December 06, 2012

Sociology and Your Grades

SternheimerBy Karen Sternheimer

My office hours have been getting busy as students get the results from midterms and term papers. People who seldom come to class suddenly appear at my door, as do highly motivated students who want to make sure they can get an A. Several sociological concepts can help us understand why grades matter on a number of levels.

First, consider the role that social institutions play in students’ concerns about grades. Our educational system is set up to encourage students to consider grades a primary measure of success. Going through the college admissions process, students learn that the grades on their transcript are more important than actual learning. Grade 1

Unfortunately this often continues once students—especially high achieving students—enter college. When students are disappointed about a grade, I like to think of it as a learning opportunity to talk about how to improve their written work. Because we are all encouraged to think about a grade as the ultimate goal, many begin by asking me to raise their grade. “Can’t I have just a few more points?” a student asked recently. I explained that it would be more valuable in the long run to figure out how he could take his work to the next level and how he might understand the concepts better. This way he wouldn’t have to ask for a higher grade; he would earn one.

While students at all levels can be grade obsessed, I find that freshman often have the most requests for a higher grade. After all, they have just completed years of putting together a transcript to get in to college; it is sometimes difficult to switch gears and think about education differently.

This is a great example of goal displacement, when we lose sight of the actual purpose of a task and instead substitute it with another. This can happen if we have already achieved a goal (the classic example is how the March of Dimes once focused on polio, but since the disease has been largely eradicated the organization now focuses on birth defects more generally). Goal displacement also happens when the goal itself might seem to abstract or intangible, like getting an education.

Just as I have noticed that freshman seem more focused on grades than their more advanced peers, I get quite a few seniors in my office hours with an entirely different dilemma: wondering what to do next. They had spent most of their lives focused on the goals of the educational system and are about to exit this institution, often leaving them with little sense of purpose. They have nearly completed a college transcript, but now what?

Grades 2The focus on grades may detract from developing a passion for learning or figuring out what you might like to do with your life, but grades do serve a meaningful purpose. For example, Max Weber‘s concept of bureaucracy helps us understand why grades have become so central within the educational system.

According to Weber, large, complex social institutions must develop some way of organizing themselves as rationally as possible. Grades (and standardized test scores) are attempts to measure academic success across organizations, and they are supposed to have meaning that goes beyond an individual school. Whether they actually achieve this is another story, but the underlying purpose makes some sense. Grades help administrators determine who gets admitted, who gets scholarships, who keeps their scholarships, and for student athletes, who gets to keep playing at the collegiate level.

Grades also matter to students on a more personal level. Sociologists also help us understand how we construct a sense of identity based on the perceptions of others. George Herbert Mead argued that we each come to achieve a sense of self through a process called the “I” and the “me.” The “me” is who we think others perceive us to be, and the “I” part of our self is our reaction to this perception.

Grades are profoundly social, as they involve a private interchange between the student and instructor, where the student often feels judged in the process. Keeping this in mind, I try to be extremely careful with my wording when providing feedback, knowing that if a student feels hurt by comments they might not be able to learn from them and instead become defensive. Sometimes students challenge a grade not so much because they think they did better on an exam than the grade reflects, but because they are defending a perceived slight to the self.

A big part of how we see ourselves is based on how our friends and family perceive us. Friends and family regularly ask students about their grades. I notice this when handing back papers; friends will ask “how did you do?” or “what did you get?” While I wish they wouldn’t do this—I can recall getting a less than stellar grade and having someone immediately ask me these questions—I understand that part of how we make sense of our own performance is by comparisons with others. 

Parents, of course, can demand to see grades if their children are minors, or if they decide that access to grades is a condition of continuing to pay tuition. Fearing that their parents will be disappointed drives many students to focus primarily on their grades.

Are you worried about grades? If so, what sociological factors might contribute to this concern? What aspects of your education might be overlooked in the process?


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Wow. This is so true. I used to worry about my grades so much and made sure I got A's and B's, but later on, I realized that what it matters the most is actually learning the concepts and enjoying the subjects. This new thinking made my learning much easier as a student. I still get upset when I get C's, but I know I learned something about that class. Also, if we continue to worry about our grades, we may not perfom well when taking the finals because we keep thinking " I want to get an A" However, if we just do our best without thinking "what if I fail" then our learning experience will be enjoyable! THanks for the article, it really motivated me to continue working hard and prepare myself for finals.

This is true. I recently received the first non-perfect score in my academic history, (I'm a freshman) and it's devastating. I'm afraid of what to tell people because in high school, I was great, I was bound to be successful; I was "perfect." Now even a great score isn't good enough, and in comparison to what people expect from me, I'm not good enough. For the kids told they were gonna grab college by the horn, this is hard because in the end, we can't. And we must LEARN how to accept it since we DONT KNOW HOW.

When I go to see lecturers it is because I am more worried about where I can improve on what I have done. I'm not particularly worried about getting A's but if I get one, I'll accept it.

I am mostly worried about studying and in class notes. I worry the most about whether I am efficiently ready for a test or quiz. A reoccurring emotion that i feel is that, no matter what, I can never be prepared enough. Furthermore, i must mention i have anxiety issues that i have never dealt with in my life until i started to be successful in college (i am 23 years old and didn't have anxiety\stress issues until i was 21 almost 22.

I feel stupid about my grades. The huge regret and depression of not having a higher grade kills me. I keep thinking that I could do better than what I receive but always circumstances always pulls me down. I don't have a great memory, I always forget past lectures, I forget constants and worst of all, I misread problems. I think something is wrong with me.

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