High School vs. College: Grades and Testing

Family Modules

Module 1 Part 6



Objective: The student will identify the personal implications of key differences between high school and college testing and grading.

This is the final set of high school/college comparisons in Module 1.

Estimated time 30-45 minutes

Materials needed:

No Materials are needed for this lesson.

Classroom curriculum Link:

This section corresponds with Module 1 Lesson 4 of the College Bound classroom resources.

Learn About It

In this video, you will learn the difference between College and High School test-taking with some examples from LSU and their Center for Academic Success. With the right time management and organizational tips, as well as learning how to think critically, college freshmen can avoid feeling overwhelmed during the transition from high school to college.

High School vs. College Part IV

  • In Part IV of the High School vs. College module, we will discuss grades and testing in college. This is the final set of high school/college comparisons in Module 1.
  • In this section, you will need to think about how each contrast between high school and college may apply to your academic experiences.
  • By the end of this section, you should be able to discuss differences between high school and college and identify at least one personal implication of these differences.
  • Ask family members or other acquaintances who have attended college to share their stories about grading and testing. Or, simply talk with family members about the possible implications of this information.


Contrast Implications

Grading Assignments

High School: Homework, quizzes, projects, and extra credit often raise a student’s overall grade when test grades are low because many assignments are averaged into the final grade.

College: Test grades usually carry great weight in the final grade. Homework may be ungraded and extra credit is rarely available. Tests or papers are often the only grades students get in a class.

  • In high school, grades on individual assignments are less important because a large number of other assignments are factored into the final grade. In college, there may be only a few grades, so each individual grade carries a lot more weight.
  • Just because a professor does not collect or grade an assignment does not mean that the student does not need to complete it.
  • The information may appear on a test, or it may be important to understand as background information for later lectures.

Tracking Grades

High School: Teachers inform students when they are doing poorly and often provide opportunities to catch up.

College: Professors expect students to keep up with their own grades.

  • College professors will rarely approach students and say "Hey, I noticed you're doing poorly; here's how you can improve your grade."
  • Professors expect you to know how you are doing in class at any given time and to approach them if you need assistance.

Report Cards

High School: Report cards and progress reports are sent home to inform parents or guardians of a student’s grades.

College: The university will often not inform parents of grades directly. Students must share this information with their parents themselves.

  • Sharing of grades is often a contentious point between college students and their parents.
  • Parents want to be kept in the loop, and those who are paying for college often feel that they have the right to access their student’s grades. You should work out this issue with your parents before you go to college. You need to know their expectations for being informed about your grades, and they need to know your expectations regarding privacy. It is helpful to be on the same page about these issues before going to college.
  • It's best to keep your parents informed throughout the semester. Most students who do poorly in a class say that it's harder to tell their parents about their grades if they wait until the semester ends to drop the bomb.


High School: Teachers will usually try to help students in many ways to keep their grades up.

College: Students with poor grades must seek help from the professor and use other resources. Students can be put on academic probation for poor grades.

  • In high school, the teacher is generally the first (and sometimes the only) resource students seek out if they are having difficulty in a class.
  • In college, students should seek help from many other resources in addition to the professor. Most colleges have tutoring centers, and many departments offer additional resources to help students. The ever-widening range of online resources and tutorials can also be helpful. A class may have a graduate assistant or teacher’s assistant, and classmates are often a valuable resource.
  • In high school, students continue in school regardless of how poor their grades are. College students who do not maintain a certain grade point average are placed on academic probation or suspension. Keeping above the minimum GPA is essential to continuing to attend school.

Grading Requirements

High School: Students can graduate as long as they have passed all required courses with a grade of D or higher.

College: Students can graduate only if their grade point average meets the departmental standard (usually a 2.0 GPA, which is a C or higher).

  • Since the grade standards are lower to graduate from high school than to graduate from college, simply passing courses is usually not enough. For courses in your major, many schools require a grade of C to fulfill graduation requirements.


Contrast Implications

Test Frequency

High School: Tests are usually frequent and cover small amounts of material.

College: Tests are generally infrequent and cover large amounts of material. A course might have only 2 or 3 tests in a semester.

