Thursday, February 19, 2009


An article ("Student Expectations Seen as Causing Grade Disputes") in the NY Times describes how many students today think they should get a good (= A/B) grade if they just show up for a class and do the required reading or other assignments.

The article doesn't present the issue in a very coherent way, but a few items in the article will probably resonate with many professors, especially those who teach large classes at big universities.


Some [students] assert that they have never gotten a grade as low as this before.

I have many students tell me "But I'm an A student" (when they get a B or lower), as if they've signed up for the A Plan and I am too clueless to understand that essential point.

.. a third of students surveyed said that they expected B’s just for attending lectures, and 40 percent said they deserved a B for completing the required reading.

Some students in my intro science class think they should get an A because it is an intro course. I am quite happy if many students get a grade of A, but a student has to demonstrate some comprehension of the material to get an A.

Students often confuse the level of effort with the quality of work. There is a mentality in students that ‘if I work hard, I deserve a high grade.’ “

I have an inbox filled with student email saying "I studied really hard for the quiz.." (so why didn't I get an A?).

This post might sound cynical, but I must not be completely cynical because this surprised me:

Nearly two-thirds of the students surveyed said that if they explained to a professor that they were trying hard, that should be taken into account in their grade.

That certainly explains a lot though.

I think putting in a lot of effort should merit a high grade,” [a student] said. “What else is there really than the effort that you put in?

What else is there indeed? One would hope that with effort would come understanding of essential concepts, but I know it isn't as easy as that for some students.

"If your maximum effort can only be average in a teacher’s mind, then something is wrong."

That's a tricky statement. What is maximum effort anyway? Is it measured in units of time?

Something that bothered me about the article is that it was written as if students and instructors only interact via grades and complaints. If one of my students feels that their effort is not translating into success with quizzes or whatever, they can talk to me.

They can talk to me not to complain or impress upon me how hard they are studying, but to ask me substantive questions about the course material. I can give some study pointers (come to class; look at the review questions on the website; do the sample quizzes), but mostly what I can do is explain things.

[Professor Brower] said that if students developed a genuine interest in their field, grades would take a back seat, and holistic and intrinsically motivated learning could take place.

OK, maybe I am really cynical. Having a genuine interest in a topic and caring about grades are not mutually exclusive. Most students at most schools have to care about grades; the academic system requires them to. I would much prefer not to give grades,


Anonymous said...

Totally agree. I have gotten umpteen messages about quiz points and test grades this semester - NONE on the material.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate your final comments, and your recognition that this obsession with grades is not entirely the students' fault.

When I was a student, I would have loved to just focus on learning, researching, interacting with professors--and dispense with the whole numbers game. I always resented professors who'd whine about how obsessed we students were with our exams, our grades. Hello? You are the people who judge us by our GPAs and GRE scores! In fact, those were the two first questions on my applications for grad school.

I would appreciate it if more faculty looked at this as a systemic issue, rather than another rant about students.

Yvette Dickinson said...

I am a foreign graduate student in the US, and this is also something that has struck me since my arrival. Although back home we would complain about grades if the points were clearly not summed up correctly; or if upon comparing tests we discovered that two students with the same answer got different marks for a question; I have never heard of students arguing that they deserved a certain grade without good reasoning until I arrived in the US.

I think there are probably two things at play here:
Firstly, when paying such high tuition and fees for education; students feel it is their right to get high grades. I personally believe they have a right to access good education NOT to perfect grades (they need to earn those).

Secondly, I have never had such an easy time earning marks. Getting points for just turning up to class (attendance grades) or putting my name on my test paper!! When it is sooo easy to get these points, it is hard to see why anyone would get anything less than a B. I realize that not all lecturers award these easy points; but it only takes one or two for students to expect this from all courses.

Anonymous said...

I suspect this has a lot to do with the amount of effort vs. grades earned in high school. I also think (because I used to do this) that students also equate grades with self-worth. It took a lot of perspective to realize that a bad grade didn't mean I was stupid or just meant that I didn't grasp the material as well as some other people, perhaps because they were smarter or had more time or whatever. I didn't get to that point until the middle of my MS, though, and it was a big change to make.

