08 October 2015

Grades, self worth and the selfie generation

After reading this post on today's students being "fragile" about low grades. I've been thinking about this issue for several years and have the following thoughts for students:
  1. Many people have a BIG problem with quantification of value, i.e., "you did A work" or "your salary is 35.000 EUR" because many people collapse their entire knowledge or value into those numbers. This is a HUGE mistake, but it's hard for people who have lived with grades all their lives (I got my first one much later than usual... at 12 years old) without the opportunity to establish a separate means of evaluating themselves. (Few people, luckily, try to quantify "I love you.")
  2. This has always been a problem but it's gotten worse for two reasons:
    • Many bureaucrats are too lazy to understand you as an individual, so they use numbers. Students are rated by GPA. Professors are rated by publications (cf. Impact Factor). These are flawed measures, but those with power use them, and we all must therefore focus on THOSE measures over other, relevant measures.
    • The "Selfie" generation has a distorted view of themselves based on curated Facebook profiles, likes, etc. Nobody is the same as their profile, and VERY FEW are as awesome as their profile, but our monkey-brains are not so clever at seeing past the image control. Marketing people know this.
  3. Different professors indeed have different ideas of success or failure, let alone different ways of thinking about the same ideas. That makes it hard for students to deliver "reliable" performance. Some schools try to reduce this problem by curving grades (so that every class has the same % of As, Bs, etc.) but that doesn't fix the issue of style. The only way to address that is to have a good idea of what your professor is asking. (It's quite sad to me that so few students have come to my office over the years, to talk over their work and mistakes. It's important to understand expectations as well as learn from mistakes.)
  4. That said, professors use grades for a reason. They want you to pay attention to where they are trying to take you. Most students, by definition, do not know the theories they need to master or how problems work. The grades help everyone agree on progress, failure or success.
  5. "I am not my grade" is perhaps the most important thing you can write on your mirror. That's because your goal -- in school or life -- should be enjoyment and fulfillment. A shit grade on an assignment that you really liked and learned from is better than a "A" on something you copy/pasted from a spreadsheet. In the end, you need to hold onto your dreams when confronting problems mentioned in (2) above...
  6. Don't forget that few people wish, on their deathbed, that they had received higher grades rather than spend more time with family and friends. #perspective.
Bottom Line: Grades are not as important as pushing yourself to succeed at what you care about.


  1. I recently read a theory about how girls are better at school than boys because they are very good at assessing what their teachers want. Pleasing others is a skill women have depended on for a long time due to their past very limited career option of running a household. However, in the job world rewards come from thinking outside the box, taking risks, thinking creatively, and being bold. Thus being successful at school actually hinders women's success in the workforce. It resonated with me. Sorry I don't have a citation/reference.

    1. I'm not sure I agree on your conclusion, as there's a BIG set of jobs for people who can listen (and understand and integrate and coordinate) -- mostly because "bold outside-the-box creative" thinkers are so terrible at maintaining and extending success with big teams.


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