Wednesday, January 14, 2009

In Praise of B Students

Supervising undergraduates in research is of course different in many ways from supervising graduate students -- e.g., expectations, scope of project, amount and type of interaction between student and advisor -- but there are also some similarities.

For example, selecting undergraduates as research assistants or advisees based on their grades in classes does not automatically lead to a fulfilling research experience for all concerned. This is a hazard of the admissions process for graduate school, but it also afflicts the selection of students for undergraduate research experiences, even when we have taught these students in our very own classes.

This is (mostly) not a rant about supposedly smart students who can't or won't do research, or who can do research but are such incredibly high maintenance that the research experience becomes a serious burden for everyone within a 5 kilometer radius of their research project. This is instead a prose poem of praise for the hard-working B students who excel at research and with whom it can be very enjoyable to work.

Some of my undergraduate research assistants are chosen after a competitive application process. Summer interns, for example, are from a highly-selective pool comprised of the top students from the top universities in the country. In this case, "top student" is typically defined as the students with the highest GPA. Most of these students are in fact excellent interns, but some of them are mediocre and some of them are abysmal.

It is fascinating in a semi-disturbing kind of way that the same situation applies for selecting students from my own institution. These are students I have met in person before I hire them as undergraduate research assistants or sign on as their advisor for a thesis or research project. In some cases these are the students who got top grades in rigorous courses taught by me and others, yet some of them, however bright, are not so smart when it comes to research.

When choosing undergrad research students from my own university, I don't always select the A students. Don't worry -- the hard-working and talented A students are not going without research experiences. In fact, every student who wants such an experience can find an advisor. But sometimes I select a B student who seems to be motivated and smart, but who just doesn't do as well in some classes as some other students.

In my experience, the success or failure of these B students at undergraduate research projects is indistinguishable from that of A students -- I have had experiences ranging from outstanding to ghastly with both -- but there are some mutual benefits to working with B students.

For the student, a successful research experience as an undergraduate may in some cases offset a modest GPA in graduate admissions efforts.

For the advisor, the B student might be easier to work with in some ways. An unscientific hypothesis some of my colleagues and I have recently discussed is that many B students might have the advantage of being less high-maintenance than some A students because they tend not to be so anxious. I think we are perhaps not the first to propose this; for example, see the cartoon in the 9 January 2009 Chronicle Review by V Hixson. In the cartoon, one professor says to another "Actually, I like the B+ students best.. bright, but still humble."

And many B students do just as well as A students in research. Reasons for this include:

Doing well in a classes, even really difficult ones, does not mean that someone has the skills necessary to do research.

Of course we don't expect that students, however stratospheric their GPA, will automatically know how to do research -- as advisors we try to teach this -- but some students learn and thrive as a project evolves, and others do not, no matter how 'smart' they are. The same is true of graduate students.

Random example: An apparently top student with A's in difficult courses worked with me on a straightforward bit of research, but it quickly became clear that he had no ability to make connections between different observations or thoughts, could not visualize phenomena, and only understood basic concepts if they were repeated to him many times. He had a great attitude about the work and eked out some results (with lots of help), but he never really understood what he was doing and never went beyond a 'problem set' kind of approach to the research.

Doing research as a student typically means you have to be willing to interact with at least one other person (the advisor) and possibly others as well (other students, other faculty, postdocs, technicians). Some people can do this well and some people can't, even with experience, no matter how high their GPA.

Random example: One of my A-student interns needed to learn and use a not-complicated technique. Others in the group were experienced with this technique, and several of us were available to answer her questions. After a day or so, A-student came to me, clearly upset, and said "I had some questions and X (an undergrad) and Y (a grad student) helped me a lot, but it is obvious that they care more about their own research than they do about mine." I replied "Well, I should hope so", a comment that shocked her. Her voice quavered as she said "But what about me?".