Phys Student said...

Some students in my intro science class think they should get an A because it is an intro course. I am quite happy if many students get a grade of A, but a student has to demonstrate some comprehension of the material to get an A.

Really? just some? Some comprehension to me would be in the C/B, to me, the highest grade should mean something more than just some knowledge.

My main problem with the grading scale in this country is that it has very few divisions. In some universities/colleges they only have A,B,C,D and F. Others do a bit better with the introduction of +/- grades, but that still gives you only 11-12 possible ways to separate students.

On top of all of this, is the fact that at the end of each semester, there is some mysterious conversion from a number to a letter. (I've witness once a 50-some translate to an A, but maybe this was the extreme case).

Instructors encourage this feeling of entitlement when (even after teaching the same class for years) they design a course with an average final grade of 60 and at the end do some subjective curving. If profs give grades subjectively, why is it surprising that students also expect (an obviously higher) subjective grade?

Jenn said...

I used to TA and now tutor for what's considered the hardest course in my department--and it's an intro course, but only the section taught by one particular professor. You get a mix of students who are up for the challenge, who got stuck in that section having no idea what they signed up for, and who are totally freaked from the beginning.

I get a lot of tutoring students who are utterly confused that they can't just use the same study techniques they've used before in high school, but just more of it: read the book until they've memorized the formulas, then take the exams. They have to work problems and think about what's being asked, and they aren't given review sheets to work with.

I do have sympathy for the feeling of having spent dozens of hours studying only to fail an exam. On the other hand, if they don't then learn that their study habits are the wrong ones, well...

My favorite thing about my batch of students this year is that the only ones who have announced to me the grade they're hoping for want a B and a C. Usually it's a lot of premeds who desperately want that A, and they don't come to me until after they've utterly flunked the first exam or two.

Anonymous said...

As an undergrad only a few short years ago and now as a teaching assistant, I have seen more than my fair share of entitlement.

I've had students complain to me that they didn't deserve to have marks taken off their report because it was their first time doing the technique and it just wasn't fair (insert whine).

At the end of last term, I received an evaluation with the comment that the marks I gave did not reflect the amount of work the student put into the report. So, if you spend the entire lab time working on the lab report, you deserve a perfect grade? The fact that you didn't answer the questions correctly has no bearing on what your mark should be?

The kicker in all of this is that I never gave below 75% on the reports (good enough for a B+ at my school) - and this is seen as "too harsh".

Kate said...

"Most students at most schools have to care about grades; the academic system requires them to. I would much prefer not to give grades.

I agree. At my university certain GPAs are required to be in certain majors, and this makes me very uncomfortable. At a large public university (like where I am) shouldn't we be more about education for all? If they're good enough to get in here perhaps that should be enough and we shouldn't be making them freak out about grades.

That said, I also share the exhaustion, frustration and cynicism of many other faculty around this stuff. I was flabbergasted at the number of meetings and emails and comments I got about how the student "is an A student" or "worked really hard." If that doesn't translate to comprehension it shouldn't be reflected in the grade.

I guess the issue for me isn't that we should do away with all grades, but change their meaning. If a grade was a reflection of comprehension (and indirectly hard work in a way) but not a reflection of a student's self worth, their chances of getting into a major, or their chances of getting a good job, they would be useful. But these other meanings attached to them significantly dilutes their purpose and causes headaches for students and faculty alike.

Anonymous said...

I think the problem is that high school classes are just way too easy and don't prepare students for real life. For example, in my 11th grade English class, we read fewer than half of the books that are required by the school curriculum. In high school, it is often possible to show up to class and get an A with minimal effort. I learned as much in my first year of college as I did during all of high school.

Anyway, if a student actually asks you to give them a better grade because they tried hard, explain to them how that would work in real life. What if they become a doctor and fail to save lives for routine things that other doctors could have easily fixed? I don't think it will be much comfort to the family that they tried but didn't succeed.

daisy mae said...

as a student, i still agree - there are loads of students who feel that "effort" should count towards a grade. of the professors i've heard talk openly about this, they state that the only thing "effort" will get you is a + or - on a base grade.

i've also had profs state on the syllabus that effort will get you nowhere with respect to grades. other's tilt their grades by incorporating "participation" - i've seen participation count for up to 60% of the grade....

