To share or not to share: Grade discussions stem from varied motivations, require balancing consequences

To share or not to share: Grade discussions stem from varied motivations, require balancing consequences

Grades: a staple in high school life and a cause for comparison, curiosity and—most widely—conversation. According to a survey sent out to Gunn students by The Oracle from Jan. 27 to Feb. 3 with 225 self-selected responses, 97.4% of students discuss grades with their peers, and 18.7% do so daily. Whether in class or online, with close friends or classmates, the circumstances underpinning students’ grade discussions reveal ranging consequences and attitudes on the nature of grades.

Contextualizing grade discussions

According to senior Justin Hou, students discuss grades beyond those given for major assessments. “Sometimes it happens for assignments, especially group projects,” he said. While some disclose specific scores, others give a more qualitative indication on how they did. In Hou’s friend group, these kinds of terms are more common than official, numeric scores. “There’s a sense of respect and community in that we support each other, and if you don’t want to share that information, there’s no urgency to do so,” he said.

Reluctance to share grades can cause students to be vague about their scores. Junior Lauren Kane prefers to keep her scores to herself but will share them with peers if asked. “I try not to get too involved in the conversation, and I don’t go too in depth when describing my grades,” she said. She avoids discussing grades with close friends, explaining that it has increasingly become a source of uncomfortable conversations and stress among them.

On the other hand, freshman Eman Ebrat’s closeness with her friend group encourages her to discuss grades in more detail. “I feel like I can be more personal with them,” she said.

In tricky situations when a peer has a lower grade, students navigate them with supportive words and attitudes. For instance, Ebrat adopts an empathetic stance, telling the classmate that their effort and hard work is enough. Similarly, Kane redirects the conversation to the peer’s strengths rather than focusing on the score. “Usually I’ll counteract with something else I did badly in and they did better in,” she said.

Though conversations about grades typically start with one or two people, they can snowball as other students join in. “Usually when I talk about grades, other people start talking about it first, so then I’ll join in the conversation,” junior Analiesse Schoenen said.

Students’ motivations, hesitations

Sometimes, simple curiosity can prompt students to ask about each other’s grades, but often, more complicated intentions motivate these conversations.

Comparison is one factor for students to ascertain whether they did better than or as well as others. Desire for validation of their hard work can drive students to ask their peers about scores. “At Gunn, especially among certain groups of people, there’s a lot of comparison for people to validate themselves,” Schoenen said. “People like hearing when other people did badly on something, and they also like knowing that they did better than other people.”

Students may also discuss grades to seek a sense of security built on knowing how they stand in relation to the class. Especially for harder tests, knowing that the whole class performed poorly can dispel anxiety over lower grades by providing a frame of reference. “I feel more comforted knowing that I’m not a failure, and that it was just a hard test,” Kane said.

In the face of unsatisfactory grades, students can discuss them to commiserate with each other and acknowledge common challenges, such as difficult questions, unfair grading or ineffective teaching methods. “Usually if I’m talking about grades, I’m complaining about it,” Schoenen said.

Of course, students have reservations when it comes to sharing grades, including not wanting to contribute to a toxic culture of competition. “I typically try not to discuss grades, just because I don’t want to feed that kind of environment,” senior Wyatt Pedersen said.

Kane recognizes that conversations about grades always involve risk, given how straight-cut grade comparisons are. “At least one person is going to leave the conversation hurt,” she said.

Weighing consequences

Dangers to discussing grades, including lowered self-esteem, worsened health and a stressful school environment, exist alongside less visible benefits.

Conversations about grades can cause students to equate their worth with their grade, creating perspectives that—regardless of score—are harmful, according to Kane. “If I do better than someone, then I get too overconfident and a little bit cocky,” she said. “But if I do worse than someone, I get really unmotivated. I feel really, really hopeless. I feel a lot of pressure.”

Low grades, which can ultimately be insignificant in the long term, wield outsized impact when compared to others’ grades. “Sometimes I’ll get caught up in one or two grades and then feel bad about myself for doing bad on a small portion of a big class,” Schoenen said.

To catch up with other people’s grades, students may prioritize academic achievement over their mental and physical wellbeing, a repercussion reflected in Pedersen’s experience. “Learning about others’ grades makes it standardized or glorified to work past your limit and to go far into the night doing homework, as if that’s normal, when it obviously should not be,” he said.

Over time, these pressures can solidify into more serious problems. “It’s a hidden injury,” a junior responded to the survey. “After time it develops into eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression. But you never know what’s inside you that’s deteriorating.”

Grade discussions create a culture of stress for some, especially for those without the appropriate mental support helping them put the importance of grades into perspective. “If you don’t have a supportive community or feel more self-conscious about your abilities, it definitely can be harmful in creating a stress culture in which you feel like you’re only more worthy if you work harder,” Hou said.

Consequences aside, students’ asking each other about their grades can reveal unhealthy friendship boundaries. According to chemistry teacher Casey O’Connell, students may feel forced to share their grades in order to avoid the awkwardness of refusing to answer. He asks students to consider whether enthusiastic consent to these conversations was given. “Is your consent just presumed as the default?” he said. “Are your boundaries being violated? Would you prefer that people didn’t ask you about your grade?”

Meanwhile, grade comparisons can be constructive in helping students gauge whether their effort levels are high enough, according to Hou. Talking about grades helped him realize he could do better in tests, such as with a chemistry test he had earlier in the year. “I felt like I prepared for it, but it was at the last minute, and I didn’t do as well as a result,” he said. “So for the next test, I improved my study habits by spacing my study sessions and studying more consistently.”

Discussing grades also simplifies employing the help of peers who grasp the content more clearly or have better study strategies. Sharing grades has helped Ebrat find students who can explain how to answer questions she missed, as she did when she once got a low score on a biology test. “We worked together a little during lunch and before school,” she said. “On the next test, that allowed me to understand the material better since I had a close friend helping me.”

Regardless of whether teachers prohibit grade discussions, math teacher Gopi Tantod believes that students will inevitably continue to discuss their grades. “Everyone discusses grades—it’s not something you’re going to be able to stop,” she said.

In that light, distinguishing between productive and harmful conversations about grades becomes more important. The line is drawn, according to O’Connell, depending on how grades and the surrounding conversations are used. “If grades are just there as a helpful measurement and indicator of how prepared you were, then the conversation turns to behaviors that can be helped and changed,” he said.

Yet when percentages eclipse learning, when grades define a student’s worth, these conversations quickly turn dangerous. “Grades become a value on somebody, and instead of empowering, they become judgmental,” O’Connell said. “A grade as a label on somebody is a judgment. A grade as a descriptor of how you did can be a good measurement of what needs to change, or it can be a measurement of how far you’ve come.”