Report cards: Judgments or Treasure Maps?

This weekend, I met with one of my students who had just received her report card, and was obviously unhappy with her grades. 

The moment we started reviewing her teachers’ comments, she launched into a list of justifications…how her low grade in science was just because of one assignment she forgot to turn in…and how her math teacher teacher is a really hard grader, so no one does well on his tests anyway….

Clearly, she was far more focused on finding ways to explain her low grades than she was on identifying steps she could take to improve them.

So, I told her that I was going to let her in on a secret.

There are two different ways to think about grades.

Grades_are_not_judgementA lot of students see grades as judgments of their intelligence, or a measurement of how “good” they are as a student.

From this perspective, getting a “bad grade” can be very upsetting.

So, it’s not surprising that students who’ve received low grades on assignments or report cards often try to avoid looking at or thinking about them, and respond to questions about their grades with excuses & rationalizations for why they are “no big deal.” After all, if grades are an indication of how intelligent you are, then the only way to preserve your self-esteem in the face of a “bad grade” is to either ignore it or come up with some reason why it isn’t really accurate.

Another downside of seeing grades this way is that students can end up putting in less effort in the future because they conclude that they’re “just not good at this”…so why try so hard?  It’s not going to make a difference anyway.”

The good news is, it doesn’t have to be that way!

What if, instead of judgments, you saw grades as a treasure map? 

As a document filled with hidden clues about ways you can improve and grow?

As a valuable source of feedback about how well your routines & habits have been working for you, and how you can make them even more effective in the future?

When I shared this perspective with my student and asked which approach she liked better, there was a visible shift in her energy.  “Definitely the second one!” she exclaimed, smiling.   With this new perspective, she was able to look at her report card without feeling defensive, and identify several steps she could take to start improving her performance in each of her classes.  

When students look at grades as a treasure map…

It’s easier to accept & learn from them

Seeing grades as a set of clues about how to develop more effective study systems, rather than an evaluation of their intelligence or self-worth, can help students take grades less personally.  When bad grades feel less personal, it’s easier for students to accept their teachers’ comments and come up with ways to address them, rather than brushing them off or making excuses.

It’s less stressful

Most students’ would describe their reaction to receiving report cards with words like “nervousness”, “worry”, “stress”, or “fear”.  Thinking of report cards as a treasure map can help reduce students’ anxiety about their grades.

It’s more fun!

Instead of feeling stressed about grades, seeing them as treasure maps they can follow to develop better study systems can shift students into a state of curiosity about what clues they will discover, and make the experience of reviewing report cards into a more fun & rewarding experience.

It encourages action

If report cards are a treasure map, then it’s only natural for students to use the clues they discover to create a plan for how to reach the treasure!  This perspective can help inspire and encourage students to create a written plan of changes they can make to their study routine, based on the lessons learned from their report card.

Which approach would YOU rather take?  Seeing grades as personal judgments, or as a treasure map? 

How you can help:

As a parent, you can have a powerful influence on the way the way your teen interprets his or her grades.

If your response to your teen’s report card is to immediately zero in on the lowest grade and demand an explanation, or punish your teen for getting “bad grades”, this can encourage them to avoid & make excuses for their grades rather than learning from them.

In contrast, approaching your teen’s grades with curiosity and openness rather than judgment and blame can encourage them to do the same.  For example, you could try…

  • Setting aside a time to discuss your teen’s report card when you both can focus on the discussion. Consider doing something special to make the occasion more fun, like discussing grades over a bowl of ice cream or going out to see a movie afterward.
  • Taking a more balanced approach; rather than focusing on the lowest grades, spend equal amounts of time discussing the good & bad grades. Identifying what students are doing well in classes where they excel can often be a valuable source of clues about to approach other classes more effectively.
  • Using the ‘treasure map’ metaphor to help them reframe the report card as a learning opportunity. Encourage them to brainstorm clues they can discover from their report card that might help them develop more effective study systems in the future.

It may also be helpful to remember that grades – especially on report cards – are a reflection of the work & effort a student has put in over time. So, rather than rewarding or punishing students for their grades at the end of the semester, it can be more effective to incentivize and reward the day-to-day efforts that make those grades possible.

Beyond report cards…

This attitude about approaching evaluations with curiosity rather than defensiveness, and treating them as a valuable learning opportunity, rather than a judgment of your self-worth, is something that’s applicable to far more than students’ report cards.  It can apply to any form of feedback — whether that’s from your teachers & coaches, your parents, or even your friends.

It’s also a skill that continues to be relevant long after we stop being students.  Even after graduation, we all get feedback about how we’re doing at some point — from our supervisors, clients…even our spouses!  

What do you think?  How might the progress report = treasure map analogy affect your feelings about the feedback you receive in your own life?

Comments?  Feedback?

I’d love to hear your feedback about this idea!

What do you think about the ‘grades as a treasure map’ analogy? 

Leave your feedback below & let me know!  I promise to look for the ‘hidden treasure’ in your comments 🙂


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By |October 30th, 2014|Categories: Mindset, Study skills|0 Comments

About the Author:

Dr. Maggie Wray is an Atlanta-based academic coach who helps high school & college students achieve their academic potential by improving their organization, time management, study skills, and mindset about school. To set up a time to speak with Maggie about how to help YOUR teen develop the skills he or she needs to thrive academically, visit or email

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