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Your Grades Matter Less Than You Think

Dr Alex Linley, CEO

With the recent exam grades debacle in the UK, I have been reflecting on the purpose of exam grades, why we need them, and what role they play in people’s lives and society overall. I arrived at four purposes served by grades. Grades are used as a:

  1. Marker of achievement for work and learning undertaken
  2. Fillip to self-esteem (if you did well or better than you expected)
  3. Performance report for the educational institution itself
  4. Gateway to the next stage of your life, work and career.

Of these, the most substantive and far-reaching is the fourth, where grades are the gateway to your next stage. Understood in this way, grades are not only the gateway, but could be a door opening to new opportunity or a barrier closing on your desired progression.

The gateway motif for grades is reflective of the fact that grades are often used as the great hopper of selection, sifting and sorting to determine who is permitted to go where and who can do what.

This is where the anger about Ofqual’s algorithmic corrections to teacher’s grade predictions really came to bear, best encapsulated in the protest posters of ‘Grade my work, not my postcode’. Sadly, yet another example of when algorithms, poorly applied, become Weapons of Math Destruction.

[Also interesting to note, as a sidebar, that this is another example of the growing focus on judging individuality, not classifying by the group. The shift against ‘BAME’ as a classification in relation to ethnic heritage is another example of this. Recognising people as individuals, rather than losing them in groups, can only be a good thing.]

If the core purpose of grades is to be this gateway, are grades the best answer?

The single (and significant) positive in favour of grades is their ubiquity: everyone gets graded and we all know, broadly, what the grades mean. This is one clear consequence of the ‘education-industrial complex’ (to paraphrase Dwight Eisenhower). Education classifies people and turns them over for sifting and sorting into the world of work.

Yet there are also critical negatives, or at the very least, ‘areas for improvement’, about grades being used in this way. First, what grades measure in relation to school or university is typically academic knowledge attained, not the behaviours, values, preferences, motivations or strengths that will actually make a difference in role. Second, the gap between the pace of change in the changing world of work and the design of educational curricula is only growing. Third, grades simply don’t predict workplace success or performance.

To overcome these challenges and deliver business results, more and more educators and employers are adopting alternative methods of evaluation. In the United States, cooperative education combines classroom-based education with practical work experience, giving academic credit for structured work experience, with Northeastern being the leading university in the US for co-ops.

In the UK, apprenticeships have come strongly back into favour (and rightly so), combining a real job with academic learning in relation to the role. Capgemini’s experience has shown that apprentices often outperform graduate hires, making the most of their real world experience in the role.

But not everyone has access to these opportunities. To address this challenge and level the playing field, at Cappfinity we have been working with leading employers including Accenture, EY, GSK, HSBC and Sky to use work simulations as part of their selection processes, thereby making grades irrelevant.

Work simulations help a candidate to understand what is involved with the role, to make an informed decision about whether it is a match for them, and to showcase themselves at their best in a way that is clearly relevant to their long term performance. This is why work simulations are the most highly predictive of any selection approach – and it’s why we use them.

Taking this even further, it’s why we have developed Cappfinity VEE, to truly level the playing field and help anybody, from anywhere, and from any background. With VEE, learners explore the careers that are right for them, develop themselves so they are practiced and prepared, and when they’re ready, showcase what they can do through work simulations for different roles, sectors and employers. But, more on VEE in another article…

So, in closing, if grades aren’t the only gateway to your future life and career, do they matter as much? Probably not, I conclude. I always remember being told as I was growing up, “Your exam results are just the thing that gets you to the next stage. After that, they don’t matter.”

While that was true then, 30 years ago, it is even more true now. We have such better ways of assessing talent and potential, helping people to find the right role that matches their strengths, preferences and motivations. After all, no High School Diploma, A-level grade, GPA or degree classification could ever tell us that…

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