Parent Resource

GPAs Don’t Show What Students Have Learned. Here’s Why.

by Dave, GPA-Calculator

Society has an unhealthy passion for average scores. A three-digit number represents the sum of a student’s academic achievements in a supposedly uniform form.

Our dependence on it is reinforced in its use in the awarding of specific awards (e.g., with honors), in obtaining and maintaining fellowship status, in hiring internships, or even getting work after graduation.

A high GPA opens the door, while a low GPA slams the door. There is so much at stake that it is no surprise that students are obsessed with this number.

However, all this attention disproves the fact that GPAs are seriously distorted statistics. Not only is it unable to accurately reflect a student’s academic achievements, but our obsession with it discourages academic activity and contributes to a well-documented performance of grade inflation


The History of Grades

While the answers to “Why?” and “What now?” are more complicated, the answer to the first question is simple: no, students do not always dwell on assessments.

According to researchers Jeffrey Shinsky and Kimberly Tanner, assessments are, in fact, a relatively recent phenomenon, referring only to the 1940s. 

Before assessments became known to us today, Harvard and other universities in the 18th and 19th centuries relied on medals and class ranks to tell us how much knowledge a student had acquired while in school.

Interestingly, the main reason classrooms began to develop in the 19th and 20th centuries was to facilitate communication between educational institutions. As more colleges appeared and those that existed became more, schools and teachers needed a way to report on the progress of students.

Before the current A to F scale became universal, most teachers used a 100-point scale to assess their students. However, a scale with so many gradations was not very reliable, and researchers at the time were advocating a shift to a 5-point scale (A, B, C, D, F) to normalize the scores between teachers.

As Schinscke and Tanner emphasize, neither the development of the grading system nor its subsequent revision was in the interest of educating students as such. Historically, grading has been mainly for educational institutions.

Addressing Key Defects of GPA

Bucknell University introduced a way to address some critical shortcomings in GPA statistics, which may also free some students from risky thinking that is contrary to the core mission of any higher education institution.

Norms of assessment vary significantly from course to course. Median grades awarded in introductory classes at the same university may differ by more than a letter grade. A student’s GPA may be affected if a student consistently enrolls in courses for which grades are usually lower.

Research from both Bucknall and other universities has shown that this uneven playing field is a powerful incentive for students to avoid courses (primarily elective courses) in which grades are generally lower.

Bucknell’s Study Committee examined the cumulative effect of different assessment norms on each student (anonymously) in a recent issue. 

They used statistics called the GPA Median to measure the grading standards that a student experiences.

The GPA Median, or GPAM, is the GPA that a student would have if they had received an average grade for each course taken.

The research results are surprising and illustrate how the GPA without context can be misleading.

However, GPAM provides this context, and it quickly becomes apparent how such a measure can be used to benefit students.

Providing students with GPAM data will not solve all problems with GPA, but will add meaning to an otherwise unreliable figure.

At least we hope it will give students whose academic careers cannot be accurately shown by a single three-digit number the opportunity to walk through the door, and keep it open.

The Stakes Are High

Each grade point is counted as a student’s overall grade point average, and the grade point average is relevant for internships, college admissions, and job applications. Some employers do not even consider applicants who have a lower GPA than a certain GPA, and some Texas colleges automatically accept students who are in the top 10% of their class, a status that can usually be determined by calculating your GPA.

Students with a 2.5 GPA who keeps everything in his or her class are less likely to enroll at Yale. Whereas, a student with a 4.0 who finishes high school has a greater chance.

How Mom And Dad Factor In

Many parents, especially in high school, go directly to teachers to try and raise their children’s grades, and one 2014 study found that 80% of children think their parents care more about their achievements than their happiness. 

Maybe because their parents value good grades so much, many students use their grades as a measurement of their intellect. 

Students often focus on “the gap” in their results in terms of their assessments. Students with high scores and low input are said to be more intelligent, so students brag about not taking quizzes or SATs.

Sense Of Self Worth

Even when they are not trying to minimize their academic efforts, many students base their self-esteem on performance, often in the form of grades.

A 2002 psychology study found that more than 80% of first-year students in college base their self-esteem on academic competence. Even more than family support, appearance, or any other single factor. 

This finding is concerning because externally based self-esteem correlates with more stress, anger, academic challenges, and relationship conflicts issues. It also often leads to drug and alcohol use and symptoms of eating disorders. 

In light of this information, it is not surprising that students act as if getting bad scores on an essay is a personal attack on them.

However, the problems associated with students focusing on grades do not end with self-esteem. The fixation of grades is part of a bigger problem: the source of academic motivation.

Internal motivation is the motivation that is “focused on itself” in a positive sense, in the sense that someone’s “desire to learn on the task itself has the highest priority.” 

Exceptional motivation, on the other hand, relies entirely on the outside world for incentives such as praise and assessments to learn.

In a broad sense, internal motivation is important because it relates to greater excitement, confidence, perseverance, creativity, and well-being, as well as improved performance. 

In an educational sense, research shows that motivational benchmarks related to secondary school, and perhaps actually tested at the time, are important prerequisites for the value of the task in adult life.

