Coming from a background that placed a high value on academic achievement, it’s not surprising that there’s always been pressure to perform well in school. Having always been a high achiever throughout elementary and secondary school, it came as a complete shock when I found myself struggling just to keep up with the material once I hit undergrad.
Because when you’ve consistently identified (and been told that) your main redeeming quality is “being smart” and “having good grades,” having that taken away from you really shatters your worldview.
In retrospect, I’m thankful for that experience (though, not so much at the time…).
What it did was open my eyes to one very important life lesson: your self-worth is not defined by your GPA (grade point average).
A heavy focus on GPA hinders learning and exploration.
Sure it fosters hard work, but I would argue that an overemphasis on grades suck all the joy out of learning. In the same vein, I’ve always believed that exams were a necessary evil — they completely take the fun out of any learning, but on the other hand, they provide a very strong motivation to get your butt in gear and learn the material.
Some of my classmates would only take certain courses that they knew they could get high marks in. It wasn’t because they enjoyed those particular selections, but because they couldn’t take the risk.They chose “safe” classes to maintain their GPAs over taking interesting courses would possibly have if there had been no pressure to get good grades.
This happened to me as well. I took a computer science course because I genuinely wanted to learn more about java programming, but despite my best efforts, my final grade in that course led to the fear that taking more courses would eventually have a detrimental effect on my GPA. That’s why that was the only CS course I took during my undergrad degree, sadly.
Some schools are starting to realize this and thus providing an opportunity for their students to explore different fields and courses without as much pressure to do well. For example, MIT has a pass/no record system for their first years which encourages freshmen to not only explore areas outside of their main interests but provides an opportunity to create a work-life balance and time management skills without the pressure of possibly ruining their GPA hanging over their heads. Props to you MIT.
Not all academic problems can be solved by simply “working harder.”
For example, not everyone is cut out to be a physics major, a painful lesson I found out half-way through my undergrad degree.
In this case, the answer to poor grades is not to simply “work harder.” What a lot of well-meaning people fail to realize is that all this does is foster resentment against studying. In fact, the subjects I consistently scored the highest grades on were ones that I genuinely enjoyed, but they weren’t the ones I spent the most time on.
Case in point, all my physics did nothing but make me miserable. and I felt like a load had been taken off my shoulders when I finally switched majors. I might have liked it at first, but in the end, I felt like it wasn’t worthwhile killing my motivation (and my GPA and pretty much sucking all the joy out of my life) just for the sake of not being labeled a “quitter.”
Sure, spending a lot of time hammering away at one particular subject also resulted in higher marks, but the thing is, the amount of time I spent that subject were definitely not proportional to my eventual results.
In other words, you can get high marks in subjects you don’t enjoy — it’ll just take a larger amount of time and effort to get the same results as someone who does enjoy it.
If you think about it, our GPA only provides a small snapshot of who we are. It’s why many universities are moving towards broader-based admissions, where they evaluate other components of their students — sports, music, volunteering, part-time jobs, hobbies, etc. — in order to form a better picture of the students they will be accepting.
Remember, once you enter the workforce, literally nobody cares about your GPA. Then it’s all about your experiences and what skills you can bring to the table.
In the end, our grades only form a small part of the story. There is so much more to us than just a number.