Course grades play a significant role in students’ professional development as engineers, yet little work has been conducted that examines the interplay between students’ course grades and professional identity formation in undergraduate engineering programs. In this paper, we qualitatively analyzed the interviews of eight undergraduate mechanical engineering students to address the following research questions: 1) How do undergraduate students’ interpretations of course performance influence the formation of their professional identities? and 2) How do undergraduate students’ interpretations of course performance change based on program experience (i.e., academic level)? Our findings revealed two themes associated with the ways students interpret and negotiate grades to make meaning of themselves as engineers: (1) prioritizing engineering-related experiences and relationships as indicators of engineering identity, and (2) articulating the difference between being a student versus becoming an engineer. Overall, we observed the higher a student’s academic level, the less emphasis they placed on performance feedback in the form of grades. These findings provide insight into the ways students interpret and negotiate grades as they form professional identities, and they bring into question the role of grades in engineering education.
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