StudentsStudy Abroad

U.S. College Grading System: Is it Working?

I recently had the chance to interview a friend of mine, Nathan Kenny, currently studying for his master’s degree in Sweden about his experience studying abroad in the article “Studying Abroad: Q&A with a Student in Sweden.” One of the aspects I found most intriguing from our conversation was the fact that within the context of Sweden’s university grading system, Nathan felt exceptionally motivated to distinguish himself and learn despite there being “less pressure and competition with fellow students to get the highest grades.”

This seems completely backwards from what we are accustomed to in the U.S. Pressure and competition with fellow students is really at the core of the 4.0 GPA grading system, where the idea is that if there’s competition for high grades students will make a greater attempt to excel.

So how does the grading system in Sweden compare to that in the U.S.? Can our own grading system be improved or altered, or is it fine just the way it is? Though completely answering the latter question is beyond the scope of this article, hopefully this article will provide context for opening up discussion on the subject.

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Sweden’s college grading system

According to ForeignCredits.com, the following is the most common grading scale used in Swedish universities:

  • VG (Väl Godkänd/Pass with Distinction), 90-100%
  • G (Godkänd/Pass), 60-89.99%
  • U (Underkänd/Fail), 0-59.99%

Where Sweden’s college grading system contrasts most with that of the U.S. is in the wide grade range of what is considered a “pass.” In Sweden, there’s no distinction between someone passing with a grade at the low end of the spectrum (60%) and high end (89.99%) of the same letter grade. In fact, receiving a G (Godkänd/Pass) at any percentile translates to a B (3.0 grade point) grade at American universities according to the ForeignCredits.com GPA calculator. This means that if a student scores 60% in all courses and then transfers to an American university, they will have an overall GPA of 3.0.

In the U.S., anything 75.0% and above, a C, is usually considered acceptable and is typically a required grade in prerequisite courses within a student’s major. However, many students may feel that a C is substandard (2.5 GPA), and there is significant pressure to maintain a B (3.0) or A (4.0) average in order to qualify for scholarships or be competitive applicants for graduate programs. In many cases, the difference even between a B and an A is considered significant and the difference between an “okay” grade and an “excellent” grade.

Lastly, two key takeaways from my interview with Nathan in the article “Studying Abroad: Q&A with a Student in Sweden” that apply to the current conversation are that course grading in Sweden is often based on a holistic evaluation of performance rather than heavy weighted focus on exam performance, and that more opportunities exist to re-take failed exams. According to Nathan, “…grades are calculated from scores on the final exam and holistic evaluation of performance on class work, and I have heard said, ‘You can only get a VG if you earned a VG on the exam and the report.’”

Moreover, in regards to test-taking, Nathan points out, “If you fail the final exam, you are permitted to retake it without retaking the course (sometimes up to five more times).” This form of grading differs dramatically from that in the U.S. where midterm and final exams make up a considerable portion of a student’s final grade, and there are typically not opportunities to re-take failed exams.

Is our college grading system working?

It can be debated whether having such a detailed college grading system as we do in the U.S. is advantageous or flawed. The question is: Is our college grading system working? Here’s a brief look at some of the arguments on both sides.

Having a detailed college grading system can be considered good in the sense that if a student puts in the effort and works to achieve a higher grade, such as an 89% (B or B+), he or she will be distinguished from those who pass the course at a lower grade, such as 70% (C or C-). Achieving this higher grade will translate in a higher GPA (3.0, compared to 2.0), and will allow that student to be recognized for their higher achievement if they choose to apply for scholarships or graduate programs.

On the other hand, it could be argued that having such a detailed grading system that is very heavily weighted on exam performance creates too much pressure on achieving a higher grade and takes focus away from learning and development. Similarly, because teaching and grading styles differ from professor to professor, students who are intent on achieving an A or B in the course may focus intently on “figuring out” how to navigate the professor’s teaching, grading, and testing style and preferences rather than retaining course material.

The final word

It can certainly be problematic to compare the higher education systems of two different countries when there are so many other underlying issues at hand. The point of this article isn’t to argue that the U.S. should specifically adopt Sweden’s college grading system, but more to open up the conversation of whether or not our current system is working by providing context of one example of an alternative grading system (there are many others out there).

Do you think that the U.S. college grading system should be altered? What issues or advantages do you currently see with our current system? Do you have first-hand experience studying in another country that grades differently? We would love to hear your perspective! Post in the comments below.

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The Author

Dave Harriman

Dave Harriman

Dave Harriman, SHRM-CP, has a background in human resources, anthropology, and international education. His experience teaching English abroad during a gap year as an undergraduate student in Spain ignited his passion and advocacy for student travel. As a human resources professional, Dave is interested in helping students prepare for future career growth, and for helping facilitate social & cultural inclusion in the workplace.

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