Why This Professor Doesn’t Care About Your Grades

On a cool autumn morning in 1993, I walked into the old brick school building where I would be joining the eighth grade class. 

I was both excited and apprehensive. 

It was, after all, my first day of formalized education—ever. 

I was 13 years old.

Until then, I was homeschooled. My educational curriculum comprised only three formal subjects: math, science, and some mixture of grammar and vocabulary. The rest came primarily from reading—biographies, novels, National Geographic books—or experiences like the zoo or museums. 

We had few distractions. My parents had ditched the family’s one television when I was 4.

That’s why I once read the entire “M” encyclopedia in a single day. I was 9 or 10 at the time. 

Given this atypical childhood, it’s probably not surprising that I find various aspects of formal education slightly odd. 

Like grades. For nearly my entire primary education, everything had been fine for me without them. My parents simply sat down with me and made sure I could do the problems in the math textbook or understood what I was reading. There was no need for testing or grades in this tiny “classroom” because any topic that I didn’t grasp quickly became apparent. 

My situation was unique, of course. When teaching a larger group, educators need to have some way of knowing if the students are learning. And it must be more efficient and standardized than what one could do with just one or two students. Hence the tests and grades that have become institutionalized in our schools and universities. 

There comes a time, however, when students must realize that it’s not about the test or the grade anymore. 

It’s important to note that I typically only interact with graduate students (most frequently seeking a business-related master’s degree) or, sometimes, with undergraduates in their senior year of study. 

And with these students, I often begin the course with a discussion of two ways in which they can orient themselves and their efforts. Namely, they can have a performance orientation or a mastery orientation. 

A performance orientation in the classroom focuses on the grades. It’s about performing well by some external standard. This is exactly what we’ve been taught either explicitly or implicitly to seek in most educational settings. You have to get good grades to have good opportunities. 

Want to go to a good college? Better “do well” in high school. And “do well” means getting good grades. 

But “doing well” or “succeeding” in graduate school and life in general is about so much more than achieving some grade or external recognition. And especially beyond the limited years one spends in school, most of life is best approached through an orientation toward mastery. 

A mastery orientation is about intrinsic accomplishment. It’s about growing as a person, in skill and understanding. It’s fundamentally about learning, about actually becoming a little bit better version of yourself.

And it’s the mastery orientation that I advocate for my students to take. It’s not that I don’t want them to work hard and get good grades. That’s not it at all. 

It’s that I want them to care about learning, about mastering some new concepts or skills—first. 

The trouble with having a performance orientation, particularly in graduate school, is twofold. 

First, focusing too much on grades can mean that one isn’t focusing on the real goal—learning. If you really care about learning and mastery first, the performance and grades will often take care of themselves. 

Second, grades, while ideally linked to learning, will always be an imperfect reflection of it. Worrying too much about whether you got a single question right or wrong on a test simply isn’t worth one’s time and effort—especially the student’s time and effort. Again, focus on learning and mastery. 

The other reason I advocate a mastery orientation among my students is that it’s a useful approach toward life itself. It’s certainly helpful when trying to be a good employee. Research suggests that having a mastery orientation correlates with high-quality relationships with supervisors, leading to higher levels of performance, innovation, and job satisfaction. Additional research found that having a learning orientation is associated with higher levels of creativity and related attitudes. 

So again, it’s not that I don’t care about your grades necessarily. It’s that I care about your learning—and about your own drive to learn continually—much, much more. 

I want you to read the “M” encyclopedia (or whatever the modern version of that might be) not because someone is going to recognize you for having done so. 

I want you to do it for the sake of learning, for the sake of becoming a person who’s a little bit more informed, a little bit more capable than you were yesterday. 

That, in my opinion, is worth more than any grade I could possibly assign. 

About Ben Baran
Ben Baran, Ph.D., is probably one of the few people in the world who is equally comfortable in a university classroom, a corporate boardroom and in full body armor carrying a U.S. government-issued M4 assault rifle. Visit: www.benbaran.com.

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