The A

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

For all my life I have loved to learn, but I have also always loved getting As. At a certain point, the two became muddled. Do I love working hard in school because I love the material? Or do I love school because I love the feeling when my paper comes back with a big old A at the top?

The letter grade A is part of a system which ranks students from letters A through F, and skips the letter E. Allegedly, the letter E was originally part of the grading scale, but got eliminated so that students wouldn’t think E meant ‘Excellent.’ Teachers thought F for ‘fail’ was more straightforward.[1] Yale is said to have developed one of the first grading scales in 1785, ranking students across the Latin categories optimi, second optimi, inferiors, and perjores, but these scores were hidden from students. The current ranking system did not become popular until the 1940s.[2] When developing grading systems, many thinkers note that school officials found publishing grades to be motivating for students. Having a grade gave students more reason to come to class, and to try. Even in recent ethnographic interviews I conducted, current teachers are saying the same things. A Minnesota public high school teacher expressed to me that she used to be staunchly anti-grades, but that once she started teaching, she can see how students respond to grades in a way that they do not respond to the simple lure of learning.

As the A through F grading system grew, it became a way for institutions to communicate with each other. More and more students started to go to college, and schools needed a standardized way to uniformly measure students.[3] Of course, this uniformity is not always, or ever, successfully achieved by professors across the university system. Each professor grades differently, and even if they are using the same letters, each class has a different set of learning goals and standards. Alfie Kohn, a great education policy advocate and writer, found that grades actually result in students who continually choose the easiest tasks, think superficially, and ultimately forget what they have been taught.[4] This may sound harsh, but Kohn is hoping that this reality will push schools to drop grading all together. He writes, “The question, then, is how we can summon the courage to get rid of letter and number grades, replace them with reports of students’ progress that are more informative and less destructive, and help parents and students to recognize the value of doing so.”[5] In the same article, Kohn references multiple places in which schools have given up grading, and subsequently explains the positive effects that came after that switch.

I agree that we need to get rid of grades, but I want to look a little closer at the A specifically. Getting an A is a point of pride for students, and is something that most people see as a mark of high achievement, but what does getting an A really mean? Why do so many students feel like it is so important? An A signifies a lot of things – achievement, class position, where you could go to college, how much you care about school, your parents’ own schooling. Many students feel an incredible pressure to get As because of their role in college admissions. High GPAs allow students to apply to and attend more prestigious schools, and in some college admissions processes, grades really are the main factor in a students’ acceptance. We are told that getting an A is because of the level of success achieved, a direct product of the work put into the assignment. This is not always true; there are many factors in a student’s life that lead up to them getting an A. Do they have parents who help them with their work at home? Did they grow up reading a lot? What sorts of degrees do their parents have? An A may feel like a huge accomplishment, but an A does not actually mark the success many believe that it does.

         As someone who has gotten many As in my lifetime, I have had to come to terms with the fact that some of those grades were earned, but some of them are also a direct reflection of my privilege. So the question becomes – how can we redesign the A in order to motivate students to actually learn and reward real success rather than social/class positioning?

         I want to propose two changes that will emulate the parts of an A that I like, and motivate students to learn. I do not actually think the answer to the question of grading is that hard; I think, as Kohn did, that we just have to make the jump. First, I think student reflection should be the standard when a large project or class comes to an end. In any way that feels comfortable to them, (art, music, paper writing, etc.), students should be expected to explain what they have learned, and why they are excited or not excited about that learning. This kind of self-evaluation pulls from Jesse Stommel’s notion of ‘ungrading’ in that I believe students should reflect on their work, and that when they do, they will actually be more honest about their achievements than we expect.[6] I know that it sounds scary to place evaluation in the hands of the students, but I think this is precisely what will motivate them to learn. I think the encouragement and sense of achievement that comes from getting an A should be preserved, but that joy can come from an accomplishment that does not create a hierarchy between students. 

        The second change I propose is for professors to develop a system for students to give each other positive feedback at the end of a class. Maybe this would take the form of some online form, or note writing, but I think there should be a way for fellow classmates to praise each other on what they noticed as effective in the classroom. This way, students can express what comments, thoughts, projects, or contributions really changed them, and give that praise directly to each other. I think this would create a more collaborative environment, fight the competition created by grades, and provide more students with the satisfaction that comes from getting an A.

1. Palmer, Brian. “How Come Schools Assign Grades of A, B, C, D, and F-but Not E?” Slate Magazine. Slate, August 9, 2010.

2. Schinske, J., & Tanner, K. (2014). Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently). CBE life sciences education, 13(2), 159–166.

3. Schinske, J., & Tanner, K.

4. Kohn, Alfie. “Getting Rid of Grades: Case Studies.” Alfie Kohn, December 1, 2014.

5. Kohn, Alfie.

6. “How to Ungrade.” 2018. Jesse Stommel. March 11, 2018.

(Cover photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash)