Last week, final grades were released to students. I know this because, like clockwork, that’s when I start receiving emails from students regarding their final grades. Some express anger; others sadness. Some plead their cases; others demand immediate action. Regardless of tone, language, and length, these emails always boil down to the exact same question:
What can I do to get a better grade?
Whenever I receive such an email, my first response is to go back to my notes and make sure that the posted grade was, in fact, the right grade. Several years ago, while in grad school, I mistyped and accidentally gave a student a lower grade. No matter how many times I double-check before posting final grades, I know that accidents happen.
However, that was not the case this semester. One student – who missed more classes than he attended and never once brought a book to class – sent me more emails regarding his final grade in one day than he sent me all semester regarding his performance during the semester.* In these emails, the student begged and pleaded for a chance to improve his grade. Of course, the semester is over, the grades have been submitted, and there’s nothing to be done.
But it did get me thinking about this post, one I’ve been meaning to write for a while.
There have been a number of posts over the years and around the internet arguing against seeing colleges and universities as corporate entities concerned primarily with customer service.** This push has come from both administration and students: administration is continually looking for ways to decrease the size and power of the work force, while students increasingly expect their tuition dollars to provide them grades. (Yes, I know that I am over-simplifying a complex development. I’m happy to have a more detailed discussion in the comments.) I’ve written before on aspects of the former; the rest of this post will address the latter.
I have been teaching for nearly 20 years, and over that time I have come to realize that there will always be students who only care about the grades. Hell, there were times when I was that student: I can tell you that I didn’t give a damn about the Geology course I took in college for one of my science requirements; I only cared about how that class would impact my GPA (because I knew I wanted to go to grad school). So I’m not going to sit here and pretend that there was once a time when all students cared about learning, and somewhere along the way everything went to hell. We all know better.
That said, I believe that many of us faculty are (perhaps unknowingly) contributing to the move to corporatize the university. According to oversimplified model I employed above, students pay tuition for a degree; in order to receive that degree, they must reach a specified level of achievement; therefore, students are paying for the grades they need to graduate with a degree. In short, the product that students pay for is the degree, not the education. Now, we can all wring our hands and shake our fists and complain about how awful this is, but then we should sit back and remember that we are also part of the problem.
We are part of the problem because we encourage students to think of the grade as the product. In fact, many of us will bemoan the current state of affairs, wondering why students only care about grades, all the while using grades to punish students, guide behavior, or at the very least as the carrot we hold out for them to chase. Now, I’m not going to say that I have all the answers (or even any of the answers), but I am doing my best to design classes that emphasize learning over grade-grubbing.***
Let me use one example: attendance policies. As I have written before, I do not like attendance policies. I used to penalize students for lack of attendance, and the punishment always came as a form of grade reduction (and most of the college faculty I know have some sort of policy in their syllabi). I understand the rationale for such policies: if students don’t come to class, then they can’t learn, and if they don’t learn, they shouldn’t be able to earn good grades. However, if the students aren’t learning, won’t they earn low grades anyway? Taking points off of their grade thus seems needlessly punitive. If the student can miss class and still earn good marks, why should that student be penalized for not being physically present in the room? In other words, when constructing attendance policies, what’s the motivation: to get students to learn or to put their asses in the seats? If the students can demonstrate an ability to learn, then what are we teaching them by penalizing them for lack of physical presence? “I’m sorry, but even though you learned all the material and demonstrated that learning on the exams, you missed too many classes. You earned an A, but here’s your B.”