Tinkering Theorist said...

I think part of the confusion is that it's unclear what grades are for. Some people do think that grades should be a measure of effort. Other ideas are that grades are a measure of the student's understanding of the material (this is where you seem to stand) or that they are a measure of how much was learned by the student during the course. An idea which I don't feel is fair is that grades are a measure of how the student did strictly in relation to others in the class. (If one needs to know that, presumably one can look at class rank or other things, but in my view of what the purpose of grades are, it makes no sense for a student's grade to be raised or lowered if the rest of the class happens to be better/worse students than typical). These all make sense to some extent depending on why one thinks we need grades--companies hiring your grads need to know which ones are the "best", companies (or whomever is looking at the students' records) need to know what the students understand, students want to know how well they're doing, and professors/universites want to motivate students.
Grades based entirely on effort maybe aren't useful to the company that needs to know who can calculate the load a bridge can hold, but they are quite useful to the company who wants to know who will work hard and do what they're asked to do, and are possibly a good way to promote students to give their best effort. In an ideal world, I wonder if grades based only on comprehension of the material (assuming that could be well defined and measured without artificially measuring effort) would be best. In that case, self-taught people could go take the final exam of various courses and get a degree, which would be good in some ways but also worrisome in others.
In any case, I would appreciate a better definition (and then application of that definition) of the purpose of grades from individual universities according to their missions, so everyone could be on the same page.

John Vidale said...

Many aspects of grades deserve comment, but my major gripe is lack of uniformity.

Grades' primary use is to rank performance across a class, a major, and a university.

Some profs give all A's, some apply a 1930s curve centered on C. Mis-motivations range from associating tough grading with a demanding class, flattering the students with easy grading, seeking higher enrollments with easy grading, etc..

It would be trivial to track whether grade distributions are sensible - just publish the grade distributions by teacher, course, major, level, etc.. When I tried to collect such information at UCLA for my dept, the chair firmly vetoed the idea. I also raised the idea while serving on the graduate council, to a similar response. I was told no one enforced even a minimum standard of sensibility to grading curves, something about academic freedom of faculty.

The sole exception seems to be when a soft prof gives all the star athletes As for no attendance nor work AND the newspapers hear about it. One Turkish prof was retired, for example, with the hectoring of the LA Times.

The easiest way to make grades mean something is to set a standard average and standard deviation, with allowance for variance in extenuating circumstances that need to be explained.

Until then, we will periodically hear about occasional outrageous grading practices, and many students in every big class will feel like unfair victims and work the system.

Becca said...

Sorry. Gotta call bullshit. You don't wannna give grades?
You've got tenure, right?
Sack it up and stop giving grades.

Why on earth do professors feel entitled to perpeutate a system in which they serve as the gatekeepers to opportunities and then complain when people want access to those opportunities based on hard work, of all things?

Anonymous said...

At UC Santa Cruz we didn't have to take classes for grades, but you could if you wanted to. I did because I wanted to go to grad school and I was worried they wouldn't bother reading my narrative evaluations (paragraph prof writes about your performance in the class). On the one hand, if grades motivate students to work hard, that is good, because many students don't care about learning (even in college, in the classes they "have" to take, or they just want the degree and don't care about learning). On the other hand, grades can distract you from learning.

However, I don't understand this whole entitlement thing. There was a class or two where I felt the grading was unfair or the expectations unclear. But mostly if I did badly, I knew it was because I either didn't study hard enough or just had a bad test day. I would feel like an idiot complaining to my professor that "I worked so hard that I deserve an A". I mean, doesn't that make them look pretty incompetent?

JLK said...

Alright, the compulsion to leave this comment is too strong for me not to. Screw it.

I was guilty of this as an undergrad - but only ONCE.

It was a 6wk accelerated biology course with lab. I only needed to take it because my bio course at previous undergrad U did not include a lab and MRU would not allow me to take a lab section only.

