3 reasons grades are bad for education

3 reasons grades are bad for education

Educated individuals like Thomas Jefferson, Rene Descartes, William Shakespeare, Galileo, and Plato were never given grades.


Today however, the contrast couldn’t be greater. Grades define the contours of our educational system. Our society is even structurally dependent on grading performance. Just look at how the best jobs go to the students with the best grades at the best universities, who in turn accept students with the best grades at the best high schools.


At first glance, the large-scale implementation of grades seems like a textbook example of efficiency improvement. Grades function as a simple and immediate feedback mechanism. They allow differences between students to be quantified and permit teachers to process more students in a shorter period of time. However, upon closer inspection, essential questions arise:


Why do we attach so much value to grades? Are grades an adequate form of feedback? What is the relationship between education and grades? And could an educational model be effective without this?


In this article, we shine a light on these questions and in doing so reflect on some essential features of the THNK Executive Leadership Program.

grades are bad
Although grades are a simple and immediate feedback mechanism, they are an inadequate form of feedback. Click To Tweet

1. Grades create risk-averse behavior

Surely we agree that futile and vain feelings are associated with the letter grade F and proud and happy feelings are associated with the letter grade A. These links are deeply entrenched in society’s perspective on education. As a consequence, the expectation of receiving a grade creates a fear to fail. Students are therefore prone to choose the path with the least resistance, opting for the easy A. Looking back at my university education, I too strategically chose subjects that would benefit my GPA.

But as a society, do we want our students to engage in this type of behavior? Will this make them educated individuals? Perhaps, this is just inherent to human behavior. Still, I think we want students to be naïve, to dream big, to take risks and to engage in divergent thinking. Truly innovative concepts emerge in such environments. In this quest, students should embrace failure, because failure and success are two sides of the same coin.

Dutch designer and THNKer Marcel Wanders once argued in a THNK session: “Doing a good project in school should be forbidden…students have to make as many mistakes as possible, and learn from it.”

We advocate for an educational model that’s a safe haven for failure. Instead, emphasis should be placed on constant iterations and rapid prototyping, allowing students to acquire the ability to cope with failure and bounce back.

grades are bad
We want students to dream big, to take risks, and to engage in divergent thinking. In this quest, students should embrace failure. Click To Tweet

2. Grades have become the end goal

“Is this going to be on the test?” is a typical question that becomes increasingly popular as a test date approaches. It seems like an innocent question, but if you unravel it, a worrying trend surfaces.

Grades, ideally intended as an effective means to learn, have transformed into a goal in itself. Grades force students to memorize those details necessary to pass a test, often disregarding true comprehension of the subject matter. In this process, the student’s personal development is becoming a footnote, overshadowed by the imperative significance of grades. What are the implications for educational institutions? How effective are they in fulfilling their duty, which is to educate the next generation?.

Interestingly, the importance we place on grades within the perimeter of educational facilities does not coincide with the importance companies place on grades. Google’s former Senior Vice President of People Operations, Laszlo Bock, says, “GPA scores are worthless as a criteria for hiring, they do not predict anything.”

Perhaps society’s structural dependence on grades has led to an inflated level of importance that may lead us to develop suboptimal skills that do not translate directly to the workspace.

The Grading Paradigm, Why Grades Restrain Learning 4
When we place too much importance on grades, the students' personal development becomes a footnote. Click To Tweet

3. Grades are an inadequate form of feedback

I think we can easily agree that receiving feedback is an essential part of education; it allows us to improve. However, are grades the most adequate form of feedback? Here are three reasons why we should rethink this:

  1. There is no limit in qualitative learning. Grades, however, are like a glass ceiling that students do not break through. This is because more often than not, obtaining a grade signals the end of a learning process.
  2. A grade strongly affects the student-teacher relation. A grade should not only be seen as a measurement tool; the giving and obtaining of a grade also constitutes a relationship. We interact differently with a person who has obtained an A as compared to someone who obtained a C.
  3. There is a discrepancy between the one-dimensional character of grades and the multidimensional character of students. Einstein once said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” In line with this, personal feedback, as opposed to grades, can help to differentiate between “you’re not good at this, don’t bother anymore” and “you’re not good at this with your current approach; why don’t you try a different approach.
3 reasons grades are bad for education
The one-dimensional character of grades does not measure the multidimensional character of students. Click To Tweet


Grades play a pivotal role in our current educational paradigm. They’re a convenient measurement tool that is easy to manage, store, and transmit. When dealing with masses of students, it is justifiable that these factors are decisive.

At THNK, we do not believe in grades. Grades create an environment that restricts innovation and creativity. They have lost their original purpose, imply failure, and undermine personal relationships. We believe in personalized feedback through intensive coaching and mentoring from professional coaches and peers — only then you can unlock your true potential as a creative leader.

To break new ground through peer-to-peer interaction with experienced practitioners and a highly diverse circle of peers, join the upcoming Executive Leadership Program.