Additionally, I’ve talked with many people about such policies, and they all seem completely arbitrary. Many faculty use something called “excused absences.” You are allowed to miss an arbitrary number of classes with no punishment; after you hit that arbitrary number, however, you lose points. For some, it’s 3 classes and 5 points (out of 100) for each additional absence; for others, it’s 5 classes and 3 points. Or whatever. At some point, to me, it’s all just numbers. Why, if physical presence is so important, do they get “unexcused absences”? If X number of absences is pedagogically justifiable, why is X+1 over the line? And how do people come up with the points they deduct? If 5 points, why not 6, or 13, or 2? Personally, I’m more interested in grading they work that they do, and not the work that they do adjusted for the number of times something was more important to my students than that day’s class.^
In my mind – and I’m happy to be convinced otherwise if there is something I’m missing or misunderstanding – attendance policies encourage students to recognize that the grade is the goal, and that students should adjust their behavior in order to maximize their chances at earning a good grade. I understand that the goal of the policy is to get students into the space where learning happens. But the result, from what I can tell, is that we are training students to associate grades with attendance, and not with learning. (Again, if a student misses class and is able to keep up with the work, meet with classmates, form a study group, and learn the material, should that really be penalized?^^)
Similarly, I cannot grade with rubrics. I understand rubrics even less than I understand attendance policies. While I appreciate the effort at standardizing what can often seem to be a completely subjective procedure, too often such rubrics seem either arbitrary (thus making them no more objective than grades not based on rubrics) or exist to encourage students to consider the grade as more important than the learning.
For instance, here are two rubrics I found online for grading essays (there are many others, but I only need two to make my point). Look carefully at them. Now, not knowing the assignments or the classes, perhaps my comments will be entirely unfair. But I’m going to make them anyway. For one rubric, proper use of evidence is worth 25% of the paper’s total grade; for the other, it’s worth less than 20%. Now I understand that all faculty – even those teaching the same courses in the same program – will have individual approaches to grading; we cannot expect the kind of uniformity we might expect from multiple-choice exams, where the grade is the same regardless of who grades the material. But why should “good” be 85% and not another percentage? Why not 80%? Why not 90%? Why a multiple of 5? (Is it just to make the end of semester math easier?) However, that’s not my real concern. My real concern is with how rubrics hide the arbitrariness of grading. What, for instance, constitutes content that is “somewhat accurate and fairly clear”? What is the difference between “evidence support argument adequately” and “evidence […] makes the argument soar”? Honestly, once we start using metaphor, we have lost any attempt at objectivity.
But more importantly for my post, I truly do not understand the use of pedagogically irrelevant grading policies. I have known faculty who have taken points off of papers if those papers did not have page numbers (and in the “correct” location, however the professor decides what that location should be), did not include the date in the header, were not stapled, and were not handed in in person. Not one of these, in my thinking, has any bearing on the work being graded. I cannot imagine telling a student, for instance, that while the paper earned an A, it’s lack of a staple and page numbers make it a B+ paper. What lesson are such policies teaching students? Certainly one lesson learned is that the grade is more important than the learning. If a student can perform A-level work and not earn an A, then we have divorced grading from learning. And because it’s the grades that get recorded and posted, the grades become the goal, not the learning.
I’d like to end this post by describing one of the most creative approaches to grading I have ever experienced. While I was at UConn, I had the great opportunity to take a class with Ann Charters. While there is much about this course that should merit discussion (and might in future posts), it’s her approach to grading that I’d like to mention. On the first day of class, Annie told us that we had all already earned As for the course. Regardless of what we would do with the rest of the semester, each of us would earn a 4.0. This washer effort to free us from concerns about the final grade. What would we do, in other words, without the pressure of GPA guiding our decisions. As I’ve noted before, one of my interests as an educator is getting students to take risks with their work. Fairly often, I work with students who make choices about their research that minimize their chances at earning a lower grade, as opposed to working to maximize their chances at learning. Even though I think we can all agree that we can learn from failure, failure is the enemy of GPA.