To understand where I'm coming from in this comment, you have to know a little bit of background. In high school I took Honors and A.P Biology. I scored a 3 on the AP exam, which was not enough for college credit at my first college.

So I took biology again my freshman year. My professor exempted me from taking the final because my average in the course was a 99. But again, there was no lab component.

Fast forward to MRU. The only bio section that would fit into my schedule was the accelerated format. I knew I had been away from bio for a long time (8.5 years to be exact, 10 years since my last lab), so I expected to have to study my ass off.

During the time I was taking this course, I separated from my husband and moved into my own apartment. I also did the egg donor thing. Though I scheduled the retrieval for the week prior to the start of classes, complications arose that lasted for the first 2 weeks of this course.

I could not score above an 83 on the exams. To get the mean score to be a 75, he scaled by an average of 20 points per exam and there was still only one person in the class who ever got scores in the 90's. She was a biochem major.

I went to the professor for help understanding the material that I was apparently missing (he added a huge chunk of biochem that I had never dealt with in my previous bio courses), and did not utter a word about my personal difficulties lest I seem like a whiner.

His responses to me when I continued asking for help? "If you come to class as you have been, pay attention as you have been, and study hard, you should be doing fine on the exams." I shit you not. He gave me the same line that students gave the NY Times.

When it came time for grades to be posted, a bunch of us waited around to find out. He called us into his office with our lab professor and gave us our grades. He told me I was getting a B. I almost had a heart attack.

I had a perfect 4.0 gpa for all undergrad coursework and I was 4 classes away from graduating. I told him such. I also told him what had been going on, that I did everything he told me to do, pointed out that I had an A average in the lab component. I explained about my history in biology. I did everything but get down on my knees and beg for him to boost my grade. No dice.

So now I look at the irony of the fact that it had to be fuckin biology that I got my only B in. It was probably good for me that I got it. But still - I wonder if he knows that I will always remember him as the professor who ruined my gpa because he refused to help me no matter what kind of help I asked for.

I should note that I agree with you in nearly all cases. But compassion and hard-assness exist at two extremes of a spectrum, and surely there are events that merit one extreme or the other. But when professors take one of the two extremes and use it all the time, it's not helping anyone.

And there are many professors out there who are awful instructors who are deluded into thinking that they're fantastic and refuse to believe that their students ask for extra help because they actually need it.

Thomas Joseph said...

I would much prefer not to give grades

Sometimes I lean along these lines as well. The way I see it, these people are paying for training for a career. It is up to them to ensure that they're getting their money's worth and are proficient in their area of study. Sort of like an apprenticeship so to speak.

Then the responsibility falls upon the students, and only the students. If they feel their education in a particular class was not up to par, they need to find a class which is up to par. When they get into the workplace, it'll become obvious whether they've been educated properly or not. *shrug*

Anonymous said...

I am not in the US. We have increasing numbers of students who expect high grades for minimal work, possibly because they are (a) paying lots of money to come to university and (b) not used to being marked competitively in a culture where trying is everything and competition is downplayed.

Here, the average grade given has risen markedly over the last 20 years in universities, and the standard of work required for those grades has fallen substantially in my view. Hence, a C student then would now in all likelihood be a B-B+ student. It becomes harder and harder to distinguish and reward those who are truly bright and creative in the subject, unless known personally.

Anonymous said...

who cares if you got sick, or missed the bus, or studied really hard, or showed up for class,read x% of the material, your dog died, the sun was in your eyes, you're a really nice person, etc.

what matters is that you demonstrate how well you understand the course material based on writing papers, doing labs, taking quize, giving presentations etc. *that* is preparation for holding a job in the real world.

if i took a course in some foreign language, sat in all the lectures, read the books and yet at the end of it all could not write or speak a sentence, do i deserve an A because i tried? an A for effort?


Anonymous said...

this is really cynical, but...

peoples abilities lie on some sort of distribution-- gaussian or whatever.

why should people on the bottom get an "A" simply for showing up to class?

Anonymous said...

