On the Difference Between Pursuing Grades and Exploring Interests

At this time of year, the pressure builds up for most college students. Spring break is over for many students, there are multiple deadlines for papers to be turned in and preparation for exams is in full-swing. But perhaps this pressure could be reduced if more students took a deeper interest in their classes. Arguably, students who are driven solely by grades come away from their college experience with a lot less knowledge than students who are motivated by interest.

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Exploring my intellectual interests is something that motivates me. I have posted before about how inspired I am by studying linguistics and how it is my aspiration to teach linguistics. In February, I applied for grant funding for graduate study and writing my research proposal felt great, chiefly because it involved my own original ideas, informed by the literature I read. All questions have to come from somewhere and in academia, you have to know what has been said already to generate new research.

However, I recently found myself losing sight, just a little, of the bigger picture and having to be particularly intentional in reminding myself what it is. Of course, grant funding is highly competitive. I am awaiting the decision, which I will hear in the next few weeks, and in the mean time my work is keeping me busy (hence, the sparsity of recent posts on my blog). To get funding, I need to get excellent results in my undergraduate degree and even then, it may not be awarded to me. Naturally, this has been on my mind quite a lot and I have been working solidly during Spring break: writing, writing, researching, and writing some more.

The idea for this post arose when I realized that I have been working so hard, focusing on getting the grades so I can continue my academic career, that my enthusiasm kept dipping. Personally, I find the more I fixate on pursuing grades, the less creative I become in exploring ideas. Grades are important, yes, because they are a measure of academic excellence. But I would argue that there are two versions of doing ‘well’: a materialistic version where you check all the boxes, such as being at the top of the class, a straight-A student, achieving a 4.0 GPA….etc. We hear a lot about the “straight-A student” as the benchmark for academic excellence, perhaps more so in high school contexts than in college. To me, this implies that the system prizes material scores over the other version of doing well: exploring ideas, learning because you want to learn, and not simply because you want a good transcript.

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While traditional grading systems, such as the letter grade, are deeply rooted in the education system, my personal opinion is that academic institutions should place less emphasis on students getting a perfect test score and, instead, focus more on intellectual interest.

Being engaged with what you are learning results in better work. Yes, it feels great to do well in an exam, but scoring perfect grades should be merely a byproduct of study that is motivated by wanting to know more, by curiosity and absorption. As I wrote above, I found that placing too much focus on the endpoint spoils the journey and results in work that is less creative and less intellectually engaged. I’d rather focus on the second version of doing well, and then the first comes much easier!

10 thoughts on “On the Difference Between Pursuing Grades and Exploring Interests

  1. Excellent point. I am reminded of my own undergraduate experience, though. I had to take a program that was going to employ me as opposed to what I really wanted to take, which was archeology/classical studies. Positions there were scare – still are – and I couldn’t risk taking something that might not provide solid job prospects. I did take a program that also interested me, but it was down the list and based on practical considerations. I also had to work while in university (as did most people I knew) and that cut into study and prep time. I was very, very busy, and I knew at the time that I wasn’t getting the full value out of my education, but I had to do what I had to do.

    There’s a difference, however, between my situation and uni life for those who wind up just partying or chasing grades, so I think I understand what you’re saying.

    Good post. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh yes, I completely understand that practical considerations have to be taken into account. Originally, I planned on studying literature (I spent most of my teens being obsessed with Jane Austen!), but there are so many unemployed English majors that I switched to linguistics. I’m so glad I did: reading literature is one of my hobbies, but linguistics is something that I want to pursue as a career.

      Yep, my main point was really a personal reflection on what happens when we prize grades over the exploration of what we’re learning.

      Thanks for commenting. 🙂


  2. I love your points. 🙂 When I was in college I took only classes that interested me, and since I am a dog groomer and don’t need a degree, I acted purely on interest. This meant argueing furiously with my teacher about whether Fahrenheit 451 was better than Ayn Rand’s Anthem for getting the same point across.

    Somehow, I still got As.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That must have felt really freeing!

      I haven’t read either of those. Perhaps I need to broaden my literary horizons! Dystopia isn’t a genre that I often read, although I enjoyed The Hunger Games trilogy.

      Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. 🙂


  3. I agree completely with your points, Grace. And whether it’s been school, work, or personal fulfillment, I never feel or do my best if I’m not at least semi-interested in the material. But of course, as you’ve experienced, sometimes we lose perspective even when we start out working on something we really care about. During my dissertation writing (boy, that feels like a lifetime ago!), I also had moments where I felt like I had nothing worthy to say because I kept second-guessing myself, worrying about whether my analysis was good enough to merit a certain grade.
    I survived of course so I think the main thing is to find ways of getting your perspective back, whether that means walking away for a bit or distracting yourself temporarily with something else. Keeping my fingers crossed for you about your funding and wishing you the energy to keep going! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Interest really is the key to enjoyment and motivation, isn’t it? And it’s amazing how feeling under pressure can start to sap interest….

      That said, I took a break this week and I’m feeling much better and more positive. As you said, taking some time away from work/study is important! Thanks for wishing me well! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Such. A. Good. Point!! Throughout college, I was definitely guilty of pursuing grades over interest in many of my classes, specifically the ones I didn’t like (a computer class, statistics, algebra, etc.) If I would have tried to just open my mind and tried enjoy the classes just a little bit, I would have learned. I honestly can’t remember anything from those classes. Now, the classes I liked? I pursued them because I loved them… and then the good grades naturally followed! That’s definitely the way to do it, haha. I think with classes that one doesn’t like, they just need to try and keep a positive attitude and take interest anyways!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I wonder about some of the students I teach — some of whom sit through a 2 hr class and take no notes. I don’t get it. My class is a required class so I know some of them aren’t thrilled to be taking it but it is a foundational class for them and one I try hard to make engaging. I wish some students knew how demoralizing it is for the teacher if they sit there blankly — or grade-grub. If you really can’t gin up any interest in a subject, why did you choose to study it?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sorry for my delay in replying – it’s finals week and it has been busy!

      Taking notes in class ought to be obvious! I think some students probably don’t realize a teacher’s perspective – it must be so frustrating when you put time and effort into a class and some people in the class don’t appreciate it!
      I can imagine being quite strict with students when I am a lecturer. 😉 One of my lecturers has a policy whereby if students come to class more than 5 minutes late or you haven’t done the reading/prep for the class, you may be asked to leave.


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