September 19, 2013

PARANDEKAR: Grading Our Grading System

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With exams coming up next week, it’s hard not to think about grades. So let’s talk about the use and role of grades in veterinary school.

Several of my friends who are medical school students tell me that their curriculum is primarily some variation of pass/fail — they may get grades on exams but not for the class, or may have class rankings but not GPAs. I know that there are plenty of medical schools that do have a traditional grading system, but the pass/fail concept is one that is fairly common. To my knowledge, most veterinary schools still employ traditional grading systems. Grades in vet school at Cornell are exactly the same way as they are for undergraduate students — letter grades with pluses and minuses and the option to take certain elective classes pass/fail.

I can understand the logic behind eliminating grades. Theoretically, it would cut down on competition and foster a cooperative learning atmosphere. Perhaps the idea is that if you are academically successful enough to be accepted into the program, the need to create such specific distinctions between students is no longer necessary. In the real world, a client/employer/colleague may ask what school you went to, but will not ask: “So, what was your GPA in veterinary school?”

That being said, I don’t think the cost of eliminating grades is worth the benefits. Take a group of people whose entire lives thus far have been geared toward being the most academically successful that they can be, and then take away one of the main things that motivated them to do well at a time when what they are learning matters the most. There is always the notion of learning for the sake of learning. By this point, we should enjoy the journey to some extent or we wouldn’t still be here. However, this love for learning often translates into focusing only on things we care about very much, while glancing over the things that are not as interesting. So, if I want to work with horses, I’ll study what we learn about horses in exquisite detail and only skim through the information about cows. This is detrimental because not only do we have to know about all of the species to pass the national boards, but it’s dangerous to pigeonhole ourselves so early in our career — you never know where life will take you. On top of that, there are the practicalities of real life. I think we risk letting our studies fall to the wayside if some type of external importance wasn’t placed on it, especially when we’re also dealing with family drama and relationship issues and bills.

So now that we’ve established that having grades is probably a good thing, how should we treat them? Some of our professors tell us not to worry about them because it doesn’t matter in the long run (to my knowledge the only time we would have to report a GPA is if applying to residency programs). But we have to worry about them — it’s in our nature. It’s the one way we can measure how well we’re absorbing the information. And this is what I think grades should be used for — as a personal measure of learning and not a way to compare ourselves to one another (which is what it often, unfortunately, became during our undergraduate careers). Knowing the means and standard deviations is unnecessary because it makes us put our learning in the context of everyone else, while instead we should be working to put our learning in the context of our personal goals and achievements. I’ve been at Cornell for more than six years now, and have found that it’s the kind of environment that breeds into its students a desire to be “the best.” What we forget all too easily, though, is that it’s much healthier and more self-fulfilling to aim for a “personal best” instead of “being better than everyone else.”

Nikhita Parandekar graduated from Cornell in 2011 and is a third-year veterinary student in the Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine. She may be reached at [email protected] Hoof in Mouth appears alternate Fridays this semester.