February 22, 2009

How did I get a bad grade? I was here!

Shirley first tipped me to this article; boy, did it hit home. I wonder how often other educators, both in primary-secondary schools as well as higher ed (paging Steve Newton), have to deal with this stuff.

“Many students come in with the conviction that they’ve worked hard and deserve a higher mark,” Professor Grossman said. “Some assert that they have never gotten a grade as low as this before.”

He attributes those complaints to his students’ sense of entitlement.

“I tell my classes that if they just do what they are supposed to do and meet the standard requirements, that they will earn a C,” he said. “That is the default grade. They see the default grade as an A.”

A recent study by researchers at the University of California, Irvine, found that 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.

Just check out these quotes from some college students:

Jason Greenwood, a senior kinesiology major at the University of Maryland echoed that view.

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

“If you put in all the effort you have and get a C, what is the point?” he added. “If someone goes to every class and reads every chapter in the book and does everything the teacher asks of them and more, then they should be getting an A like their effort deserves. If your maximum effort can only be average in a teacher’s mind, then something is wrong.”

Sarah Kinn, a junior English major at the University of Vermont, agreed, saying, “I feel that if I do all of the readings and attend class regularly that I should be able to achieve a grade of at least a B.”

To answer Greenwood's first question of "What else is there really than the effort that you put in?" the answer is simple: Results. Would this be Greenwood's excuse in the business world when his [future] boss asks him why his department hasn't been meeting its, say, sales quotas? Or, why those business reports weren't adequately finished? "But we're really trying, boss. That should be worth something!"

With such an attitude, his boss would laugh hysterically while handing him a pink slip.

The New Republic's Michelle Cottle opines on Ms. Kinn's attitude:

Wow. Now there's a gal looking to set the world on fire. Remind me to set Ms. Kinn up with a TNR internship asap. Because, honestly, the only thing we look for in an intern around this joint is a warm body who can get to work more or less on time and remain conscious long enough to slog through some of the more tedious manuscripts that land on the editors' desks.

In addition, Cottle adds:

If anything, a student who tries really, really, really hard at something and still repeatedly falls short might benefit from realizing that his talents lie elsewhere. (As could the rest of us: Not to state the obvious, but I don't want a brain surgeon who graduated at the top of his class because he had perfect attendance. I want one who is an artist with a scalpel.) Go ahead: Aim for the stars. Don't let anyone tell you you can't do something. But if you actually try that thing and it turns out that you're not so hot at it, don't whine about unfair grading. Acknowledge that you have major room for improvement and decide where to go from there. The sooner kids learn how to deal with failure and move on, the less likely we are to have a bunch of whiny, fragile, self-entitled, poorly qualified adults wandering around wondering why their oh-so-stellar efforts aren't properly appreciated in the real world.

Alternatively, now might be a good time to revisit my dream of becoming a concert pianist. I've never had much of an ear for music, but I bet if I quit my day job and worked at it really, really hard--or at least showed up at all my lessons and did the homework--someone would eventually reward my "excellence."

Down at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, such student attitudes seem to be ... "paying off":

A new report on grade inflation reveals that about 82 percent of all undergraduate grades at UNC-CH were A's or B's in the fall of 2007, and more A's were given than any other grade.

Now, some faculty fear top students aren't getting the recognition they deserve as the line between them and the rest of the class blurs.

"We think it is a problem," said Donna Gilleskie, an economics professor who analyzed more than 1 million grades since 2000 in writing the report. "It's a disservice to students. Sure, students would all like to get A's. But you want to reward students who have mastered the material."

I actually don't blame professors (or teachers) overmuch. Their response is a logical self-interest: They're getting pressure from above. In the case of college professors, student evaluations also play a key role. "Negative" evaluations -- "the professor is too tough" ... "has unrealistic expectations" ... "gives too many exams" -- can nowadays spell the unemployment line for them. School teachers can get grief for "too many low grades" and their classroom acumen can be called into question.

Personally, I do feel that a student's effort (at least at the grade level I teach) should be worth something. As such, I weigh my classwork and homework assignments in such a way that successful completion of them can help to offset a lousy test score (tests and quizzes which, by the way, are weighted more heavily than class/homework). A student who successfully completes all his/her assignments but doesn't do well on assessments will at the very least earn a "D" in my class. (Believe it or not, the psychological barrier between a "D" and an "F" is pretty large for kids of the age I teach.)

As students move up the educational ladder, expectations increase and concrete results are more important. For example, many high school teachers won't accept late work, while middle school teachers might take late assignments a day or even up to a week late. At least in high school students still have fairly close relationships with teachers. Once in college, the phrase "on your own" really comes into play, especially those first two years when you sit in huge lecture halls attended by hundreds of other students. You think the professor cares if you attend? Ha. He/she also doesn't care if you pass the exams. (Though that may be changing if Chapel Hill is the going trend. I think the grade inflation phenomenon -- and this is just my opinion, mind you -- manifests itself particularly in the junior and senior years, as well as in grad school, where classes are typically smaller and professor-student interaction is more intimate.)

Some colleges have taken action on the grade inflation "explosion": Princeton has set quotas where no more than 35% of the student body can earn "As," and at Seton Hall grade inflation dropped after faculty met and discussed grading procedures. The latter, in particular, is a wise move. In an age where student evaluations play a significant role in rating a professor, a "rogue" prof who cares little about actual hard work and assessments could "earn" high marks from students whereas a prof who demanded 100% attendance and assigned some tough reading and term paper assignments could be panned -- even if the latter is a [much] more exceptional instructor. Sure, the [supposedly] higher maturity levels of college young adults may "see through" the former's pathetic standards and contrariwise would appreciate the latter's attempt at actually making his students learn something.

But if the testimonials of Mr. Greenwood and Ms. Kinn are the wave of the future, this attitude may be a distinct minority.

Posted by Hube at February 22, 2009 09:37 AM | TrackBack

Comments  (We reserve the right to edit and/or delete any comments. If your comment is blocked or won't post, e-mail us and we'll post it for you.)

But I find it incomprehensible that there are some students who don't complete their assignements, don't even turn some in, fail their tests, and still don't understand why they failed...oh, and then you get the parent who says they weren't informed of their child's low grades when a progress report is sent out every three weeks! Which in of itself is again a dumbing down of parental responsiblity and more placed on the teachers- it used to be one progress report at half way point, now it is third way through...even though parents can access grades at any time through computers! unbelievable how far personal responsibility is slipping, but we see that with the stimulus plan and bail outs don't we...

Posted by: cardinals fan at February 22, 2009 11:30 AM

I keep thinking of that fawning idiot from the Ft Myers town hall meeting who's been working at McDonald's for 5 years, but wants Obama to endow him with the same benefits and compensation as a corporate middle manager with a graduate degree and 10 years on the job. I wonder what that guy's report card looked like? Probably straight Bs I'd wager.

Posted by: G Rex at February 23, 2009 12:55 PM

Hube, excellent post. This is all (in my view) part of our society's adoption of normative standards for everything. Those of us who believe natural law can't be changed see that in its basest sense see a chasm between "putting in a lot of effort" and "successful results". In the natural world, putting in lots of effort and failing means starvation, and successful outcomes means survival.

Posted by: BadIdeaGuy at February 24, 2009 02:01 PM

The grade entitlement reminds me of my time as an undergrad, when an engineering student with 1400 SATs who studied 60-70 hours a week often got a 2.8 GPA for his/her efforts. By contrast, an Education major with 800 SATs who studied 30 hours a week, would have a 3.8 GPA.

Posted by: Gringo at March 6, 2009 08:30 PM