So what Annie did was eliminate the pressure of failure. She wanted to encourage us to design and complete projects that best suited our intellectual needs. I remember spending my time researching environmental writing from the 1960s, not knowing what I would eventually write my final paper on. It was freeing. I was able to read, take notes, and learn, without worrying about what my final paper would look like. I did eventually write such a paper, but it was not a traditional final essay, the kind graduate students write as training for eventually publishing an academic article (or that eventually becomes an article itself). Instead, I wrote a rather passionate argument regarding why she should reconsider the choices she made regarding an anthology she was completing at the time, the work for which she shared with us over the course of the semester. After immersing myself in a variety of popular publications and relatively-unknown small-press works, reading about environmental approaches to literary and cultural studies, and reviewing the rest of the anthology, I made suggestions about the inclusion of some works over others. I did not expect her to accept all my suggestions, but she did accept some, which pleased me immensely. More importantly, however, I learned a great deal about the subject matter, worked with resources I likely would not have worked with otherwise, and was exposed to aspects of the publishing world that I had previously been entirely ignorant of.^^^
Needless to say, I learned a great deal in that class, and my learning had nothing to do with my grade, which was assigned before I did any work for the class. And in the many years since that class, I have often wondered about how I might adapt that experience to my own classes.
Not every student had the same experience I had, however. One student took advantage of Annie’s experiment and clearly did not use it to learn. He often came to class without having done the reading, and admitted to me that he didn’t put any effort into the paper. For this one student, the class was an easy A, and not a chance to explore something freely. And while I am very tempted to try this in one of my own classes, I know that I would end up with several such students, who take the A and run.
As I noted above, I don’t have all the answers. I may not have any of them, in fact. But I am very interested in finding ways to encourage learning as opposed to encouraging grades. I know it’s common for faculty to complain about grading. However, in my experience, grading is not hard because we have to read student work. Grading is hard because we have to assign a grade to student work. What’s the difference between a C+ and a B-? This is an extremely important question, because the end result will be recorded, factored into the final grade, and have an effect on the student’s overall GPA. That small difference could be the difference between passing and failing, between honor roll and not, between funding and not. Grading, in my opinion, would be a much easier part of the job if all we had to do was read and comment on the work, providing feedback on what works and what could be improved, engaging in a conversation with the student about where students can go with this work and what they are learning. But having to assign it a grade (whether letter or number) reduces the learning to a commodity. This, I am convinced, is why so many students flip to the last page of the essay to see the grade before ever reading (if they ever do) my commentary on their work. At the end of the day, it’s the grade that matters. And it’s not because students are inherently grade-grubbing or anti-intellectual. It’s because of the variety of ways they have been trained to see the grade as the only thing that matters.
And yes, many of us are complicit in this development with our classroom and grading policies.
If anyone has any thoughts about how they emphasize learning over grading, I’d love to hear them. What have been your successes and failures?
*Which was none. Nor did he speak in class all semester. Or come to office hours. There was a period of 4 weeks when I was convinced he had dropped the class.
**This is also a move by corporations to fund colleges in order to control curricula.
***I understand that there are many reasons why students focus on grades, and some of those factors are imposed on them by colleges and universities. In addition to graduation, many aspects of student life are determined (at least in part) by GPA, including but certainly not limited to: housing opportunities, financial aid, extra-curricular opportunities, work-study positions, and participation in athletics.
^Seriously, I do not understand the concept of “excused absences.” If the point is to make sure that the student is present in the room, why should it matter why that student missed class? The student who missed class because of a medical emergency is just as absent as the student who missed class because of a nap. If the first student is allowed to miss class without punishment and make up the work, why shouldn’t the second student be able to? I mean, other than the desire some faculty have to punish students for not having the same priorities as their professors.
^^In case you are wondering, that student I discussed at the start of the post? His grade was based entirely on his written work. I’m sure that some of you were outraged at the student’s behavior. Perhaps you may find it outrageous to learn that, had his work earned him a passing grade, he would have passed the class, despite all of his absences.
^^^To give one example, I learned about the difficulty of securing permissions. Sometimes, no matter how much you’d like to include a work in an anthology, it will never happen. Some authors demand more money than an editor and/or press is willing to pay. Others have ideological objections to inclusion. Others still are impossible to locate or never respond to your requests. I had always thought that anthologies were expressions of the editor’s choices. How silly of me.