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The Stress of Silence: Discussing Grades and Student Well-Being

This article is the first installment in a larger series about mental well-being at Haverford

When discussing concrete ways the Social Honor Code manifests itself at Haverford, our unwritten policy not to discuss grades is often one of the first issues to be raised. However, according to a recent survey conducted by The Clerk, students are divided on whether this norm is beneficial.

In this survey, 58.7% of respondents said we discuss grades enough, and 41.3% replied that we do not. Many students appreciate the less competitive environment this policy fosters, while others feel it causes undue stress since they have no point for comparison.

One issue that is not often discussed, however, is the effect of this strictly enforced social norm on mental well-being and stress at Haverford. As colleges deal with the growing impacts of mental health issues and stress on campus, analyzing how specific cultural norms affect students has become increasingly important.

On the one hand, many students feel that not discussing grades creates an atmosphere in which they do not feel like they are in direct competition with their peers, therefore creating better social relationships and promoting learning for the sake of learning. This is often in direct opposition to students’ experiences in high school, particularly those schools which ranked.

“[When talking about grades] sometimes people can gloat, and they can be kind of show-offy”, and that can bring about stress because everyone has a desire to do well, said Mónica Zorilla ‘17, one of the co-founders of Haverminds, an on-campus group focused on mental health.

Many studies indicate strong social supports are an important part of effectively dealing with stress. Haverford’s non-competitive academic environment lessens feelings that students are in competition with their friends, which promotes better relationships.

“I love that no one is assigned value as a human being based on [his or her] grade,” said one survey respondent. “I do not know what my friends’ grades are and they don’t know mine, so nobody is ever looked down upon or regarded with jealousy by their peers depending on how well they do in their classes.”

On the other hand, students recognize that grades are important, particularly for those who want to apply for graduate school. The lack of openness about grades can make it difficult to know one’s standing in a class, particularly if it is curved.

“There is no way to check how you stand within a class,” said another survey respondent. “If we never talk about grades, there isn’t a way to measure if you’re exceeding, meeting, or falling short of a professor’s expectations.”

Many survey respondents noted that this uncertainty can cause students to completely internalize the pressure to do well because they have no external comparison. It becomes easy to assume you are the only one struggling, which decreases confidence and leads to feelings of inadequacy.

“Everyone believes everyone else is doing well, so when one person isn’t, they feel completely isolated and alone in their poor performance,” said a respondent.

Studies have shown that people tend to judge their own performance in relation to how they perceive other people are doing, which can have significant effects on mental well-being. The lack of knowledge about grades can cause students to assume they are doing worse than their peers. This is particularly true for students who are struggling with mental illness, making things more difficult for an already vulnerable group of students.

“The culture of Haverford is not one that prioritizes cutthroat competition,” said Shu-wen Wang, a psychology professor who also teaches a seminar on stress and coping. “We emphasize thinking, contribution, and community. But I think that internal pressure comes about when their perception of the situation is that they can’t cope.”

Some also feel that it can be hard not to share successes or failures with their social group, whether it is celebrating a good grade or commiserating about a bad one.

“I think it’s really silly – to the point of being detrimental – if people feel that they can’t talk about being upset or happy about a grade they got because we “don’t talk about grades” here,” said another survey respondent. “You should be able to complain, get support, share an achievement, etc. with your friends if you want to without it being awkward.”

Although there is consensus around not speaking about grades in public, some students do not extend this policy to conversations with close friends. Many also choose to speak in generalities–”I bombed that test” or “I’m really happy how I did on that essay”–without mentioning numbers. These strategies allow students to benefit from the general atmosphere of non-competition without feeling isolated.

Some also suggest that more transparency from professors around grades could be useful, such as having professors create grading rubrics for essays or releasing mean scores on assignments. This could allow students to know where they stand without encouraging individual comparison.

“I always provide a median and a mean [for exams] just because I think that’s something people can benefit from knowing,” said Wang. “I don’t think it encourages people to check in with every other student to find out how they’re doing. It ensures students don’t feel like they’re not in the know, but they also won’t feel like they have to sneakily try to find out from other students because I think that sets up a strange dynamic.”

She also provides general feedback about where the class as a whole struggled on the exam in order to help students come up with ways to study and understand course materials that can be applied to future assignments.

“As a professor, I try not to emphasize [grades], but I try to be very clear so that people have some way of evaluating how they’re doing,” said Wang. “It’s nice to have an environment where people aren’t dictated by a score all the time.”

Other students advocated for abolishing the point system altogether in favor of a more holistic approach. The Clerk’s “Grade Series” has explored this idea more in depth, including an oped by Ben Horwitz on the benefits of the no grades approach taken by schools like Sarah Lawrence and an oped by Jonathan DeWitt about problems with Haverford’s numerical grading system.

Overall, most students believe the lack of discussion of grades is beneficial to the community. At the same time, they recognize that there can also be negative consequences, particularly in regards to individual mental well-being.

One Comment

  1. Hannah Turner February 8, 2016

    When graduation rolled around, events came up where certain students were honored for their academic achievements but a) might feel uncomfortable about acknowledging this achieve my and b) felt unsure of if/how to tell even their closest friends what was going on. Martha Denney spoke at one of these ceremonies and said that–in a community so focused on group success and no-grades talk–it was still important to recognize and be proud of our own accomplishments. However, rather than feel gloat-y, the more constructive (and Haverfordian) option was to see individual success/recognition as a way that the whole community could enjoy success. I really liked that take on it and thought it might be relevant here

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