The Problem With Grades
Read Dr. Luay Nakhleh’s response here.
Every year, whether in his COMP 182 class, at his AMA, or in private meetings with students, Luay will claim that the problem with Rice CS undergraduates is that they care too much about their GPA.
Is he right? Well, yes and no.
Let’s start where I think Luay isn’t completely correct. To put it bluntly, such a statement is somewhat idealistic and naïve.
The claim that students ought to take classes because of genuine interest in the material without worrying about grades or being afraid to fail overlooks the fact that poor grades, or a low GPA, can have real consequences. If you’re looking forward to a career in industry, then you will know that some companies won’t consider you if your GPA is below a certain threshold. If your future is grad school, then you will know that much like how your high school class rank mattered when you applied to Rice, your college GPA will matter for your grad school application. Whatever your path may be, it’s unreasonable to assume that your grades won’t impact your future opportunities in some way. When your GPA becomes the limiting factor on the number of opportunities you have, will you really take solace in the fact that at least you “weren’t afraid to fail” and “learned exciting topics that interested you”?
This is why I believe it is somewhat irresponsible to simply tell students to take classes they like, without considering other factors like grading. It also explains why students, when presented with the choice of a course that is an “easy A and light workload”, versus a course that has “exciting topics but a lower grade distribution”, will unequivocally choose the former. Just like how students ought to understand that grading is a necessary evil, the teaching faculty should understand that grade distributions are just as much a factor as teaching quality or the topic/curriculum in students’ decisions about which courses they take (and don’t).
Of course, I am not proposing that all courses should be curved to an A and all CS undergrads should have 4.0’s. What I am suggesting is for the department to seriously address concerns about grading. When a student complains that “professor X in course Y” grades unfairly, the default response should not be that “students care too much about grades”. Or when undergrads ask for new courses in niche areas only for 3–4 students to register because they’d rather take an elective that will promise them an easy A, the blame shouldn’t fully rest on students — instructors should also consider whether grading acts as a deterrent. This isn’t to say that the department isn’t taking any action — in fact, the changes implemented in COMP 215 are a great example of what two-way communication between undergrads and the department can accomplish. But I would challenge the CS department to adopt even bolder initiatives, like adding tracks, or reducing the total number of credit hours needed so that they can take other COMP classes pass/fail, etc.
On the other hand, Luay’s statement certainly has its merits: you shouldn’t worship grades and GPA to the point where it becomes unhealthy and borderline neurotic. When, for example, 70% of the class gets an A, and you receive an A-, your default instinct shouldn’t be to feel “inferior” to your peers. Or when you see that the top 30% of Rice undergraduates have a GPA of 3.9, you shouldn’t feel “dumb” or “naturally less talented”. Or when an exam is coming up, you shouldn’t default to stressing about what you don’t know, but rather you should be proud of what you do know and how much you’ve already learned. These negative thoughts ultimately lead to diminishing confidence, not trusting your intuition, and performing worse than you normally would.
The second thing I would challenge my peers to consider is when you do perform poorly in a course, not to instantly criticize the necessity of grading as a whole. We often fail to realize how much of our learning is incidental, not intentional. Of course, I don’t speak for all students, as there are many who genuinely are motivated by their innate curiosity, and I have a great sense of respect for that. But I do believe I speak for most people when I say that because projects and exams exist, we are motivated to learn the material that is taught. After all, if there was a class where you were guaranteed an A, and only had optional assignments, would most students really complete them? As such, I think it would be healthy to look at grading as a source of motivation, not a source of anxiety.
The last thing I’d encourage especially CS undergrads to do is: Speak up! Somehow there seems to be a phenomenon in our major where a lot of people have a lot of ideas, concerns, and solutions that are important, but only a few ever make it out there. Take it from this piece: Most of the thoughts in here aren’t actually my own — they’re the result of hundreds of conversations with fellow students over the past couple of years. So, if you want to give a voice to your ideas: Don’t be afraid to speak up, or write about it. We’re all eager to listen.