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My battle with the idea of grades

Diploma Programme (DP) graduate Lim Hui Yuan reflects on the emphasis she put on achieving “good” grades as a student. This is ­­her second story in our graduate voices series.

TLDR: Grades can be suffocating and liberating.

Cropped view of a multiracial group of young men and women sitting in a row at a table, writing with pencils on paper.  They are taking a test or filling out an application.  Focus is on the hand of the young man in the middle in the gray shirt.

By Lim Hui Yuan

Grade naturalisation

Growing up in a rather Asian environment at a private Chinese school, we always a joked that we should only strive for a grade A since we are Asians. While this stereotype isn’t always appreciated or true, I felt it was certainly present early in my education. The fierce competition in school made it seem natural to want to do well on our examinations. The idea that a good grade is the gateway to a successful life had long been ingrained in my mind. The logic is simple: when you do well in studies, you get into a good university then you get a prestigious degree and finally a stable job.

My mom’s view was different. She always emphasised that I should do my very best and that’s what matters. Perhaps she’d seen past the superficiality of grades and how one-dimensional these letter grades and number scores are.

“IB taught me how to break away from grades … It also reinforced the reason to learn, not for the grades but rather for something that I genuinely wished to know.”

However, I got used to the notion of getting perfect grades in primary and middle school and acing all the examinations. When I switched into the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum, this all changed, and I fell into a slump.

Grade labels

The shift to IB was a challenging one. IB focuses on a holistic approach in learning, meaning that exams are not the only determining factor of how well we do. Besides the coursework such as Internal Assessments, I was overwhelmed by how different the exam questions can be. For example, I was accustomed to doing drill questions and then applying the same techniques to solve somewhat identical exam questions. However, when my IB mathematics teacher threw a curveball at me during my first test, I barely passed.

We can use grades to drive us forward, but they shouldn’t drive us crazy.”

I also failed an examination the first time in my life. It was an English Language and Literature paper. It was something that I couldn’t get my head around (even now). At that time, I had a massive crisis. I thought I could excel in my studies like back in my middle school. Why am I failing everything?

At the end of the day, we fall into different categories, stratified by our honours classes and grades.

However, the grading metric feels misleading. For instance, I (surprisingly) achieved an A+ for a terribly convoluted course while in university. And that’s only because I prepared well for the exam with the past exam papers. Truth to be told, I didn’t know as much about the content of the course as compared to the other courses that I surprisingly received lower grades in. These grades don’t define our knowledge but rather reflect how well we do in our examinations and how well we complete our assignments.

Grades are just inevitable tools that are used universally.

Grade anxiety

The idea of a good grade used to be suffocating. I thought I had to be perfect. My parents and teachers would comfort me, telling me that grades are not that important.

What really matters is whether we acquire multiple perspectives or analytical skills from that certain course.”

It is ironic, isn’t it? Grades aren’t that important, but it is what the higher-ups—the university admission officers and the employers—use to judge our intellectual ability. It is the first filter they use on their applicants. Scholarships are given on academic merits and jobs are preferentially given to students with high GPA or who obtain first-class honours. It seems like the success of almost every other application depends predominantly on grades.

Essentially, grades grew to be my biggest enemy. I get anxious just thinking about the possibility of flunking an examination—cold sweats and hyperventilation.

Grade greatness

IB taught me how to break away from grades. Phew. I found the correct approach to learning. Doing Higher Level (HL) Mathematics taught me the “proper” way of learning mathematics—not just relying on “muscle memory” from past year papers. It also reinforced the reason to learn, not for the grades but rather for something that I genuinely wished to know.

Now, I’m not saying that grades are a wicked “entity” per se; I have to admit that they are a decent gauge to what we are learning at the point in time. I guess what I’m trying to say is that we don’t have to be so hard on ourselves when it comes to our grades. Ten years down the road, I probably won’t even remember my grade for a particular course anymore, be it a perfect score or a failure. What really matters is whether we acquire multiple perspectives or analytical skills from that certain course.

I no longer think that grades are evil.

I think grades are good, measurable goals to achieve; something rather tangible for us to work with and to keep us motivated. We can use grades to drive us forward, but they shouldn’t drive us crazy.

Grades aren’t that great, but they can help us become greater.

yuan square

Lim Hui Yuan is a graduate of Hwa Chong International School, Singapore. She is currently pursuing her degree in science, specifically a major in Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, at the University of Hong Kong. She likes to experiment with new things and loves dancing and cooking. Also, you can find her binge-watching dramas most of the time.

To hear more from Diploma Programme (DP) graduates check out these IB programme stories. If you are an IB grad and want to share your story, write to us at alumni.relations@ibo.org. We appreciate your support in sharing IB stories and invite you to connect with us on LinkedIn, Twitter and now Instagram!

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