My grades are not your business

If grade-shaming is the best way we have of incentivising students, we’re not looking hard enough

exam stress exam term Grade shaming

The fact that our exam results are made public is worrying.  Publishing grades is unnecessary, damaging and it has got to go.

The new Our Grade, Our Choice campaign has set out to change the system by which exam results are made public. Its Facebook page has garnered hundreds of likes, and continues to grow, while a petition is gradually racking up signatures.

I fail to understand why the university has kept the system for this long.  Its harmful effects have been known for a long time and the persistence of this ‘tradition’ is – by now – negligent.

The ‘private’ sign is not meant to be ironic.

Exam term in Cambridge is when the high pressure and competitive nature of study comes to the fore. The atmosphere is subdued and no one is without a little stress – unless you’re a prelim, in which case I’ll spare you the hate I’m sure you’re copping from everyone else.

We know when we apply that a degree here is going to be tough. We apply here because we want to learn. A large part of the high pressure high workload system that is instituted here is in order to promote academic excellence. Which is very much a worthwhile aim.

I have no problem with that.

The fact that our exam results are made public, though, in the form of class lists is an unnecessary and cruel twist that only adds to this stress.

I speak as a first year student – who is new to the exam experience – and at that, not a great student relative to my peers. I am, of course, unsure how I am going to do in my exams, but a distinct lack of work and ability indicates to me that I won’t be doing very well.

I don’t mind. I could have worked harder and will deserve my grade, but I would rather other people weren’t able to see it.

I am not a particularly competitive person, but it is never encouraging to find oneself performing poorly relative to the wider group. I know that whilst having no aspiration to be – or chance of being – a top student on my course or even in my college, at the same time I would prefer not to know if I were among the worst.

I don’t want to be sucked into competition by fear of doing badly. I prefer to work for a good result for me. I am happy to rely on good old fashioned intrinsic motivation. In fact I feel like I am more likely to find the practice of public grade shaming demoralising than incentivising.

For me this is simply a preference. I may have to deal with disappointment or embarrassment on exam day but I am unlikely to suffer massively as a result.

The Grauniad’s on board.

However testimonials on the Our Grade, Our Choice page point to a darker element to the public publishing of grades.

There is a testimonial of someone who missed their grades due to mental health problem. Their situation was exacerbated and forced by the fact that the college made their lower than expected grade public. This forced them to be public about their mental health problems as gossip circulated, something that is not a comfortable experience for many whom are experiencing mental health problems.

One of the testimonials is chilling: “But when I found out that it was actually published and that everyone could see my failure, I had never felt so ashamed of my existence. It almost drove me to commit suicide.”

There are also concerns about trans students who may not have changed their name by deed poll with the university yet. This, as the campaign points out, can be upsetting and harmful.

There is a system in place at the moment for removing one’s name from the class list – but there has to be a compelling reason. This is not good enough. People with compelling reasons such as those suffering with mental health problems shouldn’t have to explain this to a bureaucracy. And if only extreme circumstances remove someone’s name from the class list then the absence of a name may also translate into easy gossip.

I understand that for most people the issue is not a grave one. But for some people it is. And for a lot of people – such as myself – it is simply an unsavory concept.

Exhausting reading lists are already enough to deal with.

The argument that it incentivises work isn’t convincing. Motivated people come to Cambridge because they want to do well. Most students here have enough motivation to keep them working without the need for a system that induces competition. Also, people will still have an idea of their relative performance, and that I think is enough.

The idea that it is traditional and therefore defensible is nonsense. One should not keep up practices that are harmful merely for the sake of tradition.

To me, this doesn’t seem like a repeat of the campaign for a reading week in week five – which aroused real debate. This is a no-brainer and would require only the smallest of changes. If Oxford has done it, so can we.

If you’re even slightly uncomfortable with publicised grade, do something about it. Sign the petition.