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2012 Fall Issue 6 (October 26, 2012)

It’s Time to Re-Think the GPA, Really

October 26, 2012
By Stuart Urback

The purpose of grades is to motivate and inform.  They do this by representing the level of achievement that a student has attained on any given assignment for any given class.  This makes a lot of sense. 

However, it is taken a step further. The grades they earn for all of their classes and are averaged into one delightful number known as the GPA.  In some ways, this average represents the student’s accomplishments as a student during his or her tenure in college. 

Is the GPA an accurate assessment of a student’s achievements?

Let’s throw a wrench in that.  Hypothetically, during a random student’s Freshman Fall Term, he or she receive a B+ in Observational Drawing, a B in Multivariable Calculus, and a C in Elementary Latin.  This would leave them with a GPA of 2.77. 

Two things would become immediately apparent to the student.  1. That they are an “objectively bad” student.  According to the GPA ranking scale 2.77/4 is 69.25%, making them, approximately, a D+ student.   2. If they wanted to be a “good” student, they should probably not have taken Elementary Latin, after all, without it they would be a 3.16 student, which, according to the system, is a 79%  or a C+: A full grade higher. 

I am being more than slightly facetious with my incredibly sketchy math, but the point remains:  A one-size-fits-all, hodge-podge GPA system is challenging at best.  In fact, I would argue it is becoming increasingly less relevant in the 21st century. 

When the number of available careers and life paths is simultaneously expanding and shifting, how does  a single number hope to represent a student’s ability to potential employers that don’t even exist yet?

What exactly does a 3.x mean in terms of value to a company? A grad school? A life?  What does that number tell me about my time at Carleton?  Is a 3.7 student better at the Liberal arts than a 3.5 student? 

What does it even mean to be “better at the liberal arts”?  And how can they be better when they probably didn’t even take the same classes? 
If the feedback isn’t clear (and it isn’t), it becomes more likely that students will tie that single number to their educational value.  After all, if it doesn’t mean anything else, it must at least mean that, right?

I think metrics are incredibly important tools for students to understand what they have accomplished during their time at college. 

I also think the students who have the courage, commitment, and brilliance to get outstanding GPAs deserve to be rewarded for their efforts.  But there certainly must be a better way to help all students understand their accomplishments than a single number. 

Does it really make sense to compare an Observational Drawing grade with the grade you receive for Introduction to Classic Studies?  What would the average between the two even represent?   But we already have high-level distinctions between the types of classes we take that don’t involve departments.  We call them distribution requirements.  To me, it seems much more accurate to track a GPA for each of these categories, given that we’ve determined that they are at the very least, highly comparable if not necessarily interchangeable.

I don’t think graduating with six numbers is more complicated than graduating with one.  In fact, I’d almost prefer it.  A student could argue, “Overall I am a 3.a student, but I have a 3.b in Humanistic Inquiry because it’s one of my strengths and I really enjoy it. 

My Arts Practice is only a 3.c but I was trying to branch out and learn new material.  Rather than rationalizing away a single “bad” GPA, students could explain the choices they made in college.

I’m not saying we should get rid of grading or that my idea “the answer.”  I am saying that as a culture and as an institution we understand the learning processes on a much deeper level now than we did. 

If we truly want to become a “21st century institution” we can’t just reform our practices, we must also look at our underlying structures as potential areas for change and reinvigoration. 

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