The Big Lie About Student Achievement

This is the time of year when high-achieving high school juniors are most in danger of freaking out over the Big Lie. The Big Lie is this: you are doomed if you don't get straight A's in high school. The Big Lie is based on what behavioral psychologists call catastrophizing: creating an emergency where none exists. The Big Lie for high school juniors is that GPA equals Highly Selective College, which equals Happiness. A variant of this involves swapping the word Happiness for the words Financial Security, as if these terms were interchangeable (which is another essay entirely). In the catastrophizing version of this, anything less than perfection inevitably leads to disaster. Now, this is self-evidently crazy. And yet, it continues to motivate parents and students.

I have been teaching undergraduates since 1986 in colleges and universities ranging from selective liberal arts institutions to community colleges. I get around. And this is what I've learned. The Big Lie has made the vast majority of our college students feel like failures, and may be keeping them from actually getting a real education.

First, most students won't get into an Ivy, or a highly selective school, simply because there isn't enough room for all of the kids who qualify. This attitude then follows students into the colleges they attend, where the Big Lie morphs into " If I can't graduate from a Great School, then I really have to graduate with a perfect GPA."

I've had freshmen break down in tears after receiving a B+ instead of an A on an assignment. I've had parents send me email in the badly mistaken notion that they could lobby me with flattery or threats. Sadly, I've also had students cheat and plagiarize because they believe that the most important thing is to get an A in every class. And over and over again, the root of all of it is catastrophizing; the Big Lie.

The Big Lie is all about extrinsic motivation; getting the grade to prove something to somebody else. Grades become stand-ins for self-worth. Everything we know about teaching and learning revolves around this one true thing: real education only occurs with intrinsic motivation, a desire to learn just because of a student's passion for the subject. Everything else is crap that lives in a student's brain just barely long enough to pass a test. No wonder students cheat and plagiarize; they've been told education is a game, and they need to win it.

Here's the reason I call it the Big Lie; most employers don't look for the perfect GPA... they look for passion. Passion leads to skill, which leads to expertise. Passion protects against burn-out. There is no substitute for it. No one is equally passionate about everything. Show me a perfect GPA, and I'll show you a student who is playing the game. Einstein was a terrible student with a passion for physics. Passion, not GPA, is the best predictor for career success.

I can hear it now: "Passion, shmassion! My kid's passionate about video games and/or music. Neither one will lead to a career!" First of all, some of those things can lead to real careers. But more importantly, that is what college is for, to ignite new passions. And colleges both great and small can do this. But the Big Lie too often stands in their way!

Here's a secret; one of the reasons many students do not want to take courses in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), is these courses are a risk to their perfect GPA dreams.

Learning something hard requires risk! Learning something hard means taking a path where there will be failures before there is success! We have raised a generation of kids who cannot afford failure, in pursuit of the perfect GPA, and that is a catastrophe for education in the Sciences and the Liberal Arts.

So please, parents of high school students, parents of college students, take a minute and think before you send another message to your kids based on catastrophizing. You want your kid to succeed, and believe me, I want your kid to succeed. The messages you send truly make a difference. It's never too late to give up the Big Lie.