Students: the pressure to chase “good” grades



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Author: Abbott & Yang
Date: 10th September 2018

It’s always struck us that there’s something unique about what undergraduate and postgraduate students bring to us as counselling clients, and that many students could get more from their lives if they somehow addressed that “something” before coming to us. What that “something” may be is quite difficult to pinpoint, as many students’ psychological troubles are found in adults in general (trauma, loneliness, lack of motivation, fitting in, making friends…). From our personal experience, we suggest this “something” is at least in part a combination of practical things rather than distinct psychological problems and suggest that for many students reflecting on how you feel about some of the practicalities of being a student may be very helpful. So, from freshers to postgrads, what does being a student mean to you, how do you feel about being graded by others, and how might you make the most of it?

A major difference between students and the other adults we see is that on top of whatever other personal or psychological issues students bring, there are a number of practical things going on in their lives that come all at once. This is true whether their “psychological troubles” or “personal problems” are past trauma, present relationship issues, addictions, a changing sense of identity/ sexuality/gender, loneliness, “fitting in” to a new culture or even country, difficulty getting motivated, even figuring out a life purpose. Like being away from home, fitting in to a new culture, learning to live with other students, surviving on a loan, getting through adolescence…. The practical issue we’d like to linger on here, because it comes up often in counselling with various degrees of anxiety, is getting enough marks or “good” enough grades to pass a course.
That courses may be passed or not seems a pretty obvious fact of student life. Of course, we all know that university is about far more than notching up another qualification. Students are often actively encouraged to join societies, clubs, volunteer organisations, take up sports, and to build a CV that shows their individuality while they build that same individuality. Yet at times, all students confront the reality that their “result” very much depends on how their work has been graded by someone else, often someone they know, like a tutor. The reality of “grades” doesn’t have the same importance to everyone. Some students are comfortable about their future regardless of their marks, some are content to work consistently but never flat out, some from the outset “go for gold”. And for some, the subtle and very human differences (which can translate into as little as a single %) between a high or low first, a 2:1 or 2:2, a merit or distinction, a pass with minor or major corrections etc can at times take on an almost life defining importance. For all students being “graded” is a reality.
Some students, recognising the importance of grades to their final result (and possibly future employability) , adopt “creative strategies” to achieve good grades. From minor “people-pleasing” (writing exactly what a student imagines their tutor wishes to read) to attempting to seduce a tutor, or from seeking copies of their peers’ work to employing a ghost writer, students strive to pass their courses in ways which don’t always simply reflect their academic abilities but include at least some “gamesmanship”.
The importance of “good” grades is easy to understand. You don’t need a degree in computer science yourself to understand that a first class degree in the subject is generally seen as “better” than a second class one. And then there is the job market and competition for places on other courses….
But is it really “better” for you? Was getting a “good” grade really that “good” for you? How strong is the urge to please others in you? Does it stifle your creativity and happiness?
One of the purposes of the person-centred approach to which we’re committed is to empower individuals. What that means to specific individuals varies. It can mean finding the courage and strength to break free of an abusive relationship, finding the motivation to meet the challenges thrown up by a difficult job, or the confidence to assert one’s own sexuality regardless of what others might think. What it tends not to mean is accepting that what others think of us defines and limits who we are. And that goes for grades too. Being graded has become so much a part of our lives that it is all too easy to start seeing our own sense of worth as a human being as somehow dependent on our grades. And the world is full of famous historic figures and celebrities who really didn’t get good grades at all.
So while we don’t underestimate the importance of a “good” degree in the marketplace, a graded masters course, a dissertation deemed suitable for publication or not, we never see people as defined by their courses, their qualifications or their grades just as we don’t see people who aren’t students as defined by their jobs or other roles in life. We also generally aim to help clients over any sense of seeing their own worth as people determined by the technical assessments others. It sounds a little ironic we know, when between us we have amassed a fair number of university qualifications, but we encourage you to think about this: what does being a student mean to you, how do you feel about being graded by others, and how might you get the most of it? We rather expect you really do want a lot more than grades from your course. But then there may be times when it’s easy to forget that.

Keith and Kai