Heroically resisting saying something sarcastic and/or insensitive, I gave her a gentle mini-lecture about being a part of a community of researchers driven by individual curiosity and working together but also independently etc. etc. She was not happy to learn that the major focus of all our efforts and interests was not her. Alas, this realization did not change her world view, but we somehow got through the rest of the summer and she returned in the fall to her home institution and the professors who wrote her rave letters of recommendation and later admitted to me that they didn't like working with her either.

It would save a lot of time, money, stress, and grief if we could predict in advance which students would do well in a research experience, but in the absence of a reliable method of prediction, we'll just have to continue with the classic trial-and-error approach. Most of the time this works out well, especially if the students are mostly sane.

44 comments:

missj said...

That makes a lots of sense to me. I'm not sure I pass the less anxious test (o: but I've just been granted a grade of 87 (high distinction - top grade in Aust) for my undergrad honours thesis but my grade average was around 66 when I started honours.
I'm now working as a researcher at what my peers consider to be a very selective research institute.

Failing some tricky maths exams (a few times) does not make me a top environmental engineer, but doesn't affect my ability as a researcher in environmental areas without hard core maths (or even to use said tricky maths under non-exam conditions).

Anonymous said...

This post caused me to reflect on my own experience as an undergraduate researcher. You are definitely right - being an A student did not make me "a natural" in the lab. General knowledge is one thing, thinking critically about scientific problems involves a different skill (and mind)-set. This was something I had not learned in my coursework. Luckily, I picked it up over time!

David Moles said...

Do you think this might mean that something ought to change in the undergraduate asssessment process? The top student who couldn't get beyond problem sets is particularly scary, though the entitled intern is maybe more obnoxious.

Jacopo said...

Being a "hard-working B students who excel at research and with whom it can be very enjoyable to work" (ok, probably here I'm praising myself a little too much) I'd like to thank you for this post. It's refreshing to know that somewhere there is someone who think good of us :-)

Rachella said...

I love this post. I only work with undergrads, mostly Freshmen, so my experience is a little bit different but I have noticed that many students who get As are not nessessarily the smartest students in my classes, the most creative, or even the best writers. They're just skilled at fullfilling the criteria to earn an A. Also....there's the ongoing battle of grade inflation.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

It would save a lot of time, money, stress, and grief if we could predict in advance which students would do well in a research experience, but in the absence of a reliable method of prediction, we'll just have to continue with the classic trial-and-error approach.

My experience is that SATs and GREs are much more predictive of success at science than grades.

Anonymous said...

The difference between A students and C students is that C students will help out A students, but A students only help out themselves.

x-ine said...

Wow, FSP, thank you for this!
At my university, grades were the only thing that counted, so being the B student, I was never able to get any sort of lab job during my undergrad. I got the marks I did because the material was really hard and I was in a major that required lots of blind memorization and little understanding.

All that to say I had to take an extra year of undergrad classes after finishing my major (in a new field which I love) to get into grad school, and I really appreciate that you're sticking up for the less-than-perfect students! :)

Eugenie said...

Have you ever taken a chance to offer internship to B students, or do you default to taking the kids with the better grades?

I'm a B+/A- student and I've made the mistake of jamming to many difficult courses into my schedule at once and my took some GPA hits. My friends take the high road* and scoot by with their A's and it drives me nuts when they get scholarships/internships/etc.



*You know, study all the time, don't socialize much, don't participate in academic clubs/volunteer programs/ research.

Anonymous said...

"An apparently top student with A's in difficult courses worked with me on a straightforward bit of research, but it quickly became clear that he had no ability to make connections between different observations or thoughts, could not visualize phenomena, and only understood basic concepts if they were repeated to him many times."

It seems to me that there's something flawed with a "difficult" course if a student who can't make connections between topics receives an A.

Prof-like Substance said...

I completely agree, but probably because I was that B student who excelled at research.
I have also found that many of the A++++ students have designs on med-school and get into research only to provide fodder for their applications. Beyond the problems of research not being "book learning", those students may not be as motivated to understand the questions at hand.

Not Just Academic said...

