The Grades Matter

The Grades Matter

There is chatter about how grades don’t matter; that perhaps we should move away from awarding marks and grades to our learners. This has been raised in Singapore where we are based, and some other economies.

Critics point to Finland’s much-lauded education system, where the focus centres on learning how to learn, rather than marks and grades. Students in Finland go through a comprehensive academic programme that encourages curiosity, lateral thinking, and life skills. A culture of lifelong learning continues throughout adult life, as the individual graduates into the workplace.

Yet ignoring grades misses the point, as GRADES DO MATTER.

But perhaps not in the way that we use them now.

Grades are FEEDBACK

Grades give feedback to the learner and feedback to the educator.

As a Learner: When I do badly on a test or assessment, it is feedback to me that I did not understand the material well enough. I should go through the material again, and maybe seek help from my teacher or trainer. Perhaps I should work harder. Maybe I should give up and look for something else that I am better in.

As an Educator: If the entire cohort does badly for a test, it is feedback to me that perhaps I should relook at the parts that everyone did poorly for. Maybe I should think about covering certain concepts again, think of a different way to explain this part of the material that many in the class/course did not seem to understand.

It’s no different from sports, where week-in, week-out, athletes, and teams compete for a good ‘grade’, which is to beat the opponent. Better sides (like Tottenham Hotspur 😊) win in style, though there’s no bonus grade for exciting play.


Olympic champ Joseph Schooling got an excellent ‘grade’ at the 2016 Olympics. He did poorly in 2017 before working hard to improve his 2018 ‘grade’ at the Asian Games, inspiring kids like the author’s daughter (pictured) in the process | Photo: James

Singaporean son Joseph Schooling won the 100 m Butterfly gold medal at the 2016 Olympics. He worked hard for his excellent ‘grade’. He turned in the hours, honed his talent through good, honest hard work, and swam faster than everyone else.

Joseph’s 2017 ‘grades’ weren’t stellar, with a poor NCAA showing and finishing only 3rd at the World Championships in his pet 100 m fly. By Joseph’s own admission, he had put in less than half his pre-Olympic training. It showed in his ‘grade’.

But the poor ‘grade’ was feedback to Joseph, who went back to training hard. The results showed as he routed the field (which included world-class Chinese, Japanese and Korean swimmers) to win 2 Asian Game gold medals in 2018. His work is not yet done, as he hunkers down for the next World Championships and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Joseph Schooling responded to his 2017 ‘bad grades’, worked hard, and got back to the top step of the podium.

A world without grades?

Now imagine a sporting world with no gold medals. No silver, no bronze. Participation certificates at the Olympics; every athlete returns with the same certificate.

Imagine if the English Premier League doesn’t keep score, and there are no winners and losers. That FIFA gives every World Cup team the same medal. Just for showing up.

Hardly the real world, is it?

The real world doesn’t give us participation prizes just for showing up. The real world gives us grades — constant feedback, whether we like it or not.

CEOs are graded by their ability to strategise, execute and deliver performance. Politicians by their ability to serve the citizenry. Fund managers by their ability to earn above-market returns. Carpenters by the quality of their furniture. Software engineers by the ability to ship working code. Movie Directors by the reception of their movies. Startups by their ability to turn products into a business. Each and every one of us by our ability to do our job.

We cannot escape the reality that performance matters. The ‘grades’ we get through the metrics we define and are defined for us are the feedback to us to keep doing what is working, and to change tack when something’s not turning out so well.

Those who respond to this feedback well would hopefully turn in better performance (and ‘grades’) at the next opportunity. They should be rewarded more than the ones who did not respond to the feedback.

So it is facetious to tell our children that grades do not matter. Because in so doing, we are not preparing them for life.


The issue with grades right now is how we view them, and how we use them.

Grades DO matter, but grades are not THE ONLY THING that matters.

Singaporeans gripe about the Primary School Leaving Examination (“PSLE”). Currently, each student taking the PSLE is awarded a numerical T-score. This score determines the Secondary school that the student is eligible to enter, as admission is primarily based on the scores of those applying. So the PSLE grade is a first-cut filtering tool.

Singapore’s Ministry of Education recently tweaked the PSLE ever so slightly, where from 2021 onwards, students are not awarded a numerical score but instead are given a grade banding.

It’s a start but doesn’t go far enough. Now students aren’t sieved down to the individual point, but to the individual grade band.

The primary issue for me and many who think Singapore can do better is the PSLE is still perceived as a single high-stakes examination.

Do well at the PSLE, enter a top secondary school, and your academic journey (and perhaps career) is laid out for you. Do poorly at the PSLE, and you’re routed to technical education, and the road ahead becomes bumpier than the other kid (though “there are still many paths to success”).

It may or may not be true, but sometimes perception shapes reality. And parents have to bear a large part of this responsibility.

What is worse is this warped mindset sometimes carries over to the workplace and shapes hiring practices. And the fixation on grades carries on…

Which is wrong. Good grades should not give a free pass to the learner that one is set for life, nor should bad grades condemn one to failure forever.

For what if I was just a late bloomer? And what if I was always good at something else?

How do we do better?

1. Grading right

Albert Einstein said, “If you judge a fish by how well it climbs a tree, it will spend its whole life feeling stupid”.

If we take grades for what they are, which is feedback, then the challenge for education policy-makers is how to design grading systems that are appropriate for learners-in-question.

There’s good progress being made already, as education systems are becoming more flexible, with different tracks of learning for different types of learners. But more needs to be done.

This is true for academic learning, as well as learning in the workplace. At work, HR practitioners and line managers need to define the right metrics to ‘grade’ staff. Ultimately, it needs to translate to business goals (which staff help organisations to achieve).

In the workplace learning arena where ArcLab operates, we encourage organisations to break training content down into modular pieces, or Nano Learning.

This allows staff to learn in bite-sizes, on-demand. The ‘grades’ given at the end of each learning module are specific to the single learning objective that HR, L&D, and line managers have defined together. The employee (and the organisation) knows straight away whether he/she ‘gets’ the material or not, and how to apply it to his/her job role.

The ‘grade’ has become what it’s meant to be — feedback.

2. Giving room to fail. Really.

Just as Baseball players get 3 swings before striking out, Racket players get 2 chances at a serve, we can shape our learning systems to give our learners room to fail.


If at first you don’t succeed, Try Again | Photo: ArcLab

There is a common saying in the military — we sweat more during training so that we bleed less during war.

Learning should be a ‘low-stakes’ environment to make mistakes.

That’s why every Nano Learning module we empower organisations to create has a “Try Again” button.

In so doing, someone who hasn’t grasped the material, or hasn’t mastered it to his/her standards, always has the option to revisit it.

Repeated tries are also a proxy indicator to the organisation about the individual’s effort and endeavour, that this individual doesn’t give up.

I have only skimmed the surface of ‘The Grades Matter’, where the current downsides negatively affect both academic students and workplace learners.

Grades DO matter — as FEEDBACK to the learner and the teacher/trainer. Feedback on what has been learned and done well, and what hasn’t.

If we adopt this “Grades-as-Feedback” mindset, we can not only work together to define grading systems that can more appropriately measure learning, and also help those that don’t do well try again.

This needs everyone to play our part: Educators, Parents, Employers, Government, and Individuals.

For one bad grade should never doom one to a lifetime of failure.

That — we at ArcLab will never accept.