13 June 2005

But I worked really hard

Alicia Shepard writes about being a teacher in an era of grade inflation.

John Watson, who teaches journalism ethics and communications law at
American, has noticed another phenomenon: Many students, he says,
believe that simply working hard — though not necessarily doing
excellent work — entitles them to an A. “I can’t tell you how many
times I’ve heard a student dispute a grade, not on the basis of
in-class performance,” says Watson, “but on the basis of how hard they
tried. I appreciate the effort, and it always produces positive
results, but not always the exact results the student wants. We all
have different levels of talent.”

It’s a concept that many
students (and their parents) have a hard time grasping. Working hard,
especially the night before a test or a paper due date, does not
necessarily produce good grades.

“At the age of 50, if I work
extremely hard, I can run a mile in eight minutes,” says Watson. “I
have students who can jog through a mile in seven minutes and barely
sweat. They will always finish before me and that’s not fair. Or is it?”

This resonates.  I can’t tell you how often students come to me
to express disappointment with a grade, saying that they worked really
hard.  I offer to find out the number of hours everyone in the
class worked and assign grades based on who spent the greatest number
of hours.  Generally, they look puzzled as to why we might do it
that way.  But it’s the same as if I give credit for “effort.”

I’m diappointed to say that I think my average grade works out to
being between a B+ and B, which I think is high.  But since the
mean grade at Harvard College is 3.4 (where a B+ is a 3.3), I’m still
somewhat tough for this milieu.  I’d like to be tougher, but I’m
not really in charge of the grading standard.

And then there’s consumerism, he says. Pure and simple, tuition at a
private college runs, on average, nearly $28,000 a year. If parents pay
that much, they expect nothing less than A’s in return. “Therefore, if
the teacher gives you a B, that’s not acceptable,” says Levine,
“because the teacher works for you. I expect A’s, and if I’m getting
B’s, I’m not getting my money’s worth.”

Rojstaczer agrees: “We’ve
made a transition where attending college is no longer a privilege and
an honor; instead college is a consumer product. One of the negative
aspects of this transition is that the role of a college-level teacher
has been transformed into that of a service employee.”

argues that we “service employees” are doing students a disservice if
we cave in to the demand for top grades. “One of the things an
education should do is let you know what you do well in and what you
don’t,” he says. “If everybody gets high grades, you don’t learn that.”

I hate having to tell students that their $28,000 buys them a right
to sit in a class and be taught by the people who know the most about
what they are teaching of anyone in the world.  But nothing more
than that.

Finally, I haven’t been able to find an effective way to tell
students that failing to get an A does not mean they did anything
“wrong.”  They want to know what they lack, and now that I think
about it, my grading comments have often focused on what their papers
lacked.  But a non-A grade does not mean one has done wrong, but
rather that one’s work was not of the highest quality.  Any grade
is like a movie review, in a sense.  It’s (or should be) an