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The Importance of Receiving a "Bad" Grade

Authored By: 
Derek Barnett, STEM teacher

We’ve all been there. We stayed up late studying the night or two before an important exam. We worked on all the assigned practice problems, studied with friends, and finished up our last few flashcards. Only to receive the exam covered in red ink, as if Jackson Pollock graded the assessment. 


As a student and high school teacher, I have a unique advantage at seeing both sides to these bad grades. I argue that many students and parents fail to see the value or opportunity in one of these “GPA destroying” exam grades. Hopefully, this article will help change the perception of these grades and provide a framework to improve. 


I received my first earth-shattering grade while in organic chemistry at college. At this point in my academic career, I felt that I mastered my studying strategy; cram the night before and memorize everything. The 48% I received told me otherwise. At first, I denied it was my grade. I thought the professor must have mixed my grade up with another student. After sending a passive-aggressive email to my professor, I tried asking for extra credit. Like clockwork, I found myself going through each stage of grief. Finally, accepting the grade I reflected on how could others do so well if I have done so well the rest of my life. What were they doing that I was not?


There was a moment between that exam and the next that I met with a friend that changed my perspective forever. He stated that “an exam is just a two-digit story on my resiliency and adaptability.” It is NOT the grade that mattered per se, but how I learned from that exam to do better on the next one. 


Your GPA trend is not a story of how smart you are. Rather, it is a story of your resiliency and flexibility. How were you able to learn from your mistakes? Did you challenge your preconceptions? Did you seek help and guidance from others or your professor? Did you look up online resources to help supplement the material? 


As a teacher, I try to teach my students this lesson when they receive a grade they were not expecting. It is a skill to reflect on your grades and education, and determine which methods worked for the course and which methods may not. Essentially, to be an effective student is to become a reflective experimenter. 


After that revelation with my friend, I dropped all my flashcards, took virtually no notes in class, and collaborated with others on practice problems. My grade went from an F- to a B+ by the end of the semester. I ended up falling in love with the logic of chemistry and taught organic chemistry as a teaching assistant and tutor for the next two years of my academic career. A thought once unthinkable. 


If you are a parent reading this, please, understand ONE test grade will not ruin the students' chances of getting into the Ivy League or state school you have always dreamed your child would go to. Instead, I encourage you to be reflective with your child. What did they learn from this grade? What resources worked, what resources did not? A bad grade may hurt initially, but it can truly be a valuable method for reflection.