I find that I spend a lot of time managing expectations. A big part of the problem is not generational, I would argue. Part of the problem is that instructors/professors/teachers are a biased sample. We obviously care about the material and, in most cases, were conscienscious students. It is hard for us to understand and relate to students who just want the final grade they expect. Now, almost everyone goes to college, not just the conscienscious students. The problems in high school follow those students to college, which is why we have so mny of these problems. Nitpicking about exam scores and grade entitlement kills much of my enthusiasm for teaching.

Thank you for the interesting post.

Anonymous said...

This shit is a product of a cultural shift in our educational system to focus on students' "self-esteem" rather than the mastery of subject matter. These little fucking pissants need to sack the fuck up and accept the mathematically inescapable fact that not everyone can be at the top of the class. As faculty, our responsibility is to convey disciplinary subject matter to our students, and to give them grades based on a ranking of their relative success at mastering that subject matter. The fact that some students will study their asses off and still fail to master the material, while others will go out drinking every night and leaf through their notes hungover on the way to the exam and get the highest score is not our fucking problem.

We are professors, not self-esteem coaches.

Anon said...

I definitely think that the transition from high school grading (which is more effort-oriented) to college/university grading is part of the problem and something that institutions should try to address as soon as students get on campus.

During orientation, or maybe during the first class of all intro courses, should be a spiel about how grades will be based on understanding, quality of work, and performance and that points assigned for effort (things like participation, completion of worksheets etc) are optional for professors. Students should also be told that if they are not doing well, complaints will get them nowhere, they have to change how they approach the material and how they study. Even "A students" need tutors for some things.

In my undergrad, I was always apprehensive about my grade in non-science courses since I knew I wasn't as strong in those subjects. But I managed to get decent grades in these courses by meeting with the professor to discuss the reading, making sure I knew the expectations for all assignments, asking friends for advice, and yes, working hard. But it was only the combination of these efforts that allowed me to do well.

Tom said...

... writing papers, doing labs, taking quizzes, giving presentations ...

Three are relevant for everyday life, one is not. Unfortunately the one that isn't, is the one that is quite often used as the benchmark.

yolio said...

I agree with the previous comment about a biased sample. Professors were not average students and thus they have a hard time relating to the average student.

I think that grades and the grading process is largely mysterious to students. It doesn't feel systematic to them. It is worth noting that it really isn't very systematic. Different course have wildly different expectations of them.

Professors tend to have a strong internal sense of what it means to "master the material," and don't really understand that the students really, really don't share this intuition. Generally speaking, I believe that most university teachers would be better teachers if they were much more explicit about the standards of evaluation.

Anonymous said...

“I think putting in a lot of effort should merit a high grade,” [a student] said. “What else is there really than the effort that you put in?”


I wonder if this thinking works for professionals as well. Maybe try it when seeking tenure?

Anonymous said...

If students complaining about their grades did not result in better grades for them, I bet there would be a lot less complaining.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Rose. I never whined about grades when I was a student, and it always annoyed me when the professors caved in and gave higher grades or extended deadlines for people who complained. So the dumb pushy guy gets the same grade that I earned? Nice!

Just state at the beginning of the term that the grades are non-negotiable. How is that so hard?

Anonymous said...

Dear FSP,

What do you think about grade "curving"?

Do those relative grades actually measure students' comprehension? Is the "bell curve" assumption correct for university students?

Anonymous said...

I like Laura's point, and it's something I forget a lot: the average student is not much like the average professor was when he/she was in college. We can't assume they'll be motivated by the same things or have the same expectations. Most of us probably don't even know what it's like to work really hard at a course and fail it miserably; maybe that happened to us in one or two classes way outside our area of interest, but it obviously didn't happen systematically in many of our classes.

However, there is something some students do every semester that annoys and puzzles me: they show up to my office in the last week of class, or after grades have been turned in, and they proceed to sob and tell me how hard they worked and how much they care about their grade. Yet this is the first time I have seen them all semester. I announce my office hours regularly and encourage people to come talk to me. If you really cared about your grade, don't you think you'd come to the prof.'s office hours after the first D, or the second D, or the third and fourth? Why did they never try to find out what was going wrong, or ask for help understanding the material, or ask questions in class, or (in some cases) even show up to class? I simply cannot believe they actually care about the class material, nor do I believe they even care about their own grade. Caring implies acting. This is the kind of thing that wears me down and makes teaching very unpleasant. Fortunately, I only get this from a couple of students each semester, so it's not that bad.

hkukbilingualidiot said...

