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Redefining success

I can hardly believe it: last week marked the 10-year anniversary of my becoming a faculty member at Wellesley College.  Over the last decade, I’ve coached countless students through health crises, anxiety over recruiting for jobs, striking the right school-life balance, and struggling over seemingly impossible problem set questions.  But no concern looms larger for Wellesley college students than their angst over grades.
     Grade anxiety isn’t just a Wellesley thing, of course. Yet the extreme extent to which grades define student experience at Wellesley has always bothered me, and never more so than now. Only at Wellesley would a student show up in her professor’s office after an exam not to argue about her grade, but rather to apologize for disappointing the professor.  Oftentimes that “bad” grade is a B+!  More importantly, it seems like this self-defined “bad” grade is viewed as more than just academic weakness. Students see it as a failure in life in general – a profoundly disturbing conclusion.    
     I hold introductory office meetings with every single student enrolled in my course that semester to welcome them, chat about life, econ, registration, and to answer questions.  This semester, a few students asked me how they can achieve “success” in my behavioral economics course. It was pretty clear they were asking what they need to do to get an A.  The question is a trigger.  I teach students how to make better decisions in everyday life: how to negotiate, how to not fall for marketing tricks, how to use commitment devices to improve planning for the future. Learning these skills may not necessarily translate into an A in the class (it might, but that’s not the point). However, it would mean success regardless of the grade.
     As much as students are conditioned to focus all attention on grades, they are at the same time not good at inferring information from them.   The thinking that an A or a B+ is universal is flawed.   For example, a B+ in a course where the average in a B is an excellent outcome.  This B+ is a success by any standard, and a transcript with B+s like this one would be viewed as highly competitive on the job market. On the other hand, an A in a course where all students get an A is not necessarily a “success”.   First of all, the A is then just the average, so it’s actually not that good of an outcome. That A is also a poor signal of ability. It’s impossible to tell how well you do when everyone gets the same grade.  Still, the call of that perfect GPA tempts some students to go for the meaningless A.   (Thank you, high school and parental pressure!)
     This year, I wish for my students to redefine “success.”  Working hard, challenging yourself, and learning as much as you can is success even if it doesn’t result in an A (or even a B+!). While students might think that high GPA guarantees a good job, that’s not the case.  Someone with a relatively low GPA in a subject she loves shows that she has challenged herself, persevered, and followed her heart.  Employers want to see grit and passion, not someone on a path of least resistance with a perfect transcript in hand.
Welcoming students into my office for good conversation


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