  • Having less frequent tests that cover more material can be particularly challenging for students with disabilities. To improve their performance, students need to use the “distributed practice” approach to studying mentioned earlier. Cramming for tests that cover lots of information is ineffective.
  • Tests may also be cumulative, meaning that students are asked about material from the entire semester (even if it has already been addressed on an earlier test).
  • Distributed practice can also improve performance on cumulative tests because students are more likely to retain information longer. Students should also review information from the entire semester for every test in addition to learning new material.


High School: Teachers tell students when a test is coming up and remind them frequently.

College: Professors put test dates on the syllabus and may never mention them again until the day of the test.

  • This point arose in an earlier discussion about the differences between high school and college instructors. As a reminder: the syllabus is a student’s contract with the professor, and the excuse “I didn’t know that we had a test” is not going to fly.


High School: Teachers almost always tell students what they need to study for each test and often conduct review sessions to point out the most important material.

College: Professors may or may not give students a study guide and will probably not tell them exactly what to study.

  • In college, it is usually up to the student to determine which information is important enough to appear on the test. Professors generally do not announce which material will be on the test. So, pay attention to the professor’s cues in lecture about what information is important; that'll help you to know what to study. Students who do not pay attention to these cues or who are overly selective when studying might walk away from a test saying, “I studied all the wrong things.”
  • Daily, distributed studying/practice helps you to study more content because you are not trying to cram all the information in a short time.
  • In high school review sessions, teachers often tell students what questions to expect and how to answer them. In college, review sessions usually consist of the professor answering students' questions and clarifying information that students indicate they do not understand.
  • If a professor offers a review opportunity, students are expected to come prepared with questions.

Make-up Tests

High School: Make-up tests are often available.

College: Make-up tests are not usually given. Even when they are available, students should request it in advance.

  • Make-up test policies vary by professor in college. Some will not allow any make-ups, others will allow them only in certain cases (e.g., illness with doctor’s note or death in the family), and still others may have a more relaxed makeup policy. However, one consistency is that if you miss a test, you must request the make-up test. Professors will not automatically assume that you want to take one.

Low Test Grade

High School: A low grade on the first test may not have a significant impact on the student’s final grade.

College: A low grade on the first test may substantially impact a student’s final grade.

  • Because there are so few grades in each college class, the first test is often crucial. Earning a low grade on the first test can make it very difficult to raise your final grade in the class, so it is important to take the first test very seriously and to over-prepare for it.
  • If you earn a low grade on the first test, however, all hope may not be lost. Use it as an opportunity to learn how to study more effectively for future tests, and then follow through with additional and/or different study routines for the next test.

Apply What You Know

High School: Students are often expected to reproduce what they were taught in the same way it was presented to them.

College: Students are often expected to apply what they have learned to new situations or to solve new kinds of problems when taking a test.

  • When taking a test in high school, students must usually solve the same kinds of problems they were shown how to solve. This is a fundamental difference between the expectations of high school and college, and it's a difficult adjustment for many first-year students.
  • In college, students are expected to apply what they have learned instead of just repeating what they’ve been told. So an English professor might ask a student to interpret a poem they have never read before on a test, or a math teacher might assign a problem that requires the student to integrate two formulas they have learned, or to apply a formula's principles differently to get the correct answer.
  • Some first-year students walk out of tests saying “I don’t know why that was on the test. We didn’t learn that in class.” These students don’t realize that although they didn’t learn that exact thing, they learned the tools to be able to solve the problem or answer the question.

Parents Chime In

Discuss with your student several ways that their involvement and attention in the college classroom might affect their success. A few implications that you may want to mention are:

  • The value of completing all homework assignments and activities–even the ungraded ones. These activities are designed to contribute necessary knowledge and build proficiency for cumulative tests. Students should complete them even if they aren't graded or checked in class.
  • The importance of attending all classes, if possible, since attendance often influences grades.
  • The necessity of establishing and following a consistent study schedule that attempts to touch on each class, each day.
  • The helpfulness of using the university’s Disability Support Services early each semester. Students can add supports later in the semester if needed, but it's best to begin using available supports early (even if those same supports were not used in high school), then eliminate what is not needed.

Objective Check

Have you accomplished today's objective?

Objective: The student will identify the personal implications of key differences between high school and college testing and grading.

If so, congratulations!

If not, review the High School vs. College grades and testing examples again and discuss them with your parents.

Digging Deeper

Read more and explore the differences between high school and college tests and exams.

Learn more about some things to expect that are different for high school students with learning differences entering the college setting.

Read more about how college freshmen view the differences between high school and college by visiting this link.