I do have to admit that I did fall into the trap of thinking that if I worked hard I should get a high grade and the fact that I've produced an amazing report on a project I did under all the sexism and male supremacy in Japan along with a fairly long period of demeaning manual labour before I could actually focus on the project I was given should also be taken into account. That was never taken into account as expected but I did churn out a pretty amazing thesis that got my industrial supervisor shining with pride and my personal tutor extremely hyper and enthusiastic...even if the writing was a bit on the iffy side. However, exams...not my strong point so I guess hard work and enthusiasm don't really pass for a good grade...

Tam said...

I've been a part-time undergrad for a kazillion years. (All right, actually about 10. Seriously.) The only time I ever complained about a grade was when a grader marked off an entire problem (out of 5 or so on the test) because I miscopied it with a minus sign (turning it into, actually, a far harder problem, which I then solved correctly). The professor was amenalbe to regrading it.

But I would never claim I should get a better grade because I worked so hard. First of all, I don't usually work that hard. But second of all, I guess I'd rather my professors think I'm smart than think I'm hard-working but not too bright.

But it's just obnoxious. I like to pretend to my profs that I actually do not care about the grade but just enjoy doing excellent work. And that is kind of true, although in fact I find myself pretty well motivated to get a high grade.

Dr. J said...

Right with you on this one. There is also the argument (like it is some sort of argument at all) that 'if you give me a poor grade I won't be able to get into medical school'. So? Don't get a poor grade.

Have you not seen this attitude at PhD level too? Granted there is supposed to be rigorous assessment in place, but a few too many people seem to think that starting a PhD and lasting the course means deserving the PhD. I agree it deserves something, it is very tortuous, but I've seen one too many people with PhDs who should never been awarded them.

As for the u/gs. They should try Britain. I'm not used to the North American system, it awards scores absolutely unattainable when I did my degree. I had a student come asking for position the other week saying they had an average over 95%, this is alien to me!

megan said...

funny- i just wrote something slightly related, but with the same title.

i'm a ta, and i agree. (and i agreed as an undergrad.)

as for effort vs quality ... it'd be great if students showed me they've learned to think, critically, instead of following the bare minimum in the outline i gave them. sometimes i feel like this either happens or doesn't, regardless of the amount of feedback given (or is there a better way to 'teach' it?). i've still gotten a few 'i did everything in the outline, don't i deserve an better grade?'... i don't even get very many questions on analysis - but if i told them exactly what was needed for every single lab, i would be doing most of the thinking for them.

i guess i'm agreeing with an opening quote in the article: the default grade is not an A.

Jenn, PhD said...

I started writing a comment, but it turned in a post of its own, over at my place...

But just to add to the comments about professors not understanding/relating to the "average" student... if you're "average" your grades will (and should) probably reflect that. They won't be all As. Or probably even Bs. University/College/Academic education trains people for academic pursuits (like becoming a professor and teaching academic subjects). If you're not suited to academic pursuits you're probably in the wrong place/class. Instead, take on a career that doesn't require academic training.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, thank you for pointing out that the article itself was virtually incoherent. While the topic it presented was interesting, my brain almost exploded trying to follow the theme from beginning to end. Perhaps this is what happens when Journalism students anticipate As and Bs just for showing up and doing the minimum work, as well.

Anonymous said...

I am currently an undergraduate student, and I've found that there are a lot of well-connected undergrads who have access to back-tests, solutions manuals, etc. These people have numerous worked-out examples to demonstrate concepts as well as an advantage on exams, simply because they know the kinds of questions to prepare for. I am a terrible test-taker; I freak out. However, I know the material and have done undergraduate research. When the focus is on grades, these people (who cheat) have an enormous advantage over a student like me.

Anonymous said...

