As a university student it is important to recognize that there is a difference between grades and educational knowledge. While the two do go hand in hand quite nicely, there is a fine line that separates them and it is important to understand what differentiates the two. It took me a long time to really understand this. I remember getting back exams and seeing a grade that was lower than what I expected, and resorting to thinking that I really did not know anything. Sometimes it was true that I did not understand it, but other times it was just one too many simple mistakes that landed me with a grade that did not represent how much I really knew. It was a really important lesson for me to learn that what I actually knew and understood was not always the same as the grade I got. Similarly, I learned the hard the way that getting a good grade on something does not necessarily mean that I actually know it. Just because I got a good grade on my homework did not mean I actually understood it, and sitting clueless in my midterm exam really showed me that. I realized there is a very important distinction between grades and knowledge, and I am going to explain it to you.
This post will discuss the difference between grades and knowledge, how to reflect on when and how you may have gained knowledge, and to explain the relationship between achieving good grades and gaining knowledge. While most people know that you can achieve both of these things together, it is also important to understand that you can achieve grades without knowledge, and gain knowledge without achieving good grades. And most importantly, gaining knowledge can help you achieve good grades, and the effort you put into achieving good grades can help you gain knowledge. If knowledge helps you get good grades, and working to get good grades help you gain knowledge, you might find yourself thinking which came first? The knowledge or the grade?
But what are grades and what is knowledge? The Oxford Languages dictionary has several definitions for both. I’d like to share the first two of each with you.
- Acts, information, and skills acquired by a person through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject.
- Awareness or familiarity gained by experience of a fact or situation.
- A particular level of rank, quality, proficiency, intensity, or value
- A mark indicating the quality of a student’s work.
Now, if I may, I would like to share MY personal definitions for each, or rather, what each means to me.
The information that is in your head that you really understand and know, that you can apply to other things and use in your life, for any purpose. Proper dribbling technique in field hockey is very important knowledge to me, even if I would never be graded on it.
A representation of how well you can learn a lot of material, in any way possible, often in a short amount of time. To me this represents my study habits, my ability to stay on track of my workload, my notetaking, and frankly just how well I study. Typically grades represent your performance in a program or course.
The biggest difference, in my opinion, is that grades can be measured concretely, while knowledge is much harder to calculate. You know very easily what your grades are simply by looking at your transcript, or by getting your tests, quizzes, projects, or papers back. It is also quite easy to feel overwhelmed by your grades, whether they are what you were expecting or not. Knowledge, however, goes much more frequently unrecognized. However, while it may be difficult to measure, it is not the case that we should therefore not seek to recognize our knowledge. Educational knowledge comes in forms such as organizing your time, keeping up with your workload, and managing your stress. It is important not to assume that these skills are less important than your grades.
I think it is very important to reflect on our knowledge so when can understand just how much we have learned. In my personal experience, it tends to take me a long time to fully understand that I have actually learned something, that I have gained knowledge. I often feel like after all my final exams I immediately forget everything I have just learned, and I think, what a waste of time that was, seeing as I learned nothing. But I did not learn nothing! That is the tricky part to realize, which requires reflection. For me I find it helps to talk to a friend or a family member, and explain to them what I did in a certain course. Usually what happens for me is that the person I am talking to goes, “slow down, what was that word you just said? I’ve never heard of that before,” and a lot of the time I think “hey, I did not know that word before this term either,” in which case, I realize I MUST have learned something.
Knowing when you have gained knowledge is something you have to think about, and it is something you realize much more easily and more quickly over time. A fun way of knowing, in my opinion, whether you have gained knowledge, is to write a list of questions you have about a course or concept at the beginning or middle of term. Note a number of things that you do not fully understand, from words, to symbols, to whole processes and concepts. Then, at the end of term, just see how many of those things are so obvious to you now. To me, it is a very positive and uplifting way to reflect on what you know now that you did not know before.