FSP speaks true - good grades do not predict a good researcher, but there are ways around it.

I teach an undergrad class where the assignment is to write a research proposal that addresses an unexplored research question in the subject field. It essentially amounts to making the case for support for a single experiment but the topic is wide open. Since doing well in this assignment involves all the synthesis of ideas, originality, analytical skills, big-picture view, etc. that are important in real-life research, students who do well in this assignment are generally those that I would be happy to have as a research assistant.

Students who get top marks in the assignment (assuming 1st class hons in the UK equates to A-grade in the US, for the purposes of this discussion) are not always those who get top marks in exams or other assignments, so I seem to be tapping into something different. Now, if only I could persuade some of these students to start a PhD...

Ψ*Ψ said...

For the student, a successful research experience as an undergraduate may in some cases offset a modest GPA in graduate admissions efforts.

Thanks for giving me hope! My grades suck, but I live for my research. :)

Sarah said...

I agree with Prof-like Substance. My postdoctoral advisor had the crazy idea that he would only take undergraduate researchers who had 4.0 GPAs. While this included a very few good students who wanted to pursue a career in research, the majority of undergraduates who fulfilled this criteria were "premed" students. Therefore, their main interest was just to have research "experience" with which to pad their med school applications. Their lack of actual interest in the projects, plus trying to accomodate their myriad of extra-curricular activities (also done to pad their apps) meant that they spent very little time in the lab.

After several very frustrating mentoring experiences, the graduate students and postdocs in the lab finally told him that he needed to drop his 4.0 GPA requirement. Turned out that only about 10% of lab members had achieved a 4.0 GPA in undergrad. Yet we were the ones with bright futures in research.

Anonymous said...

Had a student who got straight As through rote memorization of written material, but in the lab who couldn't follow verbal instructions whatsoever, and complained about a course (he failed) that was non-traditionally taught that forced the students to "think" (gasp). Would much prefer the B student who works well with others and has some learning capacity for practical things, and curiosity beyond grades.

LMH said...

Thank you for this. I am glad I am not the only one who feels this way - I have seen it in action. My advisor is also easily wooed by grades - and boy have we had some spectacularly bad graduate students because of it.

daisy mae said...

this is something that i've struggled with in a different manner. i think that the underlying issue is how undergraduate students, and the "college experience" as a whole has manifested itself.

as an undergrad, i was first admitted to a very prestigious ivy-league school, but dropped out after my second year due to a variety of reasons. in general, there were no options regarding working in a lab at my level.

however, when i finally went back to finish my degree, i chose a small liberal arts school. all of my courses in the sciences were lab-based. and more importantly, we were encouraged to figure things out "on our own" or in small groups. rather than traditional exams we submitted research portfolios and lab reports... in fact, lectures were treated as supplemental to what went on in the lab.

it inspired in me a love of research - the idea of being able to go to work every day and work out problems was enthralling. but by virtue of going to a no-name college (even with a solid 3.9 GPA) meant no big name grad school.

our educational system/society seems to encourage the (what i would call) faulty system where grades in coursework are encouraged over actual skills and talent.

Alex said...

I find that the students in our Honors program often have the best features of the A students and the hard-working B students: All the content mastery and quick uptake you'd hope for from an A student, all the work ethic and drive and curiosity that you'd hope for from the person who works for the B. I don't know if it's the type of students they accept or the nature of the program and the special discussion-based classes that they take, but it works.

I am surprised to hear that GRE and SAT are good predictors of research success. I've heard that they are good predictors of GPA in first year courses, but I also understand that the tests have certain problematic aspects. I believe a recent study found that the GRE is a decent predictor of completion in grad school, but it's not clear that it isn't just a self-fulfilling prophecy: The student admitted with good credentials on paper is more likely to get fellowships rather than TA positions and first shot at picking a research advisor, and these factors will help with grad school success.

Arlenna said...

Yup, another B student here who always did well in research, even starting in high school. I've seen many A students flail at trying to do something that requires more than just a perfect memory, such as actual problem solving skills. That's probably more a reflection of the typical way things are taught and assessed than either the A or the B students themselves, though.

