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The Function of Grades in College Courses

Excellent example of paper 1 by Edward Sleigh - Winter 2009

Grades in college courses are a far broader topic than A through F or a scale of percentage. They function in many different ways, motivating some and challenging others. The decisions we make have direct and indirect consequences. Robert Merton suggested that human behavior has both manifest and latent functions. "Manifest functions are the stated and open goals of social behavior. Latent functions are the unintended consequences of behavior" (Andersen 21). The classroom environment may be the easiest to study from the functionalist theoretical framework because much like the functionalist view on society, the goal of a classroom is to produce an environment for learning, with consensus and order, with stability. With a classroom as our example of society, we can study how grades in college seem to have more latent functions than manifest functions.

There are few identifiable manifest functions of grades in college. The most direct function of grades is that for measurable feedback. Good grades can suggest that students properly understand the course material, are well applied, and have an interest in the subject matter. Poor grades suggest that students need to invest more effort to grasp the concepts or that their efforts are misdirected. Conversely, when the class is collectively doing poorly, the teacher receives feedback and can consider altering teaching styles or working smarter to increase student understanding. And, when the entire class is receiving A's, perhaps the coursework is too easy and the teacher can challenge his or her students with harder assignments and tests. Grades in college are the easiest way to measure feedback in order to help people know how they are doing in their studies.

A list of the latent functions of grades is only limited by the sociological understanding of its author and the depth and scope of thought. The indirect consequences of college grades are far reaching and will affect many aspects of student's lives. Some functionalists find that inequality benefits society and though grades should be delivered fairly, they should help determine which students desire to succeed and which lack the desire to continue in academics. Grades in college can separate groups of students in many institutions - in the college itself and later in life. Those with a similar interest in high achievement may tend to group together in friendship if their course study is different. However, when the course study is the same, good grades can also cause academic competition as classmates become rivals competing for the best in class status. Separating the academic elite from ordinary students causes people to enter different career fields. Chances are classmen and women who easily achieve high grades are motivated to continue in education and grades in college courses may influence application and acceptance into graduate schools. Students who study together may discover more than school in common with each other and consider entering into marriage. However, the college success of the male or female may determine the roles they play in the marriage and may challenge the social institution of marriage. For example, if the female, based on her grades and college success, is proven to be the leader of the couple, their roles in the marriage may be reversed, but they will find ways to ensure a healthy relationship.

Because it is only the case with some students, motivation may be a latent function of college grades. Some students see grades as an opportunity to impress others and earn rewards. Students who achieve high grades receive praises and accolades such as Dean's List Honors or academic scholarships. Students who receive higher grades also tend to receive respect from their peers. They may be sought as a source for information and for help, and the students who are able to help effectively naturally become leaders in the classroom. In addition, an interim grade may have an indirect influence on the work effort of a student. If a student discovers a low grade they will have to work harder if they intend to achieve an improved grade. But if the student discovers they are doing better than expected, they will relax their efforts to enjoy the fruit of their labor. In a sense, this is a part of functionalism that suggests that a system needs to remain balanced. To remain efficient, the students rarely put out more effort than necessary to obtain their desired results.

Within the classroom, the dynamics of some social interactions are influenced by the grades that students receive. As mentioned, some students will find camaraderie with people of similar academic expectations while others will find direct competition. Some students see good grades as an unattainable goal and need encouragement to do well while other students have high aptitudes in certain subjects and good grades come easily. The equilibrium of the two groups in this relationship is in the diversity of the types of students and their aptitudes. For example, when assigned group work, some students will work harder and some will not put in a lot of effort, but their grade will be a reflection of their concerted effort. Similarly, one beauty of a diverse classroom environment is when a struggling student seeks help from one who understands. The role of a tutor is based on this concept in that despite grades, students of varying academic success can interact and both parties can benefit mutually. Similarly, if the course of study is varied between arts and sciences, students may succeed at one while failing another. A student who is a brilliant artist but a terrible mathematician may choose their field of study based on the influence of their grades. And that student may make a great art tutor, but will seek help to understand math concepts fully.

Unfortunately, some people who find it a struggle even to earn low grades may drop out of college in order to enter the work force. The regrettable reality is that socioeconomic status influences and is influenced by college grades. Though no direct correlation between letter grades and an annual income can be inferred, college graduates tend to earn more money than people who do not finish their degree, so grades can affect socioeconomic status. And within the institution of family, poverty can challenge the academic success of even an extremely intelligent student. In order to maintain family dynamics and the stability of relationships with siblings, some students may not strive to obtain high grades in fear that siblings may become jealous. Disrupting the family dynamic may not be a risk that some students are willing to take in order to succeed with good grades and they will not strive at all. Pressure from parents can also cause some students to work harder to earn expected results. If parents place expectations on their children to achieve certain grades or to earn entrance into certain grad schools, that pressure influences the amount that a student has to apply themselves in order to reach goals and keep family dynamics in balance.

So, the manifest function of grades is measurable feedback, and the latent functions may influence almost every area of a student's life. The grades that we receive in college may influence how we interact with the rest of the world after completing college course work, and yet, it is not the end all of determining success in life.
Works Cited
Andersen, Margaret L. and Howard F. Taylor. Sociology In Everyday Life: Sociology 204 at Portland Community College. Ohio: Cengage, 2008.

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