The importance of educational knowledge
Educational knowledge is important because it stays with you forever. There are a few ways to think about this, and they are all extremely valuable. The most obvious, I think, is the fact that if you learn a lot in your 102 class, you will be very well prepared for your 202 class in the same subject. The material you learned gets carried over and built upon, and how well you actually know the material, regardless of your grade, will help you with the new material. So, if you got a 90% but it was because there was a really smart person in your group project, or you got lucky on the multiple choice, this grade will not help you going forward if you do not really know the material. On the other hand, if you really knew the material really well but you got a terrible sleep the night before the final and wrote a terrible exam, that bad grade does not stop you from knowing the material. This has been a really important thing for me to realize, after not doing well on exams I really thought I should have done well on. It is important for me to go over the exam and ask myself if I could have gotten the answer correct. Was I completely lost or was I just missing one little thing? Accessing your knowledge is really important.
Another way to think about this is the experiential knowledge you gain. Even if you do not gain factual knowledge, like above, you might have gained knowledge in regard to your skills and technique. This is not surprising at all, since for every year of school, since we were five, our workload increases more and more each year. There are bigger projects and longer essays and harder books to read. This is because we learn from doing. Even if you got a 55% grade on your term, you still had really great practice in writing the essay. Your study habits get better every year just from continuing to study, and this is extremely valuable knowledge. However, if you just memorize something rather than take the time to practice or understand it, once you forget it, it is as though you never had that information. If you fully understand something, even if you forget it, you still have that knowledge, and this is why knowledge is so important.
Importance of grades
Many of us have heard, for all our lives, “your grades are very important”. For me, when I was applying to university, all I ever heard about was how my grades are of the utmost importance. While it is important to also consider educational knowledge, there is also a lot of truth in that grades are of equal importance. If I had not cared about my grades, even if I was learning, and let them drop, I may not have gotten into university. Then, even if I did want to keep learning, I would have no choice since I would not have been accepted into school. Grades are highly important once you are in university too. There are many situations in which your grades are highly dependent on what you are able to do next. Your major might require a certain average to get into it, or a course might require that you got a certain grade in the prerequisites. Grades are a very good concrete way to measure where you stand with respect to other students in your class, or how much you have improved since last year’s grades. Grades matter in the bigger picture too. If you want to apply to graduate school, you apply with your grades. And if you are in a special program, you know that you must keep your grades up to stay in the program. I am sure many of you know that, at UBC, if you want to participate in an exchange program, you must have a certain average to apply. Once you graduate, your degree will allow you to get a good job, and you only receive your degree by getting good enough grades. So now you know that knowledge is very important, but that grades are also very important. So how do they work together?
How grades and knowledge complement each other
Grades act as a key to get in the door for opportunities, and they continue to act as that whether you learned the material or not. As long as you receive a certain percentage, that is good enough to be accepted to whatever your next step is. But once you are through the door, you must rely on your knowledge. Not having knowledge could prevent you from getting the grades to act as the next key to the next step in your education or career path. To give a more concrete example: if you graduate with good grades, you present yourself with many work opportunities with your degree. Of course, your personality and professional experience plays a significant role, but your degree- and, depending on your field, the grades you receive in important courses- also acts as a key in the door. Supposing you get hired but you do not really know the material well that applies from your degree to your area of work, it will not be long before you are forced to look for a new job. Contrarily, if you happen to have fantastic knowledge but no grades to prove it- perhaps you were self-taught in this field- it might be challenging to find a good job that takes your word for it and does not require any academic or professional experience to attest to it. I think everyone knows that grades and knowledge work together, but it is really important to understand how different they are and in what ways they complement each other.
I think a good way to summarize things is as follows: grades and educational knowledge are of equal importance, but at different times and for different things. Grades are short term important, while knowledge is long term important. Grades matter at certain times and are essential to making bigger steps in your academic path. Knowledge matters consistently through time, and helps you get good grades, but knowledge is also an authentic reflection of your genuine learning. It is important to understand the differences between them and to appreciate how they complement each other. If you are unsure about the difference between your grades and your personal knowledge in a subject, I challenge you to reflect on your grades and ask yourself if you feel your grade is reflective of your knowledge on the subject, or if (and, if so, why) there are discrepancies between the two.