Why are our students so focused on getting an A?

Recently, I came across an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education that caught my attention and got me thinking. I don't know about you, but over the more recent years, I have found students so focused on needing to get an A, as if it defines them as a student, a person, and a future PA. Somehow, they are less than if they don't get an A. I have even heard students say they feel like they failed and are so disappointed in themselves. It can be hard to talk them off that perspective. They have difficulty believing that a grade in the B range is actually fine. They aim for perfection, but we know perfection doesn't exist. 

I thought the article presented an interesting concept worth exploring as teachers and for students. What does an A really mean? Supiano (2024) interviewed faculty around the country, asking this question. The responses are interesting. But before I share them, I would encourage you to take a moment and think about what a grade of A means to you as a teacher, when you assign it, and when you were a student. 

What faculty said

A common word that came up was mastery. A grade of A tends to reflect that the learner has mastered the material or skill. Some also felt it also reflected that the teaching was successful. In addition to the term mastery, there was another common theme. Those students who earned an A were described as consistently performing and participating at a high level, demonstrating excellence and a true understanding of the material. These students continually go above and beyond, not from wanting more points but because they are genuinely interested and committed to learning. 

When the interviewed faculty were asked what they thought an A meant to the student, I am sure you are not surprised to hear that they believe to students, it means that they are the best. It represents academic validation and achievement. They got the gold star! In my experience, that seems to be what matters to the students. It's similar to the phenomena I have seen happening over the years of watching the Olympics. These young people train intensely for years, giving up a lot for the dream of going to the Olympics. But these days, it seems like going to the Olympics isn't the goal. It's winning the gold medal. A silver or bronze isn't good enough. It's gold or nothing. 

Grade Creep or Grade Inflation

There are a number of current trends around grading, from pass/fail popularized recently during the pandemic, a movement supporting "ungrading," which advocates alternative approaches to assessing learning that evaluates students' work against an established criterion, then feedback is given, and students are given the opportunity to try again to meet the requirements (Supiano, 2024; Talbert, 2021). There is no grade, only whether the student meets the defined criteria or requirements. And there are those who continue to feel grades are needed, and they help identify those students who are grasping the material from those who are not (Supiano, 2024). 

And then there is grade creep or inflation. I believe this plays a role in students' expectations that they will get an A. We all see it. Our applicants come to us with undergraduate GPAs of 3.8 and above, yet when they engage in our curriculum, they struggle academically. Why this is happening is another conversation. However, in my opinion, with so many students getting As at the undergraduate level without necessarily doing the work or having the rigor we do at the master's level, they come to us with the assumption they will continue to easily earn As. And if they don't, they can just meet with the professor and do some extra credit so they can get the A. 

So, what can we do?

Define what an A means.

I really appreciate the suggestion to define for ourselves what an A means, perhaps even define it for the program. It seems like a good idea if faculty have an agreed-upon definition of what 'A' work and effort look like. If faculty have a unified definition and expectation, this could contribute to consistency and guidance when developing courses and determining and defining assessments. This could result in clearer expectations for students. 

Have students define what an A means

Although Supiano's (2024) article focused on faculty perceptions of an A, I also think it is important and valuable to consider exploring what students think about an A. What does it mean to them, and why is it so important that they earn it? This could shed light on where expectations align and misalign and could help to mitigate some of the students' self-imposed stress. It seems it could be beneficial if everyone is working from a similar understanding of what earning an A means. 

Explore alternative grading approaches

The focus of alternative grading tends to de-emphasize grading or not use grades at all but rather focus on evaluating the progress of learning. If you want to learn more about this topic, see the suggested resources below. 


Supiano, B. (2024, April 10). What does an A really mean? The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/what-does-an-a-really-mean?utm_source=Iterable&utm_medium =email&utm_ campaign=campaign_9737211_nl_Teaching_date_20240502&cid =te&source =ams&sourceid= 

Talbert, R. (2021). Finding common ground with grading systems. Grading for Growth. https://gradingforgrowth.com/p/finding-common-ground-with-grading 

Alternative Grading Resources

Grading for Growth at  https://gradingforgrowth.com/ 

Clark, D. (2021). Standards and contracts and competencies, oh my! Grading for Growth. https://gradingforgrowth.com/p/standards-and-contracts-and-competency 

Clark, D., & Talbert, R. (2023). Grading for Growth. Routledge. 

Harvard University. (n.d.). Beyond "the grade:" Alternative approaches to assessment. https://bokcenter.harvard.edu/beyond-the-grade 

Talbert, R. (2021). Finding common ground with grading systems. Grading for Growth. https://gradingforgrowth.com/p/finding-common-ground-with-grading



50% Complete

Thanks for signing up!

 Watch for the newsletter in your e-mail.