Stress and GPA-centrism in College

studying

Every time papers, projects, and prelims come around, the campus stress level rises dramatically. Sleep is lost (or outright skipped), meals are avoided, and all activities other than studying are brushed off. This happens not once a semester but throughout, corresponding to large assignments for every class.

And every time this happens, it seems that many students are focused not on actually learning the content, but on scoring higher grades than others. Of course, this phenomenon occurs in certain majors (engineering) much more than others. And I would guess that it happens at Cornell at an above average rate compared to that of the typical university. But it raises some questions that I want to explore.

Just a couple of notes. First, this article will mainly focus on the math/science/engineering side. And second, I do not think I need to mention why Cornell should be concerned about student stress.

Should Competition Be GPA-Focused?

Competition to a certain degree is beneficial, and I think no one would argue with that. As a math major I know very well that competition leads to efficiency. But there is a line where the marginal benefit in efficiency is not worth the huge increase in stress levels, and in this respect I think Cornell has crossed the line for good.

In addition to the GPA competition, there is the additional factor that students are competing for jobs, internships, and research positions. I think the competition here is mostly fine (except regarding salaries vs societal contribution; this topic deserves its own post). Combined with academic competition, however, this induces a vast amount of anxiety and stress in the students.

Without mentioning names, I will list some of the extreme behaviors I have observed of people I know:

  • A student pulled multiple all-nighters in a row to finish a project. While this might be plausible in real life for a rare occasion such as a doctoral thesis or a billion dollar merger, the student did this regularly for his classes.
  • A student has problem sets due on four out of five of the weekdays, and spends literally all his time outside of class eating, sleeping, or doing problem sets. In one particular class, the problem sets he hands in are 10-20 pages per week.
  • A student took 50+ credits in one semester, though he claims to know of someone who took 61.
  • A student brought a sleeping bag, refrigerator, and energy drinks to one of the school computer labs, and pretty much lives there, returning to his living place once every few days to shower.

Interestingly enough, I think these particular students will do fine, as they seem to know their own abilities and limits, and more importantly, they are all aware of what they are doing. They are also all very smart people who can actually learn the material. This “top tier” of students is not really adversely affected by competition, since they are smart enough to excel regardless of whether competition exists. Moreover, these students don’t seem to be grade-focused: they learn the material, and the grade comes as a byproduct of learning.

The group I am actually concerned about is the second tier. (Note: I just realized after typing this how judgmental that statement sounds, but hey, from statistics, unless you define the first tier to include everyone, there must be a second tier.) This group I would define to be the smart people who don’t seem to understand how the first tier operates. They see the students in the first tier getting high grades and know those students are smart, so they think that if they prepare the tests well and get high grades, they will become as smart.

What they don’t realize is the difference in cause and effect. The first tier prioritizes understanding first and the grades come as a byproduct, whereas the second tier prioritizes grades first and hope to gain some understanding as a byproduct.

Again, just as a disclaimer, these are just arbitrary definitions for first and second tier I made up for this particular observation. I am not saying that this criterion is the final say, and of course, there are numerous other factors regarding how well one does in college.

But from my experience, it is precisely the students in this second tier who are stressed. They are the ones trying so desperately to beat the test instead of to learn the material. And they are the ones who make college seem so competitive, as you can always hear them talking about tests and what their friends got on the tests and how they are being graded and what the format of the test will be.

On the other hand, the student I mentioned above who lives de facto in one of Cornell’s computer labs—I have not once heard him talk about anything specifically regarding a test.  The closest was talking about the material that was to be covered, but he was talking about stuff that was beyond what the class taught for the topic, stuff that he knew was not going to be on the test.

Some of you might be thinking, “That’s great, but what kind of job is he going to get if he is not grade-focused?” Good question. After working there for a summer internship, this same friend rejected a return offer from Goldman Sachs.

How to Break from GPA-centrism

I am not worried about this person’s career at all. I am worried about the second tier, the smart people doing mundane tasks, wasting a lot of potential creative brainpower that the world needs more than ever. Renewable energy, bioengineering, artificial intelligence, space exploration and colonization, nanotechnology—there are so many people here who would be excellent for these fields, yet many of them seem too bogged down by current competition-induced stress to even think into the future.

Indeed, this GPA competition is a force to be reckoned with, as it really is self perpetuating. Those students in other groups or who are apathetic to grades will tend to become more grade focused just from sitting in lecture, as there are always people who ask for as much details of the test as possible. I feel that this defeats the purpose of a test, which is to measure how well you know the material or how well you can apply a certain skill, not how much of the test structure you can memorize or how much content can you cram the night before.

Overall though, there are some measures that can be taken to reduce this kind of stress.

  • Reduce the importance of the GPA. I do not know if I would go so far as to remove it, though. For example, at Brown University, the GPA is not calculated. Somewhere in the middle ground should be best.
  • Stop showing score distributions, or show them only for major tests like a midterm/final. In many engineering classes at Cornell, the first thing that is requested after a test is graded is to see the score distribution (often in graph form), along with the mean, median, standard deviation, etc. In fact, this has become so common that it is now the first thing the professors put on their lecture slides. Moreover, the computer science department uses an online course management system which automatically tells students the mean, median, standard deviation, etc. for every single assignment, not just tests. Being a math major who would normally love extra statistics, I thought this was cool at first. But now I despise it—it is just too much information that I don’t need in order to learn the material, and it only detracts from my learning experience. And the way the page is setup, it is not something you can just ignore.
    • A side note: One of my classes in the CS department actually does not list grades, and I definitely feel more pressured to actually learn in that class, not more pressured to beat other people at grades like in other CS classes. Props to Professor John Hopcroft.
  • Teach better math/science/engineering/CS much earlier in the education system. A friend showed me this article today, a comparison between the CS education systems of the US and Vietnam, a comparison that is horrific for the US. If students already knew the foundations, then college would be what it was supposed to be: going really deep into a topic in a learning atmosphere, not treating us like elementary school children because, well, frankly that’s the level of engineering/CS of many college entrants. For instance, I think it’s great that students are trying to take Calculus 1 freshman year and then do engineering. Hard work is certainly a virtue. But wouldn’t it be much better for both the student and the college if they mastered calculus in high school? Imagine how much better our engineers would be.

What I envision is a class where students are trying to learn, not to beat each other on a test. I hope this vision is not too far-fetched.

2 thoughts on “Stress and GPA-centrism in College”

  1. The tests in most of my classes focus on trying to trick you by testing whether you know certain exceptions or specific rules. A deep understanding of the material isn’t going to help you here (a lesson I learned the hard way in my econ classes). I study for the tests like a tier 2 student mainly because that’s the best way to score well on the test. I value learning, but from my experience college/classes definitely isn’t the place for that. Memorizing and regurgitating is the way to go. If you want to learn, you got to do it on your own time.

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