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Clarissa's Blog

An academic's opinions on feminism, politics, literature, philosophy, teaching, academia, and a lot more.

Grades

I want to answer the comment I got in one of the threads about the reason why I have such a lackadaisical approach to grades.

My father taught college back in Ukraine. He would come to class on the first day and say, “Everybody gets an A. Now, all who want to leave can go.” And then he’d teach those who remained. To me, hat’s what real teaching is. It’s not about control and authority, punishment and reward, policing and disciplining. It’s about working together with students on approaching truth and appreciating beauty.

Unfortunately, I can’t teach this way because the whole thing is too bureaucratized. But I can’t care enough about grades where I’d see them as sacred. I find it beyond bizarre when teachers worship at the altar of grades and do insane things like saying, “No, you got 79%, and that’s a C. I’ll never pretend it’s 80% and give you a B.” Or, “I said to hand in the essay before 4:59 pm, and you sent it in at 5:40 pm. I will not accept it! (Or lower the grade.)” There are also very strange people who see tardiness as disrespect towards themselves, as if students are not a lot more likely to have a million things going on in their lives that are not about this bizarre teacher.

If a student tells me, “My life will be ruined if I fail this course,” I don’t see the reason to test this assumption and fail them. The real tragedy is not a grade, whatever it is. It’s the reluctance of people to cultivate an interest in truth and beauty. And that can’t be remedied with any grade. 

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19 thoughts on “Grades

  1. tired old hag on said:

    You’re not failing the student. The student failed the course; you’re merely assessing the student’s performance. This is not “worshipping at the altar of grades”; it’s part of our job. If we start assessing not the students’ actual performance but rather how we think grades will affect their lives, we are among other things rewarding those who are willing to stage dramatic performances of their personal lives, and devaluing the achievements of students who actually do the work. It would indeed be lovely if one could approach teaching as your father did, but that’s not how things function, at least not here and now.

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    • I think that the obsession with assessment arose from the need to cultivate enormous bureaucracies. Grades are not entirely useless but they are not nearly as important as assessment gurus want us to believe. Ultimately , students either speak Spanish or not. Life will assess the result of my teaching and thrir learning much better than grades ever will.

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    • tired old hag on said:

      By the way, I love the icon image or whatever it’s called associated with my alias! It looks just like me.

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  2. Most of my students just desire high grades and refuse to do any reading. I even had a couple of students explicitely ask me (I have a witness) if they could get an A without doing any reading. Far too many people here just want to get good grades withoug learning anything so they can become engineers and build bridges that collapse.

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    • Absolutely. But nobody will be hired because of their grades. Nobody asks about grades at job interviews. I wish students were more aware of that.

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      • Here the only job anybody cares about is engineering which requires an engineering degree and to major in engineering you have to have a minimum gpa. But, there isn’t any requirement apart from the gpa that they actually know anything so students just care about the grades even if they can’t tell the difference between Morocco and Manchuria (lots of students placed Manchuria in Morocco in my last test) or do very basic math.

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      • Shakti on said:

        Absolutely. But nobody will be hired because of their grades. Nobody asks about grades at job interviews. I wish students were more aware of that.
        True, for the overwhelming majority of jobs and fields.
        However this might be the case for some internships and it does matter for grad school. If we’re headed for a new reality that college is the new high school (if we’re not there yet) then yes, grades matter.
        An example: most law schools graduating toward the bottom is a disaster on the job market. It’s not that they ask about grades, they simply won’t interview you.

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        • That’s absolutely the future. And that’s precisely why the importance of grades for Master’s degrees will evaporate. High school grades or SAT scores already don’t matter for college because everybody is accepted. Not everywhere, of course, but somewhere. We, for instance, accept everybody. So it will be with Master’s programs that will be all about driving enrollments and accepting everybody.

          Mind you, I’m not saying it is a good thing.

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  3. I’m kind of in the middle but my bias definitely runs in your direction.

    Grading at Polish universities tradtionally tends to be harsh and punitive in nature (with about 90 % of passing students getting the equivalent of a C).

    I’m far more lax than that. Also as the system is in flux from a weird old system where students kept their own transcripts in a little book…

    to computerized (though the system at present is horrible and buggy and a giant mess, where I work hired a full time person to try to keep it straight).

    I never actually fail students but leave their grades blank in the system when they haven’t done the work needed (and I’m always willing to work with students who need special treatment and set out an individualized program).

    In my own past, I’ve gotten A’s in courses where I learned next to nothing and C’s in some of those where the material stayed with me the longest… I have a very hard time taking grades that seriously and have no time for the “they need 78 points but only have 77.5 types (but have to work with a few, in Poland that’s called being “objective”).

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  4. DWeird on said:

    I like that approach very much! Just as a caveat, though – as a student, I’ve often found appreciation and interest in what a course taught me either at the middle of the course or even long after it’s been over, and picked up independent studies from there.