Simply put, a student’s level of internal or external motivation is often stable throughout his or her life. The development of internal motivation at an early age is a good predictor of both lifelong learning and general well-being.

All of these studies, surveys, and theories together strike the imagination. When students become obsessed with assessments, it not only irritates teachers or humiliates students, but it also affects their mental and physical health, limits their ability to think broadly and ingeniously, and affects their motivation to learn and work. 

Since so much personality formation takes place in the K-12 school, the way students learn to interpret their assessments concerning themselves unfortunately does matter.


                                                                                                                                                       Photo by Alexis Brown

Adverse Effects of Grades on Students

In addition to concerns about whether the student’s learning orientation is emotionally healthy, there is also evidence that learning achievement can be harmed.

Most student assessments consist of both evaluative feedback that “judges student performance” and descriptive feedback that “provides information on how a student can become more competent.” Many studies have shown that while students pay a lot of attention to assessment feedback, detailed feedback can be more useful for student learning.

For example, a study divided students into three groups, where some students received descriptive feedback, some received evaluative feedback, and others did not.

The result? “Providing evaluative feedback (in this case, assessments) after an assignment has been completed does not seem to improve the students’ work on problem-solving in the future.” Alternatively, the students who received descriptive feedback were much better at all subsequent assignments than the students in the other two groups.

Not All Feedback Is Created Equal

Not only does evaluative feedback not help students improve their future performance, but it often distracts students from absorbing valuable descriptive feedback in the present.

One experiment showed that students who were told that they would be assessed after a social science lesson retained less text than those who were told that the lesson would not be assessed. 

Some education researchers even concluded that grades could suppress creativity, generate fear of failure, and weaken students’ interest.

These effects are reinforced in the case of those with GPAs who experience a ‘sharp decline’ in academic interest after receiving low scores. 

While there are many theories about why grades have such detrimental effects on students, one of the most compelling ideas is the theory of feedback, which describes how obtaining feedback leads to change.

Ideally, feedback should refocus students’ attention on the job and the learning needed to perform the job more effectively. 

How to Prioritize Learning

Classroom Activities

  • Drawings, alterations, and “evolving tasks.”
  • Reflection and attentiveness
  • Shift language and focus from completing the task (“do this”) to the learning goal, outcome, or growth (“this is what you will learn”).

While some of the attention paid to assessment is related to the workload outside the classroom, there are many ways teachers can encourage students to refocus their attention on learning itself.

For example, one teacher suggests “evolving tasks,” such as work written in parts with descriptive feedback but without assessments until the end. Such assignments show that learning never ends, and the work can always be improved. 

Such assessments also help prepare students for the outside world, where they may have annual engineering projects, for example.

Other possible activities include learning reflexion, which encourages students to relate current assignments to skills they will need for their future desired work.

The focus is not on assessments but rather on the benefits that skills-based knowledge can provide.

Finally, teachers can help to prioritize learning by making small changes to their lessons in the performance of all kinds of tasks. Instead of saying, “This is what I need you to do,” teachers can say, “This is what this assignment will teach you.” After all, learning is about what students get, not just a score.

Encourage Intrinsic Motivation

As already noted, internal motivation is a significant factor in educational success. While some students are naturally more inclined to one type of motivation or another, teachers can play a more significant role in increasing internal motivation among all their students.

To increase interest, teachers should be passionate about the subject. Dry presentations can scare away even the most motivated students, and persuasive presentations can attract even the most apathetic ones.

To increase students’ control over their learning, teachers can also use student-led teaching, help students set their own goals, and allow students to choose topics for presentations.

Grading Policies

Naturally, some of the ways to regain the focus on learning include changing the ways we assess and think about assessment.

Despite studies calling for the complete abolition of assessments, there are very few schools that do so and the reasons why assessments were developed in the 19th century remain valid.

One way to maintain a system of assessments while shifting the focus to learning is through effort-based and participatory evaluation. The system has been shown to increase student interest in improving learning achievement.

Some researchers may argue that students will become more self-regulating and self-motivated if they have more control over the assessment process. For example, you can give students clear metrics that explain the criteria for each assignment and even ask students to use the metrics to assess their work.

Besides, many studies question the validity of assessments and GPAs as the teacher bias often influences it. Using a network of assessments to implement anonymous assessment would address this problem by eliminating potential prejudices such as race, gender, class, and teacher preferences.

Many researchers also suggest that the time spent on assessment is often cited as a key barrier preventing teachers from becoming more innovative in their teaching. 

Finally, research shows that one of the best ways to improve student performance is to provide more descriptive feedback rather than more quantitative assessments. It keeps them focused on their learning and encourages them to grow as intellectuals.

To Sum Up

Despite the shortcomings in GPAs, evaluations are still there. Prestigious colleges expect admission and scholarships, and employers see GPAs as a measure of hard work and technical skills. Good grades are even associated with higher lifetime earning potential.

All this suggests that as student stress levels rise, and as employers prefer skills and experience to GPAs, it is vital that grades do not overshadow learning as the ultimate goal of education. 

By providing students with high-quality constructive feedback, we can help them become students with a passion for knowledge that will serve them for life.