"If I ran a school...I'd give the top grades to those who made a lot of mistakes and told me about them, and then told me what they learned from them." 
-R. Buckminster Fuller

What about grades? Grades are certainly one way to measure performance. However, Boston University Professor Ellen Ruppel Shell points out in her article, Praising the Low Grade for a Harder Course, that “GPA is a noisome construct, and misleading. . . an indication of far less than we believe it to be.”

Harry Lewis, Professor of Computer Science at Harvard, notes in his 2003 Morning Prayers at Appleton Church, that employers and graduate programs don't find grades a meaningful way to differentiate among Harvard graduates. Instead, they "choose among our graduates on criteria other than grades [such as], courage, ambition, mental toughness, integrity, imagination, compassion, capacity to rebound from reversals, a desire to leave the world a better place than you found it – these are the things that matter in real life.”

Grades are only one part of your overall academic experience and portfolio.

What can I do to boost my learning and my grades?

  • Review your past exams and/or assignments with your professor, preceptor, or teaching fellow. It is often helpful to be very specific, asking in which areas you could improve and what you could have done differently. If you don’t understand their explanations, it’s a good idea to let them know. Remember, they’re here to help you. And, if you don’t understand something, there’s a good chance someone else is also confused.

  • Learn about different study strategies that may work for you. Check out our Handouts, Publications, and Links page for more information about effective note-making, reading and writing tips, time management skills and discipline specific study skills. You can also sign up for the Harvard Course in Reading and Study Strategies.

  • Consider joining a study group. Working through questions with others in a study group can be an excellent learning opportunity. Just make sure you’re working on and thinking about the content and/or problems yourself and not simply relying on others to tell you the right answers. Most important, be sure to check with your specific course regarding what is considered acceptable vs. unacceptable collaboration. 

  • Get a tutor. Tutoring is a good way to get individualized help, particularly before things get out of hand. Many students find tutors to be a valuable resource. Check first with your course instructor to see if tutoring is available through your course. Otherwise, look into Peer Tutoring or ESL Peer Consultations at the BSC.

  • Re-examine what grades mean to you. Many students find themselves re-examining basic values and definitions while at Harvard, including the meanings of "success" and "failure." It may be valuable to talk with others whom you respect about what grades mean to them. BSC counselors are another resource; they welcome conversations about the relationship between grades, success, values, and personal satisfaction.

References and Readings

Image Credit

(Ginny). (2010). Book Sale Loot [Photograph]. Retrieved April 23, 2014, from: 
Permission: Creative Commons, Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 Generic.