Should University Grades Be Based Solely on Achievement?

by James H. Hogge - April 01, 2009

Although college and university students occasionally argue that their grades should take into account their effort rather than solely their instructorsí appraisals of their achievement, grades are maximally useful if they reflect primarily achievement. At the same time, however, college and university teachers have an obligation to help their students understand grading standards and to provide feedback that will guide their students toward more effective application of their effort to achieve greater mastery and, thus, higher grades. Teachers also should help their students understand that effort and quality are not synonymous and that it is achievement, not the effort that led to it, that is rewarded.

Faculty who teach college or university classes occasionally are approached by students who are disappointed with the grades they have received and hope to have their grades revised upward. In pleading their case, these students may argue that they deserve higher grades because they have worked hard. In effect, they suggest that either the results of their hard work must have been inadequately appreciated or, alternatively, their grades should reflect their effort rather than merely their instructors’ appraisals of their achievement. Should this be the case? The answer to this question depends upon the meaning that is to be assigned to college and university grades.

Interpretation of Undergraduate Grades     

The grading scheme for undergraduate classes typically includes five levels with basic descriptors similar to the following (the scheme may be elaborated through the use of pluses and minuses):








Minimal Pass



Thus, a grade of “A” corresponds to “Excellent,” but excellent what? Achievement? Effort? Course prerequisites and external uses of grades presume that grades reflect achievement, but common grading practices take effort into account to at least some extent.

Prerequisites. Course prerequisites are established by curriculum designers (i.e., college or university faculty) who believe that at least minimal mastery of prerequisite course content is needed for success in the next course in sequence. This is an achievement-based, rather than effort-based, requirement. A particular student’s hard work in the prerequisite course is not, by itself, adequate preparation for success in the next course. Instead, mastery of content is required. In order to be useful in this situation, course grades need to reflect achievement. A student who has received a grade of “D” or better for the prerequisite course on the basis of effort rather than achievement would be poorly served by admission to the next course in which success requires mastery of prerequisite content.

External audiences. External reviewers (e.g., prospective employers, graduate admission committees) of undergraduate transcripts also are interested in degree of mastery of course content (i.e., achievement). For example, business recruiters seeking to hire graduates with requisite accounting skills hope that accounting course grades reflect content mastery. While they also would like to recruit highly motivated and hard-working individuals, they would expect to glean such information from letters of recommendation, interviews, and candidate resumes rather than from course grades. Similarly, faculty who review applications for graduate study in history, for example, would like applicants’ undergraduate history grades to reflect achievement and, thus, preparation for advanced study rather than primarily hard work and not necessarily mastery of content. Certainly applicants’ clarity of purpose and work ethic are considered important, but these attributes should be judged on the basis of information (e.g., applicants’ statements of purpose, numbers of paper presented at professional meetings, letters of recommendation) other than grades.

Consideration of effort. The grading schemes of college and university courses often incorporate elements that reflect effort rather than achievement. Common examples include the following:

Inclusion of a class participation grade based upon quantity, rather than quality, of participation. If, for example, students who speak up more often—regardless of what they say—are assigned higher participation grades, effort is the basis of the assessment.

Enumeration, rather than grading, of required deliverables. If assignments or homework are simply checked off as having been handed in, then only effort is considered.

Permitting students to submit additional work for extra credit and improvement of their course grades. If the additional work is not graded, then only the effort required to complete and submit it influences the course grade.

Automatic grade increases for submission of revised papers. If no improvement in the quality of the paper has occurred, then only effort is reflected.

Credit for class attendance.

Resolving borderline cases (e.g., B- versus C+) by awarding the higher grade if the student seems to have tried hard.

To the extent that course grades take into account such considerations, they reflect effort to at least some extent. Carried to an extreme, these practices yield grades that convey very little information about mastery of course content; moreover, they contribute to grade inflation.

The Importance of Students’ Beliefs about Effort

While, for the reasons noted above, grades should reflect primarily achievement in order to be maximally useful, it nevertheless is important for students to believe—with considerable basis in reality—that increased effort generally results in better grades. In other words, students should believe that course outcomes are substantially within their own control and that the assignment of grades is not a capricious and arbitrary process. If students are willing to work hard, having been helped to understand how to focus their effort so that greater mastery results, they should be rewarded with higher grades. They also should come to understand, however, that effort and quality are not synonymous. It is achievement, not the effort that led to it, that is rewarded.

Faculty, in turn, have a responsibility to help their students understand grading standards. This requires explication of standards in the syllabus and other materials provided to students. For example, for each grade that the instructor could possibly award a term paper, the characteristics of a paper that would merit that grade should be described. This is a challenging task for the instructor, but without such guidance, students can only guess what quality of production is required for a particular grade.  

During their courses highly effective teachers also provide feedback that improves students’ understanding of how to improve the quality of their work in order to receive higher grades. This shaping of students’ production is accompanied by encouragement that helps maintain students’ motivation to do their best. Effort is reinforced, but it does not substitute for achievement. Instead, students come to differentiate between quality and effort as they develop an understanding of how “excellent,” “good,” “satisfactory,” “minimally passing,” and “failing” levels of performance differ from one another.


In this commentary I have argued that both the structure of the undergraduate curriculum (e.g., courses that are prerequisites for others) and the needs of external audiences (e.g., employers, graduate admission committees) dictate basing grades on achievement rather than on effort. At the same time, I have suggested that university teachers have an obligation to structure and manage their courses in such a way that increased student effort yields higher achievement and that students come to understand how quality differs from effort.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 01, 2009 ID Number: 15602, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 8:46:12 PM

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