Higher Learning is Not a Letter

Image: dtynan
Image: dtynan

Words by Darren TYNAN

While university grades are supposed to be a representation of a graduate’s ability level and knowledge of a specific discipline, are marks arbitrary by their very nature? I take a plunge into the grading pool to examine this question.

Anyone who’s studied in high level academic institutions knows how the system works. Ideally, a mark on a piece of paper acknowledges a student as having a certain amount of competence and expertise in their field of study; these assets can be used theoretically and practically outside of their chosen scholastic institution.

That all sounds well and good, but because there’s no universal grading system that underpins universities as a collective, a high Credit at one university may be considered a low Distinction at another, or a C+ mark considered a C elsewhere. Similarly, lecturers will all grade differently. Even entry level prerequisites are different for universities and are often governed by available places in the given course; it seems like a precarious balancing act hinged on educational inflation and financial profitability.

Every time I hear an overemphasis on marks from my peers, I cringe a little because I know there’s so much more substance to higher learning than an arbitrarily assigned letter on a page. After researching the benefits of higher learning, I found that I resonated with educational theorists Martin Haigh and Dr Valerie Clifford. They suggest that the purpose and goals of higher education shouldn’t be based on students’ employability factors alone, but rather their core competencies and moral values. Moral judgment, critical thinking and global awareness are the ideal skills to create a global and civilized society that promotes tolerance, debate and social responsibility.

Similarly, French Economist Jacques Delors highlights the key factors of higher education in his work ‘Learning: The Treasure Within’. Delors emphasises that graduates will ideally learn skills to comprehend the world, learn competencies needed to interact with people and problems, develop intelligence, sensitivity and aesthetic appreciation, and appreciate the value of all beings.

As a student, if I am to embrace this holistic way of thinking, how then should I feel about that daunting letter assigned to my work? Grading is an inherent quality in academic institutions; it maintains a kind of consistency that enables universities to operate. Without it, there’s no guarantee that students won’t filter through the system and drop out mid-course, squandering the resources and funding that enables educational bodies to exist in the first place. So it would seem that we cant abolish the concept of grading altogether, but merely recognise the requirements of grades and their subsequent limitations.

For many students, good grades are an institutional necessity, in order to transition from undergraduate courses to Honours programs or Master’s degrees. So either grades are emphasised to woeful proportions, or a student is completely passive about grading altogether, scraping by with bare passes. I believe students must find a balance between being obsessive and passive, appreciating and growing using the feedback from their peers and mentors, but also being aware of the limitations of grading.

The more that I consciously think about the holistic experience of higher learning, the more I realise that is not a letter; it is tolerance, growth, persistence, critical thinking, innovation and love. I had this in mind when I recently had a conversation with a fellow student, who was so caught up in potential marks that it had blinded them to the universal beauty of their creative project. The transcendental nature of their creative work, the speculative value, the yearning inquisition, the aesthetic grandeur, all of this seemed to revolve around the arbitrary letter that would be assigned to it. While the project will exist as a cultural artifact for as long as it is preserved, will anyone actually care about the grade percentage assigned to it one year from now? It’s highly unlikely.


5 thoughts on “Higher Learning is Not a Letter

  1. I agree. It’s all about critical thinking, critical awareness, critical perception. Balance is a must. I’ve always argued that striving for continuous HD’s probably takes away from your learning and critical thinking in some ways because you are focused on obtaining that letter and not focusing on improving your learning. You are lucky if you get both – the greater letter and learning. That is the best balance.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Yeah, both are ideal really, but I try not to get caught up in it all. I just aim to do the best work I can, which is all I could ask of myself.

      1. And if they get a HD doing it – then that is a bonus and shows your improvement. Thought that is different to striving merely to get an HD and not learning anything.

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