What Do A’s Really Mean?

As I watch my 8-month-old son learn to crawl, the notion that learning is about persistent, self-love, failure, and triumph resonates with me. Michael Wesch, provided a perspective that embraces the idea that learning doesn’t happen in one moment nor does it end once you succeed. Everyday, my son tries to get on all fours, unsuccessfully. One leg keeps getting stuck, just like Wesch’s son George kept falling on the last stair step. This failure doesn’t stop them from trying though. So why is it in academia we become so paralyzed by the fear of failure vs. celebrating the process of learning?

I have thought about this many times in my academic career. I think the consequences of not succeeding on the first try and being stuck with a bad grade are partly to blame. So while an “A” may mean mastery, it doesn’t mean that the learning experience sparked passion, curiosity, or deepened the exploration.

This notion that learning is based on a grade has lessened as I have continued into my graduate education, and especially now as a PhD student. My success has become about the development of my ideas and research, not a letter grade. As I progress through academic milestones, it drives me to learn more, not stop and find something new to study. My success is no longer based solely on a grade, but on scholarly contributions. In the article, “Twitter and Blogs are Not Just Add-ons to Academic Research” Tim Hitchcock said, “The best and most successful academics are the ones who are so caught up in the importance of their work, so caught up in their simple passion for a subject, that they publicize it with every breadth.” That passion for learning and sharing seems to get overshadowed by grades in many academic settings. And while grades aren’t going anywhere, we could benefit from incorporating the fearless learning style of children and the passion of researchers into more facets of academic learning.



17 thoughts on “What Do A’s Really Mean?

  1. Wow. What a great thought: “So while an “A” may mean mastery, it doesn’t mean that the learning experience sparked passion, curiosity, or deepened the exploration.”

    I also feel the same desire to get A’s, but that A, especially in a required, boring course, certainly does not equate to passion.

    Education becomes more and more specialized the higher you go, yet many of the courses are still required due to the bureaucracy of education. Can you imagine if we only had to take classes we were passionate about? What if the A always represented a conquering of the content we feel passion for?

    This is a powerful idea, and it should guide educational principles.


  2. Thanks so much for your feedback. You make a great point about many courses still being required even in specialized education. Maybe the opportunity is to adapt courses even if they are required so they spark some level of passion and genuine interest. I would love to one day teach in way that was not based on grades!


  3. This really spoke to me. For me, my obsession with getting an A stems from my childhood. Growing up, I was a “smart kid”. My mom always knew I was capable of getting straight A’s, so when I brought home a report card that had an A- on it, I got the “I know you can do better” lecture. Because of this mentality a B was equal to a failure for me, and at times I was more obsessed with the grade than the knowledge/skills the course was aimed to give me. For some, the grade can be a good motivator to try hard and study, but I agree that too many students are learning only exactly the bare minimum to get a good grade. I found that most of this went away in grad school, because we are (mostly) taking classes that we choose for our own reasons. I am taking Contemporary Pedagogy because I want to teach, so I am putting in the effort in this class to get the most out of it. Perhaps something that can help in the undergrad classes is to design projects or assignments so that students can take a risk, and if the risk doesn’t work, they have the chance to try again.


    1. I can definitely relate to the mentality of , “I must get an A”. You make a great point that the focus on the grade can actually detract from the knowledge gained in the course. Also I really like your suggestion on how to modify undergrad courses to make them more meaningful to students.


  4. I appreciate your post and I think its evident by the number of comments you’ve received that a lot of us have pondered this same question. I have also thought a lot about the meaning of grades and the significance we tie to them. I unfortunately think that we need some metric that shows certain individuals are more predisposed to some things than others but as someone who got their only C in middle school art, I can certainly say that not all of us are inclined to everything. I liked your reflection on what does an A mean because yea, I have a lot of courses that I frankly can’t remember and didn’t obtain much knowledge from. But then I have to wonder what does an F mean in those courses. If someone had the foreknowledge to realize this is meaningless to me, should they be punished? Yes certainly they could drop the course but I do often wonder about the significance of grades.


    1. Thanks for your comment! I agree that an A versus an F does tell us something. And while it would be refreshing for letter grades to not be so prominent, they seem to still have a place. Maybe we need another way to assess creative inquiry and depth of learning in our courses that pair along side grades.


  5. I remember being excited about starting fifth grade, as, for my school district, that was the first time I would start on the letter-grading system. As an academically self-competitive kid, working for high grades—though not necessarily seeing the greater picture beyond that—was a game.

    Disappointment ensued when my district changed our grading system to P (proficient), B (basic), and NY (not yet). No letters. No GPAs.

    In retrospect, that grading system was a wise move for my district, as it encouraged us as students to focus on learning while still receiving feedback that didn’t as harshly evaluate our sense of self-worth.

    This story comes to my mind as I read and reflect on your post—particularly about your point of not having the same letter-based evaluation anxiety as a PhD student. I wonder, what would a grading system look like that’s similar to my fifth-grade (and your PhD) experience? Why did my school push us back into letter grades in later- middle-school and high school? To match national requirements? To prepare us for college? to meet the status quo?

    Liked by 2 people

  6. First off, thank you for sharing your thoughts on the concept of grading and what it means to get an “A”. I know that this has been an area that I have really thought reflected about.

