In Defense of Grades

Recently there’s been a lot of talk over the value of grades. Some people think that eliminating grades here at Pomona College would reduce stress levels and increase the integrity of intellectual endeavors. However, grades are a valuable way to make comparisons, and comparisons correlate with higher performance levels and increased large-scale goal pursuit. 

 In 1954, social psychologist Leon Festinger published a theory that is now known as social comparison theory. This theory states that when objective information is unavailable, we compare ourselves to the people around us in order to gain accurate self-evaluations.

We’ve all done it before. You know most of the people in your classes, so you can’t help but compare yourself to them: how much work you’re doing, the effort you’re putting in, the grades you’re getting. You make these comparisons in order to appraise your own performance. 

But what matters more than simply making comparisons is to whom you are comparing yourself. Social psychologists explain that if self-evaluation is the dominant motive, individuals will compare themselves with others whose performance is similar to their own. However, if self-improvement is the goal, an upward comparison (to someone who performs better) is more relevant. Upward comparisons can reveal ways to improve and can also increase feelings of self-confidence and self-efficacy.

At Pomona, everywhere you look there are successful and motivated students who are achieving at extremely high levels. This means that it is nearly impossible to avoid making upward comparisons. But exactly how are these upward comparisons a benefit? 

Studies on the long-term effect of social comparison have found that the more students compared themselves upward, the greater their academic performance was years later. If academics is an important part of why we are all here at Pomona, we see a direct benefit in improved academic performance based on upward comparisons.

Upward comparisons have also been shown to influence goal pursuit. In one study, 70 Dutch university students read one of two articles about either a very successful student (an upward social comparison) or only a moderately successful student. Researchers then examined how reading this article had affected the participants’ goals. They found that although the threatening nature of upward comparisons can result in withdrawal from narrowly defined goals, individuals would simultaneously increase their commitment to globally defined goals. 

For example, if an individual is intimidated by the accomplishments of a more successful student, he or she may withdraw from a domain-specific goal, such as being the top student in a math class. However, he or she will be motivated to increase his or her commitment to a related superordinate goal, such as going to medical school.

Social comparisons not only result in increased commitment to broader and ostensibly more important goals, but they also do so in a way that encourages resilience and utilizing multiple means of attaining goals—important life skills.

While you may not like the pressure of grades or believe that they threaten the integrity of pure intellectualism, grades are still an essential element of upward social comparisons that motivate students to perform at higher levels than they would otherwise. Abolishing grades—and thereby decreasing a crucial aspect of upward social comparison—will most likely lower overall performance and blur students’ focus on long-term goals.

Instead of abolishing grades or any other aspect of upward social comparison, we should look to our Pomona community—to faculty role models, for example—to help students decrease their stress and engage in healthy collaboration while still fostering a spirit of healthy competition.

Don’t waste time worrying if you don’t have a perfect GPA. Embrace the competition. Hang out with people who inspire, motivate and drive you to be more than what you already are.


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