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Guest Posts, Learning at its Best, Philosophical Meanderings, Student Voices

Grades Limit My Learning

Is this learning?

Originally posted as a guest post. Justin is a member of the Cooperative Catalyst

We all stress ourselves out to memorize the formulas. We all have had that cram night before the final. We all BS homework at the last second so as not to “get a zero”. We all use Spark Notes. We all discuss answers post-test.

I started writing my ideas about learning on My Blog. Like many of the people likely reading this post, I am a student, and my interest in education unfortunately comes out of frustration. From the time I was young, school was about grades, “good grades” to be more specific. Why? Well to get into a good college of course.

I believe learning and school can, and should be a lot more than what school has made it out to be. I find learning in many things, for instance, I enjoy arguing with pundits on the news and exploring the city of New York (My favorite place on earth). Experiences like these make my mind what it is, and I am thankful for all the experiences I’ve had.

School has done a very sad and unfortunate thing. It has placed a number on my learning. No longer is my weekend trip to the city valued, but now it is merely a distraction from my SAT work or cramming for another test. No longer can I be at peace with a book, unless that book is called “Hot Words for the SAT”. My valuable learning experiences, discussions, debates, and really just exploring my mind, are secondary to the tests, quizzes, writing assignments, etc. that may make or break my status as “smart”.

Who has, or has had someone close to them cry over a bad grade? Did it make you mad? Did it make you/him/her hate the subject you/he/she got the bad grade in?

The extent we go to thinking and stressing over grades is honestly insane, but in the world we live in, it makes sense. Get the A, get into the brand name college, get the job, live in a gingerbread house with angels as children. That’s how it’s supposed to work. Of course, that’s not how it really works, but getting good grades certainly does give people advantages for getting into college, which is obviously a factor in our future.

I understand that in the world we live in, grades can make or break one’s life; I’m not going to dispute that. But I’m going to make an even bigger point. I’m here to say that the world we live in shouldn’t put stress on grades. Actually, I think grades are harmful.

Okay I know what your thinking now is “he is going to go on a rant about how grades are immoral and hurt kids feelings”. Well, to be honest, I think that has legitimacy, but I hope you’ll find the points I make a little deeper than that.

Grades have always been a big part of my life, as I’m sure they are yours, if you are a student. I prided myself on the 100s I would get on spelling tests, or the As I may have gotten in middle school and high school. Yes, when I got my first 79 it made me very upset. Yes, when I got a B in 8th grade math it killed me. And honestly, every kid who gets stressed over grades has every right to be stressed. College admissions, the need to compete with your classmates, and all the other attitudes our schools hammer into us scare the hell out of us.

And you know what, the grades I’m getting now are fine, but it’s still scary that I don’t have Ivy League quality grades. In addition to the stress caused by grades, there are many problems that I believe having grades causes regarding education.

Plain and simple, I think grades simplify, complicate, and take away from the beautiful process that is learning. Does that sound like a bit of a contradiction? Let me explain. Grades put a number on education. If two people both get an A in social studies, who would know that one person used to struggle? Who would know that the other person found some great insight into history? Who would know what they learned? And again, if a person got an F in math, let’s say, who would ever know if he really did understand the concepts he was taught? Maybe the kid really does think like a mathematician and just doesn’t like how math is taught in his class. The point is that learning is a complicated process hindered by grades.

Now, I also said that grades complicate learning. Grades put into education so many things that just shouldn’t be considered part of the learning process. Why should I have been thinking about college admissions in 5th grade? Why should teachers be forced to give a lower grade to a kid struggling in their class, yet whom they can tell has intelligence? Why should parents feel their child is a failure because of tests and grades? Why should a kid hate a subject for the rest of their life because of a class they got a bad grade in?

Grades and rote learning really go hand in hand. Memorizing, regurgitating the facts, and forgetting it the day after the test. I know a common argument I hear is that grades motivate people to work hard. And yes that is true. But when working hard means BSing homework at midnight or the period before, I think that causes more harm than good. Or when working hard means memorizing and regurgitating at the expense of having fun and enjoying one’s day, I think that’s a problem too. Honestly, grades cause kids to take shortcuts. Instead of understanding and thinking critically about a topic, kids memorize what they need to know for the test. That too, is not learning.

I think grades are part of a bigger problem with how we view learning. As I mentioned in an earlier post, learning shouldn’t be viewed as a competition, which unfortunately, it is. But another problem is our attitudes that everything has to be measured, and that if it’s not measured its not important. The immeasurable aspects of one’s learning are the most important. That is how a kid interacts with information, people, and his own mind.