    I really resonated with your thoughts on fear of failure and how it holds us back. I know personally, the fear of failure is so great that it could make me not start something or become a total ball of nerves and therefore, heavily decrease my product end result. For example, last year I had this class with this huge literature review (which now doesn’t sound as daunting) but back in that moment I was paralyzed with fear. This lit review had such a bad reputation within my program that I just continually worked myself up so much about what would happen if I got a bad grade– would I fail the course? Did it mean I shouldn’t be here if I couldn’t write a lit review? How did I get into grad school? I was placing all my self-worth on this one assignment and my fear of failure that I didn’t realize how much I learned from the assignment or take the time to appreciate that I was getting to do a deep dive into an area I didn’t know much about. I think this fear of a bad grade can really hold the students we are working with back and we as educators need to make sure we never forget the end goal of education and to make sure we are teaching with that in mind.

    I am really glad to see that you are focusing more on gaining knowledge and finding passion areas.


  7. In your post you note the change in the significance of grades in undergrad vs grad education. It is interesting and well-merited point that you raise. I would also add that even in PhD programs we are not dealing with a perfect education system. One of the most unfortunate aspects of Grad studies is the pressure on researchers to publish, sometimes before the students feel confident about the reaching their learning goals. Like all systems it is not perfect but again I agree with you about the change in the dynamics.


  8. I appreciate your comments on how we so frequently conflate letter grades with learning when there’s so much more to consider. As you mentioned, by the time we get to graduate level work, we begin to see that complexity and take ownership of our learning independent of a grade.

    One point I might question is whether or not an A actually indicates mastery, particularly for undergraduate students. I think in the ideal world, it should, but since grades have practical consequences it feels impossible to set that standard. A GPA can’t simultaneously be a measure of mastery of all subjects a student has studied and a measure that determines what opportunities are open to a student.

    The example that I consider is if a student has a goal to be a surgeon but wishes to take some classes in philosophy and music. The grades in those course independently should demonstrate their mastery of those subjects, and I wouldn’t necessarily expect a medical student to also be a master of philosophy and music. Yet, a grade that demonstrates proficiency (say a C) when factored into a GPA could close doors into a medical school program. Grades become very complicated when we can see them as learning, mastery, or a measure of a student’s potential success in the future.


  9. Jake, you make a great point about mastery of a course. An A can really mean so many different things. While it might be mastery for one student, it may not be for another. It makes it challenging to decode a GPA!


  10. This is something I’ve thought about a lot as well. It seems that everyone feels pressure to get good grades rather than understand and retain the information they’re supposedly learning. I think some of this fear of failure comes from the way students are evaluated. Consider an undergraduate class where your grade is
    based only on 3 multiple choice exams; if one doesn’t go well, there isn’t much of an opportunity to correct. Thus students are focused on the question, “will this be on the test?” I think the question we need to ask ourselves is: what are forms of evaluation that allow students to improve their work and grow their knowledge base?


  11. In a very precisely curated manner, you conveyed the thoughts that linger on everyone’s mind (at least that’s what seems here). I had the same feelings and I will not go in details of that as it would be repetitive here. What we need is a system that replaces the grade system but can still efficiently convey the skills earned. I liked Leslie’s district system of P (proficient), B (basic) and NY (not yet). First, it goes directly with the example from the TED talk. When the kid falls down, he is not told that he is a failure but encouraged for trying again. With the NY grade, no one is a failure but there is still more skills (practice) required to go to the next level. The next thing would be the acceptance of such a system at the state/national level.

    We are a society that adores failure in childhood and shames the same thing if done in adulthood. We need a change of perspective. As we become mature, we understand the importance of different things in our life and act accordingly. So, it is important that someone tells us these things when we are not big enough to understand them.

    Lastly, I hope our passion drives us to publicize our research work and the benefit it will provide to the community and not the sheer pressure of publishing.

    PS: I could already see the benefits of blogging here as we discuss and come up with solutions.


  12. As a parent of a 13 month old I can say that I agree with you on many fronts here. One thing that really hit with me was that idea that you say that A’s might mean mastery of a certain skill, but doesn’t necessarily light a fire of passion and creativity for that individual. This all is quite interesting and I think you will get a kick out of the TED talk link: https://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity

    I think you might find some humor in it all…


  13. “As I watch my 8-month-old son learn to crawl, the notion that learning is about persistent, self-love, failure, and triumph resonates with me”

    Reading this first statement made me so grateful that I chose to read your blog post! I see so many people, especially in the undergrad to grad level age range become incredibly jaded with life and maybe aren’t as grateful for the small things in their life that should be celebrated. Beyond that, I think that my own curiosity with learning has been stimulated recently by being in contact with a toddler myself and its an inspiring feeling for sure!


  14. As a graduate student, I can relate to you thought process; I remember having never-ending dilemmas about devoting more time to get a profound understanding of a certain topic on the syllabus or having an overall idea on everything for the exam. In the past, as much as I used to choose later, now (post-qualifier exam obviously!) I tend to devote more time on what I call “true learning”, profound understanding or awareness rather than running after grades!


  15. I think your shift in mindset to true learning vs. running after a grade is such a neat way to look at education. I wonder how we can push toward more of this in the undergrad setting?


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