I agree that we students can be a little fastidious when it comes to grading, but I would say that at least grading in the sciences is less biased than in the humanities. I took a writing course in my freshman year in college where the bulk of our grade would come from 3 essays written through the quarter. After my first paper, I realized that my writing was not that great and worked really hard to improve. By the last paper, the professor was saying that I was doing much better. Even though I knew that last paper wouldn't really change my grade, I thought I would have gotten a better grade than I did on the first 2 papers at least as a symbolic acknowledgement of my improvement, but my professor still gave me the same mediocre grade. I've had a really strong dislike for the humanities since then.

Anonymous said...

There's a (full, perhaps soon-to-be-ex) physics prof at the University of Ottawa who quit giving his students grades.

If that link expires, here's a less-good article:

I don't really like giving grades either. We have percentage grades here; I think that percentage grades report more information on performance than is available. But it would be an unwise career move for me to not give grades. Also they're also perhaps more important in an engineering department than a science department.

mentaer said...

a made-up example:
i) I am teaching civil engineering students the basics of bridge construction.
ii) I test them and one person took a wrong (statics) formula or wasn't able to fill in the right numbers or looked up a (material) factor wrong.
iii) this student got a bad mark, but as he showed up to the classes he gets an B
iv) this student gets a job because he got this good mark and he will construct bridges
v) guess what: he does the same mistake again in real-life! - and one bridge crashes
vi) now - despite nobody will kwow - I, as the teacher, will be responsible for that desaster.

My conclusion: Its better to mark worse than to raise notes - so the student really sees what he could have done wrong in real life.

Doctor Pion said...

Well, of course they never got grades below an A or B before. Grades in HS have no connection to reality; ditto for ones in some departments in a university. (One of my students complained about the final exam he had just taken in an Evergreen course where all of the students worked together on the questions. Sure would make grading easy!)

I blogged my thoughts about this some time ago, so I won't repeat them here except to highlight the point Steve Zucker made to his JHU students: You were never taught at your level in HS.

If you meet the minimum requirements of the course, you earn a C and the right to take the next class in the sequence. If simply retaining what you needed to know to earn a "C" is not enough to pass the next class, special warnings are in order.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree that good grades require a certain level of comprehension and understanding of the subject matter. As a student, I can confess to feeling like my effort should be enough after spending an entire weekend studying for an exam I was barely able to pass. But ultimately, I understand that it's up to me to gauge my own understanding, and to seek help when I'm putting in more effort than I should be to grasp the material.

My real frustration lies with the fact that in many of my courses, the traditional methods for doling out grades - final exams worth 50% + - are incapable of testing my real knowledge of the subject. Sometimes I understand the material well enough to take an assignment home, think about it, and come up with the right approach/ answer, but I am just not capable of coming up with that answer in 30 seconds in an exam! It's one thing when you're asking me to take the derivative of an equation - with practice, it's the same method applied every time. But sometimes I need more than a half hour to write an essay that gives justice to my thoughts and ideas, or to write an algorithm capable of solving a mathematical concept I am only mildly familiar with. It's unfair to place those kinds of time restraints when determining whether or not a student "knows" the material.

Anonymous said...

If effort and dedication were sufficient, the time and energy that my six-foot tall brother devoted to his jump shot in high school should have landed him the first string slot as center for the Boston Celtics.

For more than a decade, I taught at a fourth tier, state university in a state that often vies for fiftieth place in state by state education rankings. We gave out honors degrees like candy, and students who would have been average at a major state university in the west or north east were given highest honors. I regularly compared that "generosity" to the fact that only 10% of my classmates at a very selective liberal arts school were Phi Beta Kappa, and that in my last two years there, there was exactly one Summa Cum Laude graduate (roughly one quarter of one percent of those two years' seniors). Had I expected of my unnamed state university students anything near what my alma mater expected of my peers, I would have been at the heart of a firestorm of criticism in the student and local newspapers, and I would have had an unhappy audience with the president of the university. (He was shocked, shocked, when I once commented to him that students would be more successful if they more regularly attended classes.)

Anonymous said...


I know it's nice to see that "perfect 4.0", but a little perspective is warranted here. I submit that getting a B in one course - when all the others are A's - does not "ruin" your GPA, and certainly isn't grounds for "almost having a heart attack". The world doesn't end if you get a B. Maybe more straight-A students should try it.