We have to stop being preoccupied with standardization, we have to stop being preoccupied with “seeing progress” through numbers, we have to let kids be kids. Let me learn how I want to learn. Value the things I value. My trip to the city is as important, if not more so, than my grade on the SATs. Think of what made your mind work it’s hardest when you were in high school. What you loved doing. The experiences that made you, YOU. Now realize that in those moments, you were learning more than you ever could have by just trying to get “good grades”. I want to learn. But if school stays this way, then I don’t want to go to school.


Justin is an 11th grader at Syosset High School in New York. His frustration with school prompted him to start a blog entitled “My World As a Classroom” where he shares his feelings about school and learning. He feels that he learns best when he can follow his passions and explore his mind and new places.


27 thoughts on “Grades Limit My Learning

    • Grades enhance my learning
      Grades can be based on much more complex criteria than multiple choice answers. They give the teacher, the student, and the parent an indication of how much work needs to be done in what areas.
      “Why should I have been thinking about college admissions in 5th grade?”
      Perhaps thoughts of college do not need to be in the mind of the grade 5 student, but by grade 8, plans for the future are important.
      “Why should teachers be forced to give a lower grade to a kid struggling in their class …”
      Improvements in marks are an indication to the student that they are learning and improving.
      “Grades and rote learning really go hand in hand.”
      Grades do not need to be based strictly on tests. The scoring system in DI is a perfect example of marks reflecting a variety of aspects of the learning process.
      “learning shouldn’t be viewed as a competition,”
      Anything you replace grades with will still be marking. Even a “good job” or “this needs work” becomes an indication of success that can be compared between students, if they want.
      But really, how do I know how I am doing if there are no tests and grades?
      By Kira, Grade 7

      Posted by triwriter45 | November 30, 2012, 9:37 pm
      • Thank you Kira. I genuinely enjoy someone challenging me. Here are a few points I will make:

        1. I think you and I are both in agreement that there has to be an evaluation to show areas of improvement.

        2. The point I make about grades is that they are evident of a bigger problem. And that is HOW we learn. Grades unfortunately affkect how we are taught, and therefore how we learn.

        3. I agree with you, grades can and should be based on a more complex criteria.

        4. But that criteria, in my opinion, shouldn’t be based on anything we see in our basic system of education today.

        5. I don’t think that grades are an indication of improvement in anything except just that, grades.

        6. Here is my main point about grades. They force us into a mindset where a good score or a good mark is all we want. By doing that is takes away human’s inherent love of learning. We humans strive to learn, grades turn learning into a much different process than it’s natural form. I’ll give you an example. Writing. How many people reading this were taught to write a certain format because that is what a test called for? (I know you said that there are other aspects in grades than school, and that is true, but in my experience, the testing and grades go hand in hand).

        There is one thing to learn about me and that is that I view everything as a learning experience.

        Here is an example of how grades often come before learming. I’m not sure where you are from but in New York state we have the regents exam. Basically every main subject in our high school years has a regents exam at the end of the course. Unfortunately, countless times I’ve heard from teachers that the point of there class is to “pass the regents exam”. They don’t say “become a master in their subject”. They don’t say “to understand the world”. They don’t say to “understand the elements”. Most say “to pass the regents exam. I’ve heard this story countless times.

        Now, I understand that the system we are in requires grades, but I think thentire system calls for a chamge and a rethinking.

        If you want to talk more, my email is

        Posted by justinstrudler | December 2, 2012, 7:39 pm
  1. Very insightful. I like this a lot. I agree with you about everything you say. Great work.

    Posted by zgsactress | November 27, 2012, 11:41 pm
  2. WOW! Amazing work. I am very impressed. Thank you so much for posting this! Keep writing Justin…you are very talented. I’m definitely going to be checking out your blog! I hope to see a lot more work from you soon…maybe even a book!

    Posted by Zoe | November 27, 2012, 11:45 pm
  3. Well said. I agree that grades are no true indicator of the successes and failures of a student on any given assignment. What does “A” mean? Or “F”? Not much until you line them up on a report card with the name of a subject; then they become the be-all, end-all.

    My school gives grades, but I am slowly moving away from them for the middle grades and trying to figure out a formalized portfolio system for the high school (perhaps with accompanying grades – not sure yet) to replace a standard report card. I believe that giving grades does hinder a student’s motivation and persistence, and I don’t want to throw anything in the way of their brilliance.

    We are a young, progressive school in a very traditional part of the country, but I think that education is ready for some big changes, and replacing grades with something more meaningful is part of those changes.

