What do Grades Really Measure?

Everyone knows that getting high grades is getting good grades. A high grade is supposed to show that you really understand the material in an academic course. It’s supposed to reflect your intelligence, or your talent, or both.

These are not what grades really measure. Talent and intelligence and understanding all help in getting good grades, to be sure—but they’re not fully necessary.

Academic grades measure dedication. Without dedication—the will to go to class, stay on top of assignments, and struggle through the challenges—Einstein would fail at physics.

I’m finishing a tough course right now. Calculus II, and we’re doing infinite series, which are perplexing to me. I have little talent nor mathematical intelligence (I only imitate math, I don’t create), and I often feel like a Chinese Room when it comes to math problems. I would be doomed if grades didn’t reflect dedication.

I am dedicated. Up until recently, I wondered whether willpower could make up for lack of talent and interest. It can—to an extent. And I wondered whether I could succeed by willpower alone in a subject that doesn’t come naturally to me, or whether I’m bound by fate and genetics to do what I’m good at and interested in.

This weekend, I accidentally convinced myself that there’s no substitute for passion. I had two things on my mind: Tuesday’s math test, and a video for film history that was due a week later. What did I do? I spent 17 hours editing video, and 3 hours struggling with math.

The difference between these two activities was passion. When you’re passionate about something and actually want to do it, you end up giving it more of yourself—even your spare time. And putting in all those hours is what it takes to become a master. So I don’t think I could ever be that successful in a subject I’m not passionate about or talented in. The fire just isn’t there.

A lot of college and growing up seems to be about finding the place you fit in the world—that little niche where you’re talented, passionate, and better than most other people at doing what you do. A grade can help you find out what you’re good at. We’re all naturally dedicated to something or other, and when you find what you’re interested in, you tend to notice a change of focus—away from trying to motivate yourself just to do the homework, and more towards building a beautiful final product, be it a movie, a program, or a thoughtful new idea.

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