    While the best thing about university was definitely the library for me, I think part of the job of a school is providing some structure to the students so that they do not need to rely solely on their own drive and willpower to learn.

    Being deeply excited, interested and ready to work on something you don’t know anything about is a tall order for anyone, students included. In the cases where the student already knows more than enough about the subject are just cases where someone has already done part of the current teacher’s job beforehand, right?

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  5. Stringer bell on said:

    I agree with what you’re saying but in practice I’ve found that nothing demotivates the good students more than the knowledge that the lazy bum who opened his notes the night before the exam for the first time got the same grade as them.

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  6. One thing that I see in my classes is that the students dissatisfied with their grades are not those getting Ds, Cs, or BCs. It’s those with Bs and ABs who feel they deserve /are destined to get As and it’s my fault that they aren’t (e.g., the exams are too hard, etc.) One student wrote a comment that my class doesn’t measure basic proficiency but extreme proficiency. I found that ridiculous. You cannot get an A with basic proficiency; that’s what a C is for. Grade A means “excellent.”

    For instance, the class I am teaching now is a reasonably strong cohort. But it’s a large class and some people are better than others. Also, my exams are challenging because I think strong students deserve their tuition’s worth, too. I make 50% a pass (C), which should not be a problem if you work reasonably hard, but it’s not easy to get an A in my class; you have to be really good. The people who get the B’s (roughly scores 70-80%) are good; a B means they have a strong grasp of the material and I am confident that they will do well in follow-on courses, but it also means that they are not the top of the class. But many students who get a B or an AB are very peeved with me because they feel they somehow deserve an A, because they are used to getting As in high school (high schools are not very challenging), but in reality there are a number of people who have simply mastered the material better. (Nominally I curve, but I’ve been teaching for so long that the curves always look the same, so the scale is close to absolute: I devise tests that have an average pretty close to 75%, and I consider a test to be of a good difficulty if the average is between 70-80%). So the people scoring 70-80% know the material very well, but it’s not excellent, and it would be a problem if no one scored higher, but there is a good number of people in the high 80s and 90s, so having high scores is certainly not impossible in my courses; it’s just not possible for all who envision they ought to get an A. For young students who are used to As in high school, I believe it is hard to accept that in this bigger and more competitive pond there are people much stronger than them and that they either need to step up their game or, if they cannot or will not, accept that they are now about average. Some step it up; many don’t but find it’s easier to focus the frustration on me and my exams being too hard (they are not; but you really need to do a lot of work and be at the top of your game to score over 90%).

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    • Anon on said:

      I teach a large (~200 student) senior-level undergraduate class, and this is exactly my experience. Students get easy As in lower division classes without putting in much effort, and are very upset that similar effort in my class earns them a B or an A-. (As a back story, our lower division classes are mostly taught by lecturers and while they do a good job and earn great student evaluations, the level of rigor is perhaps a little lower.)

      The students who are really struggling in my class are usually quite grateful when they manage to pass.

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  7. JProf on said:

    I think grades are often meaningless, unfortunately. I believe that grades often better measure how disciplined and organized a student is and how good their study skills are–not how much of the course content they have learned or mastered. Of course, the assessment freaks would probably respond by informing me that if this is the case, then I’m doing grading and assessment wrong.

    I do, however, value externally imposed deadlines–I know they’re very helpful for me in getting my own work done. And I do follow my grading scale for final course grades–not because I’m trying to assert my authority, but simply because if you get a 78.8 in my class, that’s a C, not a B (which is 80-89), according to the grading scale. (But if a student gets, let’s say, a 79.3, I often consider that close enough to a B and give the student a B instead of being a dick about it.)

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  8. I am grading right now and I think these students should have been failed, possibly out of school, some time ago. They know nothing. I don’t think they should be passed just because they learned how to jump through hoops — they should have to know something to pass. But we don’t care about that, we just want them to get passing grades on tests we prepare them for, when the preparation doesn’t in fact teach them anything except how to fill out a certain bureaucratic piece of paper in a certain way.

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    • Problem is, when a person doesn’t want to learn, there’s nothing you can do. Ultimately, it’s their decision not to learn.

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      • In which case they should flunk out. But they cannot, because we need their money, so ways must be found to pass them without requiring learning. That is “effectiveness.”

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  9. JProf on said:

    “Problem is, when a person doesn’t want to learn, there’s nothing you can do. Ultimately, it’s their decision not to learn.”

    I totally agree with this. However, in terms of evaluation of faculty and tenure decisions, the interpretation of this perspective is that the faculty member is an ineffective teacher. I’d love to do away with cell phone, laptop, attendance policies, etc., in my classes and not care if my students are paying attention or not, but my colleagues, if and when they observe my classes, would evaluate me as less effective than other profs if some of my students were on the Internet or using their phones during class.

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