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What it takes to make the grade

Heights Editor

Published: Sunday, November 20, 2011

Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 19:01

Though people often say that college is the best four years of one's life, they are undoubtedly four of the most stressful years as well. The pressure of getting good grades looms above college students at all times.

The implications that both our successes and our failures have on our future, or so we are told, can be daunting to even think about. Each test, homework assignment, and  paper contribute to that coveted high GPA. The GPA that we will hopefully be proud to display on our resumes while we hunt for jobs and internships alike. But what do these grades really represent? Do they say we went to class, focused, engaged in discussion, took an active role in furthering our knowledge, and ultimately left a course more well informed and wiser for it? Unfortunately, such a blanket statement cannot be made. There are ways to succeed on paper here at college without actually learning. What is the value of this type of education? Are we here merely to get that letter grade to contribute to our high GPA number in hopes of getting a six-figure salary in the near future?

Jerry Kane, an assistant professor in the Caroll School of Management (CSOM), offered  interesting insight into how we view grades today, and what those little letters really mean. Kane is highly knowledgeable in the area of grades and has participated in a lot of discussion about their role.

"I actually attended a faculty seminar last week in CSOM that presented evidence that students who were concerned about grades, over learning a topic deeply, actually became less-expert in the long run," Kane says. "Students focused on grades first learn the topic procedurally, such as what they need to know to write a paper/take a test, but students  focused on learning deeply first became conceptual learners (i.e. learning the principles of a subject) that allowed them to better apply that learning in unfamiliar settings in the future. The latter is far more important for success in life."

As a teacher for 15 years and an undergraduate before that, Kane has a lot of experience in academia. "I actually take grades far more seriously now than I did as an undergrad, but in both cases I still think that grades were/are less important than they are to the average BC student,"  Kane says.

It is true that at Boston College there is an extremely competitive spirit. Double majors with additional minors and concentrations tend to be the norm, not the exception, and students compete for top spots in all of their classes. But what are we all competing for? Kane emphasizes that we should be striving for knowledge, not just A's. "I try to de-emphasize grades as much as possible, because I know students will over-emphasize them," Kane says. "I do strive to communicate my expectations for the course clearly and fairly (i.e., what students will need to do to get a good grade), but then I work really hard to try and get students to learn first and worry about the actual grade second."

Kane believes that if students concerned themselves more with mastering material and seeking true understanding, this would not in fact harm their GPAs, "I suspect that if students really do [seek true understanding] then the grades will be a natural by-product," Kane says.

Ultimately, many of us are concerned with finding a good job after graduation. Our competitive nature has lead us to believe that a BC diploma is no longer enough, and that we need to have the best academic standing of all our peers to really succeed. Kane does not believe this is necessarily true. "I think it [grades] plays a role, of course, but I think it's more likely to get someone an interview than get them a job," Kane says. "Employers will look at students with a high GPA, but unless you convince them you can bring something beyond test-taking ability to the job, they don't want you.  There's also a huge difference between getting your first job and succeeding in it, leading to your second job."

When students place too much emphasis on this "good" job, they can lose sight of what they really love and what they really want to do. What makes a job good? Is it just the salary and perks? If our liberal arts, Jesuit education succeeds in teaching us anything, it must be that this is not true. Financial security is wonderful, but what is life without fulfillment and happiness?

Kane challenges students to really think seriously about their education and their passions. College should be a time for exploring, trying new things, and discovering what we really love. "There's also the chance that a student will get good grades, get a good job, and hate it. I've known many people who succeeded in academics, becoming doctors, lawyers, and business people – only to realize they didn't want to do what they were doing.  I think finding out what you really want to do in life is far more important than grades, but sometimes students are afraid to branch out because it may adversely affect their GPA."

It is this very fear that leads many students to become stuck in a rut where they only absorb the knowledge that is immediately necessary to master a class and get a good grade. Kane's long experience in teaching has given him much evidence to support his claims that grades aren't actually everything, "Second, grades don't completely capture many qualities that are most valuable to companies (i.e. creativity, critical thinking). My best CSOM student only got a 3.4 GPA overall, but ended up getting a job at Google because she really learned how to think effectively and creatively.  My good friend in undergrad was an Asian Studies major (for which I made fun of her, ‘What can you do with an Asian Studies major?'). Of course, now she's the director of international strategy for a major global financial firm. I bet she couldn't even tell you her undergraduate GPA today if I asked her." A job at Google doesn't sound too bad does it?

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