    Posted by HoneyFern School | November 27, 2012, 11:54 pm
  4. Hmm… the dilemma of course is “how do I know the kids are learning?”. What I would say of course is maybe evaluation can come from the portfolio. But the evaluation shouldn’t be A, B, C, etc. Rather fill the evaluation should include comments, and even a dialogue with the student about the portfolio and about his/her year. I’ve had teachers who I didn’t talk to for more than a minute if that… How can that teacher even know me?

    Posted by justinstrudler | November 28, 2012, 12:16 am
  5. I hope that your school is able to succeed! It sounds like a very interesting place.

    Posted by justinstrudler | November 28, 2012, 12:19 am
  6. Really enjoyed your post Justin. I’m a school Principal and I recently gave a Ted talk about personalizing education. The system I highlight in the talk is called Big Picture Learning Kids at these schools don’t have grades or tests, they demonstrate their learning 4 times a year in exhibitions. I am leaving europe at the end of this school year to move to the States with my family to set up a school from scratch. I really believe the education revolution will come from the students themselves. Keep writing/campaigning and sharing! Here’s the talk:

    Posted by Ben Kestner | November 28, 2012, 1:44 am
  7. The guy who gave the ‘rant’ comment just now needs to understand the difference between grading and assessment.

    Posted by Ben Kestner | November 28, 2012, 3:28 am
    • Ben – well that’s part of the problem, isn’t it? Grading and assessment have become synonymous. I’m in the middle of writing a position paper about this for my Assessment class. My position – shifting the focus from quality control (standardized testing & grades) to quality assurance (formative assessment in the classroom) will yield the most long-term, positive effects on teaching and learning. I found this use of quality control vs. quality assurance in a paper by Dylan Wiliam and I think these terms can help those outside the system understand assessment better.

      Justin – thanks so much for sharing. I’m going to be using a quote or two from you in my paper.

      Posted by techkim | November 28, 2012, 9:53 am
      • Could you explain what you think that means for say a teacher/school? I assume we agree that we want for ex. a nurse to be able after ‘graduating’ (whatever that will mean) (be it calculate a correct dose to administer, check medication compatibility or allergies or …, put in an IV, really listen to the patient, …). I’ve had a lot of experience being a student and some teaching.
        There’s just not enough time to get to know each student, to see what they need, or even to see if every students knows everything he/she needs to know according to the current regulations (and yet you have to grade them). Grades don’t mean much (inaccurate, incomplete, unfair, and sometimes just plain wrong). They hinder learning, i totally agree (it stimulates external motivation, which is a disaster in the long run, compared to internal motivation), it’s one of the reasons i gave up on teaching for now, as it’s not helping the kids this way, quite the opposite.
        So how can we organize learning that doesn’t hinder but rather stimulates kids in becoming who they are meant to be, by allowing them to explore and develop their innate passions? I’m assuming more apprenticeship-style learning is needed. What else? How do we do that: partnerships with lots of workplaces to have the students in workplaces most days and in class few days to reflect upon those experiences, report about them, share, …?

        Posted by Daniel De Keyser | November 29, 2012, 6:16 pm
  8. Sounds like an interesting paper. I would love to read it! Thanks for the shoutout And thank you for reading!

    Quality control vs quality assurance, that is a very interesting way to look at it.

    Posted by justinstrudler | November 28, 2012, 10:01 am
    • Justin – just got feedback on the paper from my Prof (it was surprisingly fast turnaround from him). With that and your encouragement, I decided to go ahead and post it.

      Posted by techkim | November 29, 2012, 10:28 pm
      • I enjoyed that a lot. I never really thought about the debate over quality assurance vs quality control. Its kind of like “do we experiment with children’s learning and see what percentage of kids fail vs succeed”, or “do we work out solutions as we go so we stop as many children from failing as possible”. Of course I’m simplifying the debate quite a lot.

        Diane Ravitch is a very interesting person. I’ve tried reaching out to her and twitter and such before. It is interesting that she once supported NCLB, she speaks up so strongly against policies like that now, very interesting.

        Standardized testing definitely takes the emphasis off learning. Incentives and things for the school shouldn’t be part of the learning process for my friends and myself. Schools should not be run like a business, they should be run as a place of learning. Great line you had about that.

        Thanks for the shout out! Keep up the awesome work.

        Posted by justinstrudler | November 29, 2012, 11:16 pm
  9. Justin, you’re already making a difference. Keep speaking up. Following your passion feels so right, doesn’t it? Send this to every principal, district administrator and state/federal legislator. It will resonate with them on some level and s l o w l y, your message will be heard. I would be proud to be your teacher. In fact, share your message with every teacher in your school. They will get it right away. Good luck to you.

