There’s no learning in letter grades


“Yes, on the surface, “A” means success, and “F” means failure. But neither of these letters explain the reasons behind a student’s performance.” / Illustration by Ally Rzesa

By Xinyan Fu, Columnist

Last semester, I took the Fundamentals of Speech Communication class everyone is required to take at Emerson. We completed several group speech presentations, solo projects, and impromptu speeches. However, none of us were ever given feedback on any of our assignments. 

In fact, I received most of my grades for the class only one day before my professor shared the final grade with us. We got zero comments on Canvas, even if our grades came out lower than expected. I even sent several emails to the professor asking for suggestions after the grades came out, but never heard anything back.

I still am very frustrated about it. Even though I can see my grade, it means nothing to me. The letter grade I got in that class does nothing except tell me I did a terrible job. I have no idea what my mistakes were or where they were made. Therefore, I have no way to improve my public speaking and communication skills. Since I got nothing back from the experience, I feel like I’ve wasted my tuition for this class, which totals $6,070 at $1,517.50 per credit.

It is the professor’s duty and responsibility to provide feedback as an educator. When students put in their money to receive a college education, they expect more than just a GPA. Instead, they hope to gain worthwhile learning experiences and applicable skills by taking classes and interacting with professors. And it’s expected that this teacher-student interaction includes the exchange of comments on assignments and, potentially, a discussion of these results.  

Grades reflect the effectiveness of the learning process. They quantify students’ performances for a certain learning period, providing them with an evaluation of their overall performance. Nevertheless, they should not be considered the most critical element of education because they don’t tell the whole story behind students’ understanding.

Grades are not self-explanatory. Yes, on the surface, “A” means success, and “F” means failure. But neither of these letters explain the reasons behind a student’s performance. No one would ever be good at math if teachers only gave students the answers instead of explaining the process behind each problem.

Besides, most projects and homework for Emerson classes are not even as straightforward as math. For math questions, there will always be a correct answer. But for courses at Emerson, students often do paper- or presentation-based work, which is even more subjective. It is hard for students to find mistakes and correct their subjective responses without any feedback from professors. 

The learning process is intended to be messy. It is supposed to include mistakes, accommodations, and growth through trial and error. Most professors have no expectation that students will be good at all of the assignments and homework they assign. So it makes sense that both teachers and students make the best use of these errors. Instead of leaving students’ heads in the clouds, professors should provide pinpoint feedback to students to help them to learn from their mistakes for future assignments.

Some professors also assume only students who fail or do poorly need feedback. Feedback is good for everybody. A simple “good job” is not enough. Even “A” students benefit from detailed feedback since students rarely complete assignments that show no room for growth or change. In high school, my writing teacher used to encourage students to have a one on one meeting with her every time we finished an assignment, regardless of whether they got a good grade or a bad grade. Because of those meetings, I’ve learned what my weaknesses are and how to reinforce my strengths to make my articles more compelling. 

One of the journalism professors I had during my freshman year, Cindy Rodriguez, gave us precise and effective feedback immediately. She used to slip her feedback into the comments on Canvas, so we would be able to look at her notes right when we received our grade. 

For one of my very first audio slideshow, she gave me 13 bullet points of feedback in which she individually pointed out my mistakes and where I could improve. It was brutal when I first read through the bullets because all of them were true. But the more assignments I did in class, the more useful tips I got on how to improve my audio stories. And I could see my grade getting better as we ran through the syllabus.

I was lucky to have this professor as one of my fundamental instructors in my major. She not only gave us useful comments, but she emphasized how she was open to students asking any questions about their work. I’ve had professors who act passive-aggressive when I ask for detailed feedback, which is discouraging and unreasonable since it is also the professor’s responsibility to answer academic questions. 

Feedback is a powerful tool for both students and professors. It serves as a way of communication between us, as well as a reflection of the class. Instead of leaving students with a number or a “great job,” professors should feel obligated to add more explanation. Frankly, it’s their job.