there’s that aspect of it, which is that hopefully if I work hard I will do well.

Getting a grade to me is telling me that I worked hard for this and that I sacrificed a lot to be good at what is going to get me farther. But the thing is, for me, grades actually do translate completely into my job. That’s not always true for everyone.

How does that relate to what you want to do?

My dream is to be an astronaut. And there are two things that will get you to NASA: One is networking, two is getting flight time. And flight time for me translated into joining the armed services like my dad did and becoming a naval pilot.

So for me, I want to get a 4.0 or a 3.5 to be at the top. I really want to go to flight school. Or nuke-power school, so that I can fly or do four years studying nuclear physics.

How would you feel about sharing your GPA with me?

Oh, sure. [Pause] OK, last semester I think it was a… 3.2? Maybe? I had two A-minuses, one B and a C-plus that I got in physics. This semester I think it’s going to be high 3.0, maybe 4.0, because I’ve been doing really well in my classes. That’s where it is right now.

Amanda Flink is a senior at Barnard majoring in French. She arrived at Barnard with a 12-year plan: to major in physics, get into a graduate program, and work at a place like CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research). According to Flink, that dream is now “very dead.” After graduating in May, she will be working as a teaching assistant in Bordeaux, France.

Have you ever gotten a failing grade?

No. I withdrew from a class my freshman year, but somehow I got it not to count as a withdrawal. I had about a 52 average, which was higher than some of my friends’. Coming from a very competitive public high school, I was not okay with 52s. I had a 95 GPA in high school, so 52 was like, what is happening?

Do you think differently about grades after four years at Columbia?

I guess the only difference is that after four years I’m a lot more tired, which sounds kind of depressing, but very true in the fact that you have a lot more energy when you’re just starting.

The idea of meeting expectations and pushing yourself doesn’t seem so daunting, because you have a lot of energy, you’re new to the scene. You’re just trying to figure out college in general in your freshman year. And then as you move into sophomore year and classes start getting harder, this is when the real game starts. You’re no longer in those intro classes, and you’re really getting into the meat of things.

I stayed up all the time. My dinnertime was between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. every day because I would spend all my time on campus doing work and trying to work through things. It consumed me, having all this coursework and also feeling the need to keep my grades up. Partially because that is what I had done in high school, and my parents put a lot of pressure on me, and my grandparents put a lot of pressure on me too.

How does that affect you?

My mom did pretty well in school, and she expects it from me. She wishes that she had a better degree so she could do more with her life. She wants me to have the opportunity to do whatever I want. She doesn’t really approve of my major, either. When I was switching from physics to French, she was very… uncomfortable with that decision. And she felt that I was letting go of a huge opportunity, but I felt like I was letting go of a lot of stress. I sleep a lot more now.

I feel like that’s a trait that gets passed down through generations. Because her parents were like that with her. They were typical Asian parents, they immigrated to America—my mom is first-generation. She was expected to get good grades, help them run the family business, and do sports, and do everything.

When I don’t reach her expectations for what I am doing, I’ve feel like I’ve disappointed her. And then I get upset because I feel like I’ve disappointed myself, because I was trying to reach them and I didn’t get there.

I’ve realized in the past few years that sometimes all the pressure that I usually assign to my parents or someone else is actually from myself. At this point, it’s just part of my personality because I’ve been pushing myself to live up to other people’s standards and try to meet their expectations. Because of that, their expectations become my expectations. It’s what I’m reaching for. Now it’s just part of my personality.

Now that you’re about to graduate, do you feel like the internal pressure helped you through college? Was it worth it?

Yeah. I think it was worth it. I’m in no hurry to repeat it, but I don’t regret it. I feel like I’ve done a pretty great job in college. I’m going to graduate. And even if my GPA is not as high as my parents or grandparents would want, or even that I want—a 3.5.

What’s your GPA now?

A 3.47. Just 3/100 of a point. But I still think that it’s a good enough job. My craziness sometimes kicks in and says, but it’s so close, and I have to relax. It’s also fine because it’s not going to do anything. And I have to keep reminding myself of that.

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What does failing mean to you?

That’s really hard. I usually just try to ignore the idea of failing, because it gives me anxiety to think about failing. It feels like a setback to my life. Which is not true at all. It’s four years of school and one class is not going to determine the rest of my life. But the idea that I not only did not reach my own standards, but couldn’t even reach the standards of a class itself, would give me a lot of anxiety.

It’s just that when I realize I haven’t met the expectation, or that I’m not going to meet the expectation, my motivation goes away. Those expectations are exactly what keep me working hard. Without them… I’m not going to work hard for no reason. And those are the best reason I have to do my work.

So do grades really matter? What do grades have to do with failure? And more importantly, what does a failing grade mean?

In my reporting, I didn’t come across anybody who had failed a course and was willing to speak to me on the record for this story. “Failure,” though, is about much more than just getting an F—it’s about failing to reach a certain standard, regardless of who the standard is set by.

As for me, I ended up passing my class with a C. In the spirit of this story, I decided to go back to interview my professor, David Helfand, to talk to him about my deathly fear of failing his class. (And to see what I’d gotten on the final.)

Helfand, who is something of a Santa-like figure with a ponytail of white hair at the nape of his neck—he once described himself as an “old hippie”—dove right in. “Let’s talk about failure,” he told me when we met, “because that’s the big anxious thing, right?”

Being a science teacher, Helfand launched into an example from the natural world, explaining how babies and animals learn and grow through failure.

“But by the time we get into the educational system,” he said, “failure has this stigma associated to it, that it’s a bad thing to do.”

I wanted to find other people who were failing classes because I wanted comfort that I wasn’t the only one doing something wrong.

“If you view [failure] as a disaster to be avoided,” he continued, “the tendency is to cover it up or to never take risks, so there’s never an opportunity to fail.” And in Columbia-student speak, that means sticking to classes you know you’ll know you won’t get an F in, or, at the other end of the spectrum, taking an “easy A” class.

Ideally, grades operate as diagnostics of the student’s mastery of the material, which is why failing to meet the set standards shouldn’t be a bad thing—failing to perform well on an exam should simply show a student they need to improve (assuming, of course, that the student gets other forms of qualitative feedback as well).

But pluck a grade out of the classroom context, and it is stripped of its original meaning. Instead of acting as an indication of where the student can improve, a bare GPA is up to interpretation. Without any context, a number or letter is reduced to a measure of status. A higher GPA is a marker of a competitive applicant for both grad schools and certain employers (like Google or Goldman Sachs). A GPA becomes a marker of value—a value that changes depending on who’s reading the transcript.

The question, “Do grades matter?” becomes a conversation about the context in which they matter. And giving context means telling the story behind the grades.

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