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Effects Of Grading System On Students: Pros And Cons

Updated: June 19, 2024 | Published: March 15, 2021

Updated: June 19, 2024

Published: March 15, 2021


When you think of school, you probably think of grades. Grades are an important aspect of the education system. They’re used by college admissions committees to determine acceptance, looked at by parents to understand how their child is performing, and used as a marker of success or failure for a student to judge themself.

The effects of grading systems on students has both upsides and downsides. In some cases, they are unavoidable, and in others, it may be better to learn without incorporating grades into the picture.

To truly understand what grades mean, we’ll take a quick look at the history of grades, what a traditional grading system is, and the pros and cons of grading systems on students.

The History of Grades

As a student, you take grades at face value. But have you ever wondered how the education system came to have grades in the first place?

Before a grading system was made, schools like Harvard and Stanford would award students with medals and class ranks. Back around the 1940s, the grading system was invented. The main reason that grades were invented was to make it easy for institutions to communicate with one another about a student’s academic readiness. When there wasn’t a standard letter grading system, most teachers relied on a 100-point scale system.

Teaching grading a student’s work at a cafe
Photo by Startup Stock Photos from Pexels

What is a Traditional Grading Scale?

One of the most universally recognized and traditional grading scales is the A-F letter grading scale. It’s as follows:

A= 90-100%
B= 80-89%
C= 70-79%
D= 60-69%
F= 0-59%

Some schools may add on a plus or minus to signal which half of the letter grade you fall into. For example, if it’s above halfway, then you can have a plus grade, like 96% being an A+, and 93% being an A-.

Pros of Grades

With the traditional grading system, many institutions and students can benefit in a variety of ways. Some of the pros of grades include:

  • Standardization and universally recognized: In virtually any corner of the globe, people will understand what an A, B, C, D, or F letter grade stands for. This makes it easy for students to see where they stand in their academic performance. It also gives students a quantifiable scale to set their own goals for how to attain good grades.
  • Easy to understand: The system is set up to be as simple as possible. Since each percentage is associated with a letter grade, it’s user friendly for students, teachers, admissions committees, and parents to understand.
  • Comparison: With the scale, teachers can see how a student is performing compared to the majority of the class. Not only does this help college admissions committees assess who is ready for college-level academics, it can also help teachers know who needs extra help.

Cons of Grades

Although grades clearly serve a purpose, there are some negative consequences of their existence. For example:

  • Subjective: Even though the letter grade is universally recognized and accepted, grades still have subjectivity involved. While this is less true in math and science where answers are black and white, the subjectivity of grading is most apparent in subjects like English. To exemplify, if a teacher creates a rubric to score a writing assignment with letter grades, there could be bias involved. Furthermore, although the letter grade is standardized, the grading practices are not. This means that what one teacher would score as an A, another could consider a B, depending on how strict their grading principles are.
  • Limited: The grading system may not accurately reflect what a student is learning. There’s no explanation for what got a student to the grade they achieved. Some may be learning more than others, but not able to apply their knowledge well to the task at hand.
  • Time-consuming: Many teachers have to spend an immense amount of time to set up a grading rubric and scale that translates understanding into a comparable letter grade. This also leans towards a testing culture rather than a learning culture. Many students will ask the question, “Will this be on the test?” when learning a new concept, rather than spending their energy to absorb the material.

What Makes Grades Matter?

In the United States and many other cultures, grades have been made to matter for a variety of reasons. In many instances, students consider grades to be a reflection of their intelligence. Parents and admission committees look to grades to judge if a student is performing at their expected level.

  • Tied to self-worth: The majority (80%) of college freshmen reported that their self-worth was tied to their academic performance and competence. This can become an issue if a student receives a bad grade and then takes it personally and can’t handle the stress.
  • Parental opinion: Many parents regard grades highly and may punish their children if grades aren’t as they’d expect. This could strain a relationship between a parent and child. Or, if it’s properly managed, it may boost a child’s motivation to do well.
  • High stakes: There are often high stakes related to grades that make them matter. For example, colleges consider a student’s GPA, along with other factors like standardized test results, when admitting a new class of freshmen.
Teacher looking over student’s work to help learn
Photo by Max Fischer from Pexels

How to Make Learning the Focus and Other Alternatives

While it is useful to be able to judge a student’s performance with grades, the primary regard for education should be learning. By shifting the focus from grades to learning and a growth mindset, many students actually will absorb and retain more knowledge.

Some ways to incorporate these methods into the classroom include:

  • Setting up fun class activities like collaborative projects or games
  • Promoting intrinsic motivation, which means that a student wants to learn for themselves and learning’s sake, rather than to receive an external motivator like receiving an A
  • Providing consistent and useful feedback to students as they submit work
  • Allowing students to perform self-assessments to share how they think they are doing and to express areas in which they may need extra help

Grading: From A-F and Everything Between

The effects of the grading system on students has positive and negative attributes. While it’s useful to have grades to understand how a student is performing, it could cause detrimental side effects like lowering their own self-worth.

With education, the primary focus should always be to expand one’s knowledge and understanding so they can apply what they learn in real-world situations. It’s clear this is doable with or without grades, but the system is so inherently linked with grades that it’s hard to imagine education without the A-F ranking.

At UoPeople, our blog writers are thinkers, researchers, and experts dedicated to curating articles relevant to our mission: making higher education accessible to everyone.