Mrs. Comet Hunter said...

I want to thank you for this post! As a solid B student in my undergrad I was told I would have a very hard time getting into graduate school. However, I found an advisor that gladly took me under her wing, as she understood that high grades didn't necessarily equal A-class research.

I find when I talk to PhD candidates I work with now that I consider very good researchers, most of them say they did not have great marks in undergrad. The problem in undergrad classes is, if you're not a good test-taker, you won't do well. It's unfortunate that students aren't "tested" on their lab/research skills (critical thinking, both collaborative and independent work, etc.).

Anonymous said...

Perfect students can't deal with failure. Science is full of little failures, with occasional great successes. People who can't deal with failure are unlikely to succeed at science.

Anonymous said...

Ummmm. . . Can I say "word." This is so true. I've worked with undergrads who got the highest grade in a 300 person O-chem course who can't do research to save their lives and I've worked with stellar B-level undergrads who tear sh*t up in the lab. Book smarts coupled with good memorization and test taking skills is not really a good thing if you want someone who can 'think' about what they are doing in the lab.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I found the same. I actually much prefer B students as undergraduate researchers. My motivation is mainly personality. Since undergraduate projects are not probably the projects that will bring the next Science paper (with maybe some exceptions), a B student that is hard working, smart (it's not that easy to get a B either) and doesn't have an arrogant attitude is more than good enough. And by doing research they can evolve, learn and better themselves even more. Some of them have great potential of success.

tig said...

I personally prefer B students. I myself was one, afterall!

usagibrian said...

The corollary in the performing arts is do you want to cast A) the excellent but high maintenance "star" performer or B) the good worker who's always prepared at rehearsal and willing to pitch in on what needs to be done? Just about everyone learns "B" is the correct choice in virtually all cases after one experience with "A" (the exception being a show that one person has to carry).

Anonymous said...

I was a B-B+ student UNTIL i took a semester of research abroad. I got back, and was a straight A student for the rest of my course. It really helped me focus on what's important, and somehow my newfound enthusiasm carried over to the driest, less relevant subjects too. Then I went on for PhD, postdoc, tenure-track....

Anonymous said...

I come from a University abroad with a 0/10 grading system. My GPA was 9.85, which put me probably among the best 1%.
When I approached a professor to join his lab as an undergraduate, I was devastated to find out that he thought my GPA was too good! He basically told me that great grades usually meant no so great research skills, and suggested that I slowed down and started getting a few 9s and 8s. He reluctantly took me anyway, which ended up working great to the point that we now (15 years after) laugh about it. I stayed in his lab for my Ph.D. (very common in my home country), and he still says I was his best graduate student... even with my off-chart grades!

a FSP

lost academic said...

I am really relieved and happy to read this. As a non-A student, some research opportunities were not available to me, but those outside my undergraduate institution (specifically at another college with a whole department for my field) were available and enormously useful. The people who at some point learned my GPA, usually by asking, frequently told me I must be lying, it was so low at one point.

Eugenie said...

Wow, my grammar was terrible in my previous comment. (How embarrassing...oops)

Reading the comments with addition to FSP's post makes me feel a little better to know I'm not completely alone in this academic boat.

When I started research my advisor never asked me what my grades/gpa were. He just wanted to know what classes I'd taken and what project I wanted to work on. I realize now that I was lucky to snag a spot in a lab with a great advisor (and great funding). I hope having such a positive experience doesn't totally bite me in the butt when (if) I'm in grad school....


@Daisy mae- your description of the liberal arts college oddly sounds like my current college.

PonderingFool said...

What is interesting among undergrads at SnobU in upper division courses that I taught in, we got a bimodal distribution. A group got As while the other group got Cs. Grad students in the course got As and Bs. Breaking it down by questions asked, undergraduates from both grade groups tended to do well on the do you know X type questions. Grad students on the other hand tended to do better on thinking/synthesizing type questions. A students did both well regardless of group. The A undergraduates were the one's who did research. Talking with them I found that they in previous classes were a mix of A & B students. The C group were a mix of B & C students.

