Exams and schools seem to be fully interlinked, and HBS is no exception to that. At the end of each semester, students are to complete a set of tests to determine their grades. Most exams are based on a HBS case study for which students receive 4 to 5 hours to read, analyse and write an answer to the case. Some professors at HBS do not organize exams but require students to write a paper related to the class topic. Exams or papers alike, the students’ performance on these tests along with the quality of their class participation during the semester will determine their final grades.
The grading system at HBS ranks students on a forced scale with grades from 1 to 4. Accumulate a lot of 1s (given to the top 15-25% of all students in a class) to become a Baker Scholar. Stay safe by collecting a lot of 2s (65-75% of students per class). And then, there is the lower 10% of students that receive a 3 or a 4 for a class. Just having one 3 grade in a class is not problematic – accumulating them over different classes can lead to trouble… or so it is believed. HBS is eager to distribute statistics on the GMAT scores and the income distribution of its students, but no information is available on the number of drop-outs or failing students. The real questions here are the following: will a school such as HBS really fail a student who paid over 120.000 USD to enroll? And do students perceive any value associated to their grades received at HBS?
While the top 5% of students at HBS can call themselves Baker Scholars at graduation, all other students are melted together into one big ‘Harvard MBA grad’ pot. Moreover, HBS has a strict non-disclosure policy on its grades, with recruiting companies not being able to retrieve a student’s grades. As such, it seems that contrary to grades received in college, grades at HBS do not matter. They are nothing more than a tool used by the academic body at HBS to keep students motivated (to become a Baker Scholar) or scared (to be the one having to deal with whatever process is put in place when receiving a lot of grade 3s). I believe that having a grading system in place is inherent to human nature – we need some kind of reward or feedback to function. However, I do not believe that exams and papers are the right way to test students’ skills in this kind of non-fail environment.
Sure, students need some kind of sense of accomplishment – currently given through grades – to be/stay motivated. Getting these grades through class participation is a good thing. However, I would advise against having grad students at HBS doing exams. Have them create something instead. Have students sell, import, produce something. Have them trade stocks (or simulate in doing so). Have them consult companies and optimize production flows. And rate them on how well they are doing… or on the potential of their ideas. Don’t waste their time picking their brain writing exams. Have them use that brain of theirs on practical things… and motivate them to do so.
Some courses at HBS already have creative ways in place today to test students. A class on valuing businesses requires students to choose a stock to buy or sell and to document their findings. At the last day of class, students had to pitch their stock to their peers, with these other students rating the content and the presentation of the pitch. A course on investment strategies challenges students in getting the best returns in a simulated financial environment. A negotiations class makes students compete for a free dinner with the professor by having them score points in the weekly negotiations sessions in class.
A business education should not be about being excellent in exams or being good at writing papers – it should be about doing business. HBS understands that and thus does not add a lot of value to grades. Moreover, the FIELD program at HBS, with students working on consultancy projects in emerging markets and starting their own companies (read more about the HBS FIELD program HERE), is a step into the good direction. But now HBS should take it all the way – time to abolish the exams.