    Posted by Sandy | November 28, 2012, 10:15 am
  10. Great post. Grades are extrinsic motivators and as such not only don’t work, but can serve to take someone who enjoys learning and cause them to enjoy it less. For details read my summary of “Drive” by Daniel Pink at . Portfolios and exhibitions are a better idea as are badges that demonstrate mastery for a body of knowledge rather grading where just passing sends you on to the next course where you may be over your head. Keep up the good work.

    Posted by Douglas Green (@drdouggreen) | November 28, 2012, 10:33 am
  11. This is all terrific thinking about learning and assessment. Tomorrow we head into student led conferences, not new to us but this fall we moved forward in our thinking about school assessment and reporting. Online portfolios where students upload formative and summative assessments and where teachers provide timely and reflective feedback, accessible to students and parents at all times. No more report card; conversations led by students about their learning. The indicators of their learning are emerging understanding, formulating understanding, consolidating understanding or expanding understanding pushing all of us students and staff to deeper conceptual learning. As the school principal, I see a focus on learning, willingness to take risk and challenge thinking, and less time spent identifying our self worth with a subjective number that no one can really provide meaning to.

    Posted by Judith Hadden (@GyroJH) | November 28, 2012, 12:20 pm
  12. thanks Justin..
    esp resonate with this:
    “No longer is my weekend trip to the city valued, but now it is merely a distraction from my SAT work or cramming for another test. No longer can I be at peace with a book, unless that book is called “Hot Words for the SAT”. My valuable learning experiences, discussions, debates, and really just exploring my mind, are secondary to the tests, quizzes, writing assignments, etc. that may make or break my status as “smart”.

    spaces of permission.. with nothing to prove, because there is never nothing going on.

    Posted by monika hardy | November 28, 2012, 1:15 pm
  13. Thank you everyone for reading my ideas! The fact that people are even reading my words means more than I can even say.

    Sandy, I’m not sure how I would go about showing people/administration/teachers in my school my ideas. I love the idea of doing that, but it is very scary to actually do it you know?

    Douglas, I agree. Grades don’t motivate me to learn, they merely motivate me to find shortcuts and I know countless of people who don’t comprehend a topic because getting grades doesn’t require comprehension, i merely requires memorization and regurgitation.

    Judith, it is so interestin hearing about schools that adopt these new ways of thinking. I wish my school would, hopefully all schools will start hearing us!

    Monika, I liked that line too, if I do say so myself. All experiences should be valued. Because everything we do, from reading the news, to reading poetry, to listening to music. You can learn from everything.

    Posted by justinstrudler | November 28, 2012, 6:29 pm
  14. I was very recently a high schooler, just graduated this year, and you took everything I’ve though about school, expanded it, and refined it. Well done mate!

    Posted by Tyrunea | November 29, 2012, 12:21 am
  15. I’m glad more and more students are taking on grades – thank you for sharing this post with us, Justin.

    I wonder if we can imagine and share ways to support parents and kids alike in sharing their grading frustrations with local school borads, district administrators, and building-level principals. What do you think, Coöp community? Where are the best pressure and leverage points for change in your divisions? Would it be a useful service for schools to match up students ready to leave grades behind with teachers ready to do the same?

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | November 29, 2012, 8:07 pm
  16. I enjoyed your essay, Justin, and agree with how damaging grades are. The problem with the current mainstream educational system goes way beyond grades, as your last two paragraphs indicated. The focus on teaching is part of the problem. Learning is initiated by the learner, not by the teacher. People learn what interests them, and things that don’t interest them are not retained. Other comments have mentioned alternative learning environments. I’d like to mention another for your consideration: 45-year-old Sudbury Valley School and a network of other schools around the world modeled after it. At these schools, students have space and time to learn how they want to learn and value what they value. Their philosophy is that life is learning and that students must have the same freedom and responsibility that adults have to control their time, figure out what’s important at every point in their lives and learn about themselves. These tenets were so important to me that I cofounded The Clearwater School (based on Sudbury Valley School) in Seattle, WA 17 years ago for my son (then 5 years old) to attend. Children and young people are not lacking or objects to be filled with information. They are whole, capable, fully-functioning people, and they are the best ones to decide what is important for them to learn at every point in their lives. If you have a chance, I think you’d enjoy looking at our website (

    Posted by Shawna | February 11, 2013, 11:21 pm


  1. Pingback: Grades Limit My Learning (Guest Post by Student Justin Strudler) | E-Learning-Inclusivo (Mashup) | - November 28, 2012

  2. Pingback: Grades Limit My Learning (Guest Post by Student Justin Strudler) « juandon. Innovación y conocimiento - November 28, 2012

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