What if getting 95% is still underachieving?

A friend posed this question to me a couple of months ago and I’ve thought about it a lot since then. We often think of gifted underachievers as students who aren’t getting great marks…but 95%? Across the board? How can that be underachieving? And then there is the question that naturally follows: if 95% will get you a scholarship and the university of your choice, why worry?

I could probably do a PhD on just this question alone as it begs so many more: What does it mean to truly know something? Does passing a test mean something has been learned? If we can do much more than is expected, should we be expected to do it? What does a grade really tell us? How do we make grades meaningful? What is the purpose of grades? Should we be grading at all? What is the impact of an “undeserved” grade whether it be low or high? These are questions that most educators grapple with on a daily basis as we endeavor to make the work in our classrooms meaningful in addition to maintaining accountability.

This year as my students set goals, many of them cited a certain GPA as their goal. For some it was the honour roll, for others it was first class honours and others had a number like 95%. When they came in to update their goals in their last session almost every one had achieved the grade goal they set out. When I asked if it had been a challenge most of them responded “not really”.

How do we learn to dream really big when fitting in is so much easier? Can we expect a classroom to offer more? Many of my students have found their challenges and passions outside of the classroom in individual pursuits: music, sport, art, dance, theatre and more. But for the student who is still searching to find their passion, how can we get them excited about what lies beyond the 95%? Because it will make the idea of university so much more enticing if they do.


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