The problem with grades

I have taken lots of classes during my undergraduate and graduate studies (and spent several thousands of hours working on problem sets, studying for exams, and implementing final projects), and I’ve come to the following conclusion: for most engineering functions, GPA probably matters much less than you think, regardless of whether or not you choose to pursue a Ph.D. or enter the industry. This is true for a variety of reasons, but one problem with the traditional A-to-F grading system stands out:

The problem with grades…

… is that they often don’t directly reflect effort, mastery of the course material, or how much you sucked up to the professor. Surprising, right? Here’s an example. During winter quarter of my freshman year, I took two sophomore/junior level EE classes (EE101A and EE102A). I probably spent an average of 10 hours a week on those two classes combined. I left both of those classes feeling that I had not learned much, and I didn’t visit 101A/102A office hours a single time during the entire period of three months. That same quarter, I also took a mandatory introductory humanities class (IHUM40B), which I spent a whopping 20+ hours on each week in order to analyze the required readings, write responses, and slave away at papers. I visited TA office hours quite frequently, and subtly praised her writing and teaching abilities on a regular basis.

The end result? I ended up getting A’s in EE101A and EE102A and a B+ in IHUM40B (which, due to grade inflation and relaxed constraints with which instructors grade IHUM classes, basically means that my TA thought my course papers were a load of bull excrement). By all means, based on my effort and understanding, I should’ve received much poorer grades in EE101A and EE102A, and a much better grade in IHUM40B!

But Frank, you’re just one lowly data point in a mass of students. Perhaps you just don’t have the right mindset to be a humanities major, or you somehow got unlucky with the grading process.” Fast-forward to next year, where I served as a TA for one of the introductory classes in the EE department at Stanford (EE101B). At the end of the quarter, I helped prepare grades in the grading spreadsheet, and was able to take a look at how well the students did relative to their performance in the class. The correlation was mild at best. One of the undoubtably best students (in terms of knowledge of the material) ended up being placed in bottom 25% w.r.t. grades.

But Frank, EE101B is just one lowly data point in a mass of classes. Perhaps students that quarter were different, or the assignments were bad.” I have been a TA four times with four different professors since EE101B, and I have noticed the same emergent pattern in all four cases – there is no strong correlation between student ability and resultant grades. Imagine a sigmoid curve, shifted and perturbed by high-variance Gaussian noise. That’s typically what the correlation looks like for the classes that I’ve taught at Stanford.

But Frank, Stanford is just one lowly data point in a mass of universities. Perhaps Stanford professors are just horrible at giving out grades!” If that’s truly what you think, you can take it up with these men and women. I think they’ll have plenty to say in this regard.

So grades are just a bunch of BS??!!

Yes… and no. Instead of bashing the current educational system for its markedly evident inefficiencies and drawbacks, there is one crucial area where American grades stand out. In a sense, they don’t actually measure the mastery of material, or social aptitude. I’d like to think of grades as a tool for measuring the effectiveness of your scheduling abilities (assuming you work hard).

No, that does not mean that secretaries end up getting the best grades in class. Rather, it encompasses everything you should know about your own abilities relative to the courses that you are taking. For example, If I know that I’m inherently better at subject A over subject B, I can likely afford to effectively borrow time from subject A on spend it on the material for subject B. This way, I can fulfill the requirements for both classes. In other words, signing up for courses ends up being a delicate balancing act of determining how much work you want to put into the current quarter, all while make sure that you are on time to graduate and don’t mess up your body so much that you reduce your lifespan by a decade in the process.

On grade inflation

Of all the universities in the United States, Stanford is reputed to have perhaps the worst grade inflation of all. I can personally attest to this, having been on both sides of the fence (student and TA). Courses at Stanford are often curved to a B median for undergraduate and advanced classes, and can sometimes be as high as an A- for graduate, upper-division classes. I don’t think Philip Guo could’ve said it any better, so I’m going to block quote him here:

Grade inflation is the phenomenon that has crept into more and more colleges in recent years (I am optimistic that MIT has not been stricken with this plague as much as some other schools). Many professors are now reluctant to give C grades (or sometimes even B grades) to students for fear of angry parent complaints (“I didn’t pay $40,000 per year for my genius child to get a B!!!”), student rights protests (“We have a basic human right to get an A”), or simply due to the momentum of grade inflation happening in other schools (“I want our students to be competitive with students from other schools, and if they’re all getting A’s, then we need to give all A’s as well … sigh.”).

So what can you do to combat this? The answer, really, is quite simple: stand out amongst your classmates in other ways. Do well on class projects. Perform high-quality, publication-worthy research in a well-known lab. Volunteer your time to causes that you believe in. DO NOT adhere to the status quo1.

And remember, getting good grades will never carry you far, but getting bad grades will quickly weigh you down. Good grades come from an ability to manage your time wisely, so be sure to master that skill.

Last but not least, for all of those out there who are worrying about grades

I’ll say it again – it’s probably not as important as you think (if you’re an engineer, at least). Still not convinced? Well then, close your eyes, kick your feet up, and repeat the following: it’s such a beautiful, beautiful life (yes, Armin van Buuren is one of my favorite artists). And there is much, much more to life than just grades.

1Big thanks to Mahon Khoshzaban for pointing out a typo at this location in the original article.