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Grading: The limits of letters

A few short months ago, students on the campus and at other universities across the country took part in the long tradition of cramming for finals. A marathon of sleep deprivation, cramming is a ritual that has been passed down through the ages and all for the purpose of achieving a lonely letter grade on our transcripts. Those of you looking for whom to thank for this merciless process can look no further than William Farish.

A Cambridge tutor from the 18th century, Farish can either be considered a genius or one of the laziest teachers in history. Up until the Industrial Revolution, teaching consisted mainly of mentorship. But as the 19th century approached, teachers were no longer being paid at a flat rate but awarded based on the number of students they processed. Farish devised the idea of a letter grading system.

What transpired was a grading revolution. While creativity in the classroom was replaced by a more rigid system based on exam performance, Farish could spend less time teaching and more time making money by squeezing out more students. So here we stand today: anxiety-prone, over-caffeinated drones and prisoners of Farish’s little scheme.

But have hope, my fellow inmates: Change may be coming. A movement is growing to move away from the letter grading system and toward a more flexible approach that reduces grade inflation and focuses on the accumulation of knowledge rather than performance. At the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, there were few kind words for the current grading system. Many described grade inflation as out of control, and one professor called grades “the death of composition.”

But what is the alternative? It ranges from narrative evaluations, where students meet with professors to offer their take on the progress of their learning while also hearing the professor’s perspective, to rubrics with clear learning goals. With more and more students studying abroad and grade inflation caused by curving and different teaching techniques, grades have become unreliable.

Skeptics say eliminating grades makes it more difficult to get into professional schools, but it’s quite the contrary: Many law schools, including Yale, Stanford and Berkeley, have eliminated letter grades and award students levels of achievement such as “honors” and “high honors.”

Some also say abandoning the letter grade system will allow students to slack, but in many cases, the workload may actually increase. At Fairhaven College in Washington state, many assignments require a self-evaluation where the students write about their experience working on the assignment they just completed. The workload is also increased for faculty members, who are required to give a detailed analysis of students’ work.

To those with a creative streak, this may sound ideal. But to others who have spent their entire academic careers focused on making the grade, a switch to such an outside-of-the-box approach could prove difficult. But that in itself is proof that a system that awards performance more than knowledge and creativity is flawed.

We hear a lot about how universities are centers for thought and progress, and that may well be true when it comes to research and discovery. But it’s time to help breed that sense of curiosity among undergraduates in classes they may not necessarily be interested in. We are higher education’s future, and it would be best if our knowledge reached further than studying skills.

Justin Snow is a sophomore history major. He can be reached at

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