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Description: Do you get, or/and do you think that your life would be entirely on the right path if, you got straight A’s in college/university? Well on the one hand, of course it would, right? Grades are the markers of accomplishment and content mastery in post-secondary institutions and, it might be said, the only serious metric we should be using to determine outcome standing or how well graduating students compare to their fellow graduates as we look to hire them. But even from within Industrial Organization (IO) Psychology that studies issues in recruitment, section, performance and retention within after-graduation jobs/careers there is ambivalence about this. IO psychology (I am just finishing teaching a survey course in IO Psychology) tell us cognitive ability, as reflected in things like IQ test scores and college/university grades, is one of the best predictors of positive job performance after hiring when compared to other measurable things like personality (though conscientiousness is a close second) and harder to measure things like interview performance. Yet…. IO Psychological research also tells us that “the correlation between grades and job performance is modest in the first year after college and trivial within a handful of years” (see linked article and see Further Reading for the reference to this research).

Where should we go with this? Well, one possibility is to dig in statistically and point out that academic grades do not differentiate performance among Google employees because everyone comes in the hiring door at Google with or nearly with a 4.0 GPA and thus the restricted range problem accounts for the apparent big drop in predictability. This leads to a second possible “where we should go from here” option, that is, when everyone’s grades are equal at the beginning of their employment then, obviously, other things will predict differences in their job performance, assuming we can figure out what those things might be and measure them validly. See what the author of the linked article says about what academic grades “rarely assess” for some examples. We can feel like we are advancing this option by pointing to individuals who we know to be VERY successful and yet, we may be surprised to hear, did not do so well in terms of post-secondary GPA. The article linked below tells us about Steve Jobs, J. K. Rowling, and Rev. Martin Luther King’s university lowish GPA’s. Now, before you read the article linked below think about this: Is telling straight A hyper-focused students to ease back and look to do things like smell roses, take academic risks and broaden their interests a good or safe or fair thing to do, especially when the majority of colleges and universities really only offer one clear metric by which students can track their “progress” through their post-secondary academic experiences – that being grades?

Source: What Straight-A Students Get Wrong, Grant Adam, The New York Times. See also the letter to the editor regarding this article.

Date: December 8, 2018 and December 22, 2018

Photo Credit: Linda Huang, The New York Times

 Article Link: and

So, what do you think? Is it fair or helpful to have researchers and commentators say the “wish I knew then what I know now” sorts of things we most often hear about the college/university experience when the only metric students can clearly see as being available to them to track their “progress” through their post-secondary studies are grades? The students, current and alumni, who sent letters to the editor regarding the linked article seem to largely argue in support of the “grades are important” view. The author of the linked article suggests a number of things that colleges and universities and employers might do to lessen the focus (obsession?) with grades but that strategy seems to be based on the hope that if the one line of clarity or future-enabling metric students can see is undercut a bit that they will find some of the other things that will turn out to be of value to them later by themselves in the fog uncertainty about just what those things will be that swirls around and through post-secondary academic institutions. What is harder to find and what, I think, we need more of, are efforts to shine some clarifying lights on other developmental opportunities and metrics available to students in college/university, in what has been referred to (see John Warner’s blog) as the broader current historical reality of scarcity and precarity (swirling fog) that surrounds not just our post-secondary academic institutions but the world at large these days. Maybe students are clinging to grades as the only lifeline we are currently offering them within colleges and univesities. We ought to be doing better than this.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. How important are college/university grades?
  2. Are there other things that are important about college/university opportunity that are not captured by grades and if so, what are they?
  3. Rather than generating lists of things that colleges and universities should be doing differently (an important things to do) what sorts of things should/could students do to move towards defining a broader developmental post-secondary pathway for themselves as they move through college/university (and email your thoughts on this to me please! [email protected])?

References (Read Further):

Baird, L. L. (1985). Do grades and tests predict adult accomplishment?. Research in Higher Education, 23(1), 3-85.

Roth, P. L., BeVier, C. A., Switzer III, F. S., & Schippmann, J. S. (1996). Meta-analyzing the relationship between grades and job performance. Journal of applied psychology, 81(5), 548.

Bock, L. (2015). Work rules!: Insights from inside Google that will transform how you live and lead. Twelve.

MacKinnon, D. W. (1962). The nature and nurture of creative talent. American psychologist, 17(7), 484.

Arnold, K. D. (1995). Lives of promise: What becomes of high school valedictorians: A fourteen-year study of achievement and life choices. Jossey-Bass.

McKinney, A. P., Carlson, K. D., Mecham III, R. L., D’Angelo, N. C., & Connerley, M. L. (2003). Recruiters’ Use Of GPA In Initial Screening Decisions: Higher GPAs Don’t Always Make The Cut. Personnel Psychology, 56(4), 823-845.