The Emotional Costs of Student Success for Our Students

“Success” means many different things. There are as many definitions as there are people (or students in this case).

“Student Success” is the current big push at colleges and universities across the nation, and this push is largely being forced upon colleges by state legislatures and federal bodies overseeing education. This well-intended goal has many definitions but generally includes a focus on having higher enrollments, more full time students, students passing their classes (with high grades), and more graduates.

One aspect of this approach is that it tends to, at least sometimes, imply that students who do not graduate or who are not full-time are not successful. Not everyone needs a degree to do what they want in life. Not everyone ultimately decides they want a degree. Additionally, some students only want to take a few courses.

To me at least, “student success” in its ideal and highest achievement has been the hope or goal of students earning higher and higher grades. I always tell my classes I hope everyone earns an “A”. Any of my students can tell you that you have to really work for an “A” in my class. If 50% earn an “A”, it’s not because of grade inflation; it’s because they worked really hard for it.

Last night my dad (who is also a professor – I loved teaching and school so much, he decided to follow my steps) were discussing different situations we had with students. The conversation evolved into a discussion of the emotional costs of student success.


The basic thought is–and it seems very true from personal experience and experience working with approximately 2,830 students since May 2007–that there are certain negative consequences per se to earning an “A” in a class or especially to having a 4.0.

As someone who earned an “A” in every class as an undergraduate, I can testify to the fact that being an “A” student is lonely per se.

The “A” student can experience this “loneliness” because they are spending most of their time studying. Studying instead of partying, “hanging out,” etc. Additionally, there is a certain negative stigma attached to doing extremely well. The “A” students are labeled as “nerds” or “geeks.” People who “have no life.” People who are “different.”

Consider the following two conversations:

“Hey, Sam, What grades did you get this semester?”
“Did well. No big deal but got a 4.0. What about you?”
“Wow. Not that well.”


“Hey, Sam, What grades did you get this semester?”
“Got an A, 2 Bs, and a C. What about you?”
“Sweet. About the same for me.”

While pretend, I have seen conversations like this play out many times.

There are at least two implications for educators:

One, although we want our students to all do well, study hard, ask questions, and be 4.0 students, this is an unrealistic goal in a large part because of the negative consequences with making good grades. It is sometimes alienating, and it sets a precedent to continue studying really hard.

Two, for student success to be truly effective–carried to its logical and ideal ends–we need a culture that truly celebrates and embraces thinkers, studiers, questioners. Of course, all students are capable of learning the skills necessary to be the “A” student, but this is not what society or peer pressure really wants or rewards or even allows in some cases. Consider how the Culture of Beer, the Culture of Football, the Culture of Politically-Rewritten-History-Books, for example, and the anti-intellectualism generally therein is vastly different than the Culture of Intellectualism. Consider a world where there are commercials advertising an up-coming talk by a philosopher instead of the newest flavor of beer or the newest gun. The rhetoric of what we advertise speaks volumes to what we truly value.

So as we ask ourselves what we can do to help more students earn higher grades and ask ourselves what we did that caused so-and-so to not reach “their full potential,” we must recognize that at least some of the issues are systematic and institutional. The emotional costs of success are high, too much so for some.


Categories: Thoughts and Perspectives

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6 replies

  1. Truth. See also how this is affected within racial or class lenses, such as Young’s article in PMLA, “Straight Black Queer: Obama, Codeswitching, and the Gender Anxiety of African American Men” to see how academic success reflects via masculinity, etc.

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  2. If I were in charge, I’d want to have a long, hard discussion about the usefulness of grades in the classroom. I suppose one of the major differences between formal and informal learning lies in the act of grading, but grades oftentimes hide just as much as they illuminate in our students’ abilities. I think true learning comes from making mistakes, realizing those mistakes and devising solutions for them, and being better listeners. Grades don’t always help students think that way if the end goal is a grade rather than the act of becoming a better learner.

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    • I’m so used to receiving and now giving grades that I tend to really just forget about the harm grades do in and off themselves. I do know and remember that there were certain classes I would have taken as an undergraduate but didn’t for fear of hurting my GPA and as a result chances of getting into graduate school, etc. I wonder if there are any private schools or something that don’t give grades. People are so used to thinking in terms of grades that you’d almost need people who had never received grades to see what would happen. In a system without grades there would still need to be some kind of “evaluation system.” I wonder if this would evolve into another type of “grades.” Lots of thoughts! Thanks for your comment, Nick!

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  3. I’ve found that keeping up with the homework was the main thing that helped me get better grades. I was less stressed when earning A’s. When earning C’s and D’s I was stressed every day because I had fallen behind on the homework and was trying to play catch-up. It’s really stressful in class if you know the teacher expected you to read something and you didn’t finish the reading.

    School may be stressful, but imagine how stressful work is for those who performed poorly in school. They will always be second guessing their abilities and will also be locked into a more limited set of jobs with less pay and less benefits and possibly more dangerous. For example, the father and tree-trimmer who lived across from my mom died when a branch stuck him. And just this last week the news reported that an industrial size wood chipper had pulled a father into it.

    We should stress to our children that education is not only a matter of luxury vs middle class, it is also a matter of an easier life vs a harder life and can also be a matter of a long life vs a short life.

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    • Thanks for commenting! Even though cutting trees is more dangerous that other types of word, I’d guess that some people really enjoy it. It might be a family business, a family tradition, a way to work outside, and so on. The person who cuts trees might really know a lot about trees, nature, socializing with new customers all the time, etc. Education is important for sure, but also the notion of “multiple intelligences” – that everyone is gifted and educated but in all kinds of different ways, only one of these being education via school. Life alone is pretty dangerous. 🙂


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