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In a 2010 Maclean’s article, Carson Jerema reported the following:

The vast majority of students see their grades fall, often dramatically, once they get to university. What is sometimes called “grade shock” can have devastating consequences for students, as they struggle to cope with the fact that they are no longer at the top of the class.

My past experience as a course director and teaching assistant at a large Ontario university allowed me to see, firsthand, how this influences students.

What my experience taught me is that for students, grades are a prevalent source of fear, happiness, anxiety, pressure, and they can often dictate future opportunities (or, at least how students perceive their future opportunities). Despite wielding this immense power, most students have no idea how their university grading system actually works.

In any first year undergraduate course, the academic profile of the students is similar. Students will have been at or near the top of their class in high school. Their efforts were probably met with favourable grades and feedback from teachers.

What many students don’t realize is that grades in university are very likely to be given out in a comparative and hierarchical fashion. But, what does this actually mean? Well, it means that even if every student in a class wrote a stellar paper, not every student will get an A. Actually, far from it.

In university, papers and exams are not only graded in relation to the expectations and standards set by the professor, but also in relation to one another. Essentially, students are ranked, rather than just graded, on a bell curve. The top quality paper or exam will be the standard, or top of the hierarchy in terms of quality, and all other students will receive a grade in relation to how well they compare. In short, few students will get an A and the rest of the class will fall somewhere on the grade pyramid below the top performers. Does this make sense?

Here’s an example

Let’s imagine that a first-year undergraduate class has ten students. Each student hands in an essay that is worth 30{605a43512f953fcdbff8e9ee02d3feecc6b92996cdbf590be48a35f2609dac0a} of their final grade. They have all worked very hard on the assignment. Let’s also assume that every student had an A average in high school (this may be a safe assumption given that they were all admitted into university).

From a grader’s perspective, the amount of time invested on a paper has no bearing on a student’s grade. The students’ grades from high school are even more irrelevant.

Put simply, a grader must assess the work that appears in front of them and many institutions are moving towards anonymous grading in order to insure that grades are given in a bias-free manner.

In our class of ten students, here is a likely scenario of how grades will be given out in university:

A – 1;

B – 3;

C – 4;

D – 2.

Of course, this is not universal, but it is fairly consistent with how most professors mark their class. As you can see, only 10{605a43512f953fcdbff8e9ee02d3feecc6b92996cdbf590be48a35f2609dac0a} of the students get an A. Despite having done really well in high school, 90{605a43512f953fcdbff8e9ee02d3feecc6b92996cdbf590be48a35f2609dac0a} of the students will appear in the B – D range. In a class with more students, you can be sure that an even higher percentage will appear in the C category, which is typically where the average for undergraduate courses and assignments lie.

Why this information should empower you, not scare you

In a recent post, I wrote about coaching a student who got Bs in high school to As and A+s in university. Rather than scare this student with the above information, I showed her how to meet her professors’ expectations and ensure that she appear at the top of the grading hierarchy. It’s not simple to do this, but my student and the BridgesEDU programme has proven that it can be done.

Once you have the very real information about how university grades you, what you do next is really a choice. You can put yourself in a position to succeed or you can hope that you’ll just appear in the top of your class grading pyramid.

Most students will hope and wade through the uncertain waters of undergraduate work and life (as the Maclean’s article above shows). Students of BridgesEDU will soar.