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Want to chip away at grade inflation? Attach fewer benefits to ‘meaningless perfection’

Adam Grant wasn’t a straight-A student. He’s glad he wasn’t, because there’s little evidence they actually do better in life.

The organizational psychologist, who teaches in the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, writes in The New York Times that universities should “[m]ake it easier for students to take some intellectual risks” by reducing the granularity of grades.

His particular targets are the “plus” and “minus” that leads students to burst into tears when they receive an A-minus, as did one of his students many years ago, as well as special attention paid to GPAs above a certain threshold – say, 3.7.

When colleges and graduate programs reinforce the “cult of perfectionism,” they mislead students about their prospects once they leave campus, Grant writes:

The evidence is clear: Academic excellence is not a strong predictor of career excellence. Across industries, research shows that the correlation between grades and job performance is modest in the first year after college and trivial within a handful of years. …

Getting straight A’s requires conformity. Having an influential career demands originality. In a study of students who graduated at the top of their class, the education researcher Karen Arnold found that although they usually had successful careers, they rarely reached the upper echelons. “Valedictorians aren’t likely to be the future’s visionaries,” Dr. Arnold explained. “They typically settle into the system instead of shaking it up.”

If students were less afraid of the small distinctions in grades, they might take more challenging courses, pursue different passions or simply spend the time to “start lifelong friendships, join new clubs or volunteer,” Grant (left) writes.

He thinks it could even chip away at grade inflation, “which creates an academic arms race that encourages too many students to strive for meaningless perfection.”

Read the op-ed.

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