I don't know how you could have expected the prof to boost your grade; you may have had extenuating circumstances, but a prof can't just invent grades that you might have received if circumstances had been different. However, if I were the prof, I certainly would have tried to help you with the material. It's pretty sleazy to blow off sincere students like that.

JLK said...

@Anonymous (just above): That was my real problem - the fact that he refused to help any of the students with the material. I was pissed because I could have and would have earned an A in the course if I had access to extra help, and that's where I "blame" the professor for the grade.

I was a willing, ambitious student who happened to also be going through a lot of personal shit at the time who did not want any special favors - just some one-on-one time during his office hours to go over the biochem nonsense that wasn't much beyond jibberish to me.

It certainly didn't actually ruin my gpa and was definitely not the end of the world. But you bet your ass that I am irked every time I look at my transcripts and see a lone, stupid B in a 100-level biology course.

Anonymous said...

"But sometimes I need more than a half hour to write an essay that gives justice to my thoughts and ideas, or to write an algorithm capable of solving a mathematical concept I am only mildly familiar with. It's unfair to place those kinds of time restraints when determining whether or not a student "knows" the material."

I would *love* to be able to give take-home tests. Unfortunately, that is even less fair than the standard testing protocol because you're effectively rewarding the fraction of the class that's willing to let Google/their brother/their friend/their tutor do their test for them.

So, for now, the best compromise I can make it to set a test in a timeslot that I consider far too long for it, and hope that that means everyone has sufficient time. (It also takes away the advantage that a small fraction of the class obtain by falsely claiming learning disability and obtaining extra time for that. I fully understand that there are students with genuine learning disabilities but, at our institution, there are also those who play the system.)

Sarah Don said...

I totally agree. At my school (in Australia - I graduated last year) we had an "effort rating" grade as well as an academic grade...

For me, as a motivated science student, grades were important but they weren't the point of my studies. I did the work required of me and I read/did extra what I thought was interesting. I didn't bother with memorisation for the sole purpose of passing exams...

Some people have to put in more effort than others and as far as I'm concerned, it doesn't matter how much "effort" you put in, if you can't demonstrate that you actually understand the material, you shouldn't get an A.

I wonder what would happen if we didn't get grades at all. I wonder how many people would be motivated to study, just because they're genuinely interested in the subject material...?

JLK said...

I'm going to throw something out here that might be completely crazy. I'm sure you won't hesitate to let me know if it is.

What if instead of getting rid of grades, we get rid of Gen-Ed requirements (at least most of them)?

Because I think a lot of students are bitter (I know I was) about paying a ton of money to take classes that are not even a little bit relevant to my major or field of interest.

I would be very curious to know how many of these Entitled students are majors in the subject versus non-majors. I would hypothesize that many more non-majors are asking for their effort to be graded over understanding.

I'm not saying it's an excuse for acting like brats, because it's not. But every course you take as an undergrad affects your gpa, and if you're moving into the job market after graduating, it's your overall gpa that counts as it gets compared to the gpa you have in your major.

I think a lot of students don't see the importance of focusing on a subject they didn't want to take instead of cramming their little brains with information from the courses in their major.

Believe me, I know all the reasons why people disagree about getting rid of gen-eds. I did a speech on it once that ended up turning into an argument between two sides of the audience. My favorite reason I heard (from a prof) for keeping them? Supporting smaller departments by making students take classes in those fields.

Naj said...

I think in this day and age, exams and grades based on memorization of some facts and figures are "passee".

It is not just he fact that we have google at our finger tips, but it is also because the realm of knowledge is becoming so vast, so multidisciplinary and so fast. Basic laws of physics and physiology might hold; but we are constantly learning about new exceptions!

I think, what professors need to do is to teach students to think, to analyse and to synthesize knowledge.

The worth of a well rounded review article in my opinion is much higher than an A++.

I have taken many of those A+s in my undergraduate years; but somehow what still shines through the dust of time on my memory is the details of all research projects that I "chose" to do.

I think our universities are due for reform.