I grew up in a very academically competitive school where grades were the not-so-hidden comparators that pitted classmates against one another. But when I entered the workforce with a summer internship, I realized how uncorrelated grades are with one’s real-world capability. 

At U of T, the culture around grades fosters unhealthy, unnecessary competition that I believe is one of the biggest contributors to poor student mental health. Researchers from the University of Southern California found that the pressures of competition increase college students’ rates of anxiety by 70 per cent and depression by 40 per cent. China’s Ministry of Education and South China Normal University further expanded on this work, establishing a link between competitive attitudes, anxiety, and poor sleep quality. 

Competition can impact physical health as well. A researcher from the Utrecht University School of Economics in the Netherlands found that Olympic silver medalists have significantly lower average lifespans than both gold and bronze medalists. The paper indicates that the severity of this lifespan decrease is of a similar degree as the difference found between people with less than 12 years of education compared to those who attended college. The stress of perceived “failure” — of not achieving the coveted heights of a gold medal or, say, some bar of academic success like a 4.0 GPA — can drastically impact mental and physical health. 

Not only is grade culture unhealthy for students, but grades are also poor measures of grasp of knowledge: the elevation of which is the fundamental purpose of a university. My introductory personal anecdote about this is backed up by research. A 2018 study concluded that “grades are a convenient metric for ranking student performance on standardized tests, but they are highly inadequate for assessing students’ overall capabilities because of their uni-dimensional nature,” and further suggested that schools should “[develop] more robust multi-dimensional measures of student learning.” 

Despite their arbitrary and inaccurate nature in assessing education, I think it’s safe to say that grades dominate U of T’s student culture and consciousness. From comics in our own newspaper to articles in The Boundary satire magazine, it seems that grades are always on the minds of U of T students. 

This should come as no surprise. As a large public university, U of T is efficiently structured so that students are not admitted to a major upon matriculation: a quality that would promote exploration if not for the selective requirements to get into many majors. A previous writer has criticized this process, dubbed POSt, where students apply for programs at the end of their first year. There are some open enrolment majors, but many popular majors have competitive grade requirements that pit students against one another for limited seats. 

The very popular computer science and Rotman Commerce programs are at the most extreme end of the spectrum, whose major and specialist programs are almost fully admitted using admission streams right out of high school. The computer science stream system was initially introduced to decrease competition but unintentionally increases it for those who aren’t admitted to the stream out of high school. This system drives adverse competition for the extremely limited second-year seating that is supplemented by an uncertain number of dropped-out spots. 

With this understandable heavy emphasis on grades comes the educator’s perspective on how to dole them out. TA and course instructor Dylan Jow wrote for The Varsity about U of T grading culture and the purpose of grades at large, describing the function of grades as “primarily intended to assess learning,” but saying that “Instructors often use the implicit threat of giving students a bad grade to compel their engagement with course material in the absence of positive incentive.” 

Jow provides anecdotal evidence, saying that “many professors exacerbate the situation [of grades functioning as poor indicators of learning] with arbitrary grading practices. As a student, I’ve experienced more than one professor proudly proclaim to me that they never award grades higher than a 90 per cent.” 

In my opinion, the intention behind grades, especially at U of T, has diverged from its original purpose. Grades have become the end goal, not the guardrails of learning they were intended to be. With the somewhat arbitrary grading practices outlined in Jow’s article, coupled with the importance of grades in determining student futures through admission to POSt, grades become a goal separate from learning. When grades dictate the right to study what you want, even after being admitted to university, they will inevitably become the focus of students’ efforts, no matter their accuracy or educational value. 

How can U of T help?

U of T is a well-regarded research university that produces capable graduates, and grades may be in service of that. As such, I understand that U of T cannot tear down POSt and make every program open enrollment, nor can they abolish grades for student well-being, but it can do better by reducing unnecessary stress and providing better for its students. In its mission statement, U of T dedicates itself to “recognizing the growing demand for refreshing, updating and retooling one’s knowledge and skills.” The extreme competition of POSt is a failure to recognize intellectual demand. 

Anecdotally, I have heard many worries about the high requirements for admission to certain majors, with computer science and Rotman Commerce being the most infamous. However, I could not find any concrete statistics — neither on the information pages for the majors, their respective websites, or in U of T’s data

The computer science admissions page provides a general figure that 50 per cent of students who meet the application requirements for a CS program are admitted — but that includes applicants to specialists, majors, and minors, with no mention of the proportion admitted to each program or their average grades. U of T should be more transparent with these statistics, to be honest with the students that they admit as to their chances of studying what they want. 

If demands for programs such as computer science are increasing and are as competitive as word of mouth says, U of T should expand with it. The extreme competition is a sign that U of T is not adapting with demand. If it were, POSt would not be as competitive or stressful for students.

U of T can also alleviate GPA fears through new grading policies. To address some of the criticisms outlined in Jow’s article about subjective grades, U of T should be more transparent and objective in its grading criteria, requiring instructors to publish rubrics or other set metrics to ensure consistency and fairness. 

U of T can also encourage exploration by adopting a more flexible grading schema for non-program classes. Universities like Brown provide options for taking courses for satisfactory/no credit — essentially unlimited CR/NCR, and not marking failed courses on transcripts — not to mention their policy of not computing overall GPAs. If U of T adopted similarly flexible policies, it would be able to improve student well-being and continue to fulfill its commitment to exploration and interdisciplinary study

Grades are a big stressor at U of T and harm student mental health. Some of this stress is unavoidable, but it can be lessened, and I hope to see U of T making more policy changes that put student well-being first.

Max Zhang is a first-year student at Woodsworth College, studying computer science. He is the Mental Health columnist for The Varsity’s Comment section.