Phagenista said...

My undergrad research advisor almost withdrew his offer of a job when he found out I was a straight A student. He was a C student, and much preferred students who were smart and creative... sometimes too creative to survive/excel in the regimented school environment.

frigidtoaster said...

I think it's also important to remember that some people choose to be B+ students. I know that I am fully capable of achieving an A average, but I don't think it's worth the extra stress. I work to understand the concepts so I can apply them, but I rarely spend the extra time to memorize everything, just in case it might come up on an exam. And I'm sure I'm not the only one. Part of growing up and being an adult and living on your own is learning what you're capable of and what you think is reasonable to expect of yourself. That requires being intelligent about life, something I think contributes to research ability a lot more than being smart in school.

I am much happier as a B+ student, because I have more time for a balanced lifestyle, and for my undergrad research. I am positive that the work I'm doing outside of classes will make up for that small disparity in grades if I choose to continue in grad school.

Brian said...

FPS said "Of course we don't expect that students, however stratospheric their GPA, will automatically know how to do research -- as advisors we try to teach this"

I'd really question you on this. In my experience as graduate and undergraduate student, I found that most (though not all) of my research advisors expected you to either: a) already know how to do something or b) figure it out on your own. I fully support the idea of independent learning, especially if you are doing research, but I don't think either a or b could count as teaching.

If you don't mind answering the question, I'm interested in finding out what methods you use to teach research to those new to the experience.

Quill2006 said...

FSP, thank you and all the other professors like you for believing in B students! I've always been happy with my grades even though they weren't at the top, because I knew that if I wanted to get straight A's I'd have to cut everything else out of my life, like my beloved extracurriculars and interesting part-time job. Several of my professors chided me for not getting the best grades in my department, because they knew I was interested and could have done the work, but they also believed in me enough to encourage me to take on research projects and high-level courses I wouldn't have appeared to qualify for based on my grades. The more work I do at these higher levels the better my grades and other measurements of accomplishment get, because I'm more interested in the subject of my work.

Many B students aren't able to memorize enough facts to reach an A level in lecture/test based courses, but are energized by tasks that require thought, discussion, and consideration of larger themes. And not doing perfectly in a few courses over the course of 4 or more years should never be the end of the world, although unfortunately it often makes the difference between who receives scholarships and awards and who doesn't.

Anonymous said...

I think another issue is that there are a lot of B students who are A students when they are interested in the material. A lot of them benefit more from the hands-on experience and then perform better in class because they understand its importance.

Anonymous said...

This is such an interesting post. As a "straight A" student myself, I struggled with several issues when it came to my Ph.D. research. One issue was that getting an "A" in a class generally involved doing exactly what the professor wanted. When I started grad school, I thought that was how my advisor wanted me to behave in my research as well. He was a big micromanager, so I continued thinking that way for awhile and getting nowhere in my research.
A second issue I had was with both failure of experiments and lack of positive feedback from my advisor. As an "A" student, I had only experienced positive results and positive feedback from professors. I felt like such a failure that I came very close to quitting altogether.
A final issue (related to the first issue) had to do with getting excited about topics enough to pursue them independently. Again, to earn those A's in classes, I always had to quell my excitement about specific topics so that I had time to complete my assignments and study material that would be on the exam.
I'm excited to say once I moved past those issues, I found so much more joy in research than I did in my classes. I can't imagine giving up the freedom I now have to pursue topics that excite me. And once I discovered that my research progressed much better when I made decisions independently of my advisor, I also discovered that made my advisor a lot happier, as well.
Maybe there is hope for "A" students, afterall. :)

Anonymous said...

phagenista: That sort of thing frustrates me to death. It's even worse than those who think that people who worked their way up from a C to an A must be better than someone who got As all along because the C-to-A person showed improvement. It's not a bad thing to have done well all along. Some people just happen to be very good at academics; they shouldn't be penalized for that.

Some A-students *do* have the work ethic and critical thinking skills to do well in research. In my experience, *many* A-students have that combination. (I may be biased by the fact that I teach a course that requires and tests for thinking and analysis rather than rote memorization.)

That said, I agree that many B-students are just as capable of good research as the A-students. Frankly, some C+ students do great research too. I just don't agree that a B-student will automatically be better than an A-student.

Anonymous said...

I am a B student. Thank you for your encouragement.

Cath said...

Hi,

I am an undergraduate student currently. Ordinarily I have A's throughout every semester, yet recently have had some difficulty in seeing eye to eye with, to use the terminology from your essay, "Teacher X" (love that by the way). I worked remarkably hard throughout the course, did all of the necessary work and more, yet my final grade was dependent essentially upon this particular professors point of view on a piece of work I did. After it being graded I was subsequently given a B for the course.

The point of this comment is not to rant about this professor yet to thank you for the humility and encouragement you bring to an exceedingly "A" based academic world in which anything lower does not categorize you amongst the "Top Students" of your school. This label I always found to be aggravating in itself, seeing that I have found a number of students to do half the necessary work, with very little care yet still pass with an A, making them a "higher" student than the B students who learn a little differently. I also enjoyed the the cartoon about working with "bright" and "humble" B+ students!

Your article was articulate, humanizing, inspiring and incredibly smart. You have my utmost gratitude for writing it and I am pleased to have read it!

C

Rick Lomar said...

thank you :)

Anonymous said...

I don't know if we can yet predict how well-suited a student will be for a research position, but I think it would be interesting to study success stories. I think one way to do this may be to take a look at a student's grades before and after a research experience. My guess is that our favorite (mine, too) 'B' students' grades will improve slightly, but significantly.

Anonymous said...

i think the variance matters! i would rather have someone getting straight A's than someone getting straight B's, since they're probably both working to maximize their grades. The student with a few A's and a few C's, however, probably doesn't care about their GPA, and got those A's due to a true interest in and deep learning of the subject. This suggests they are much more capable than their GPA suggests.

Anonymous said...

I don't know what to do with myself. I am graduating from college next semester and my cumulative GPA is only 2.5. My GPA was below a 2.0 during my freshman and sophomore years. However, I had a 3.8 during my senior year. Unfortunately, there is nothing I can do now to change the past. I wish that I could go back in time and study harder my first two years of college. I have a strong interest in human and primate evolution, population genetics, osteology, forensic anthropology, Viking archaeology, and Mesoamerican archaeology. I live in New York City. I would like to work for a museum, an archaeological research center, a historical society, a national park, or a primate conservation center. I think that I ruined my future and I will never be able to get an entry-level position or get into a Masters program. Most employers ask for transcripts and no one will hire someone who graduated with a 2.5. Do you think that my life is over because of bad grades in the past? I am suicidally depressed and I feel like jumping off a bridge.

Brian Carpenter said...

Dear Anon Xmas poster,

I am not the author of this blog, only someone who commented a while back and subscribed to the post. Your post came up and it has me worried. After thinking about it for a few days, I only have the following advice to offer.

First and most important, please talk to someone about how you are feeling. You have to take care of your self because without doing that the rest of your future is hard to figure out. You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. Please take the time to talk to someone.

Secondly, your future is not ruined. While I agree that your GPA is lower than you would like, many potential programs/employers focus on the work you did in your major. Typically, on resumes, I listed my major GPA separate from my overall GPA. Additionally, GPA is not all the helps an applicant stand out. Unique project work, internships or research experiences can help as well. And if you don't have those, start looking at getting them now. Academic work doesn't typically start right after graduation, so keep looking around and applying for positions. This might require moving, but if the work is there and it is work you are passionate about, you will need to consider it as a possibility. I hope you keep trying though and I wish you the best of luck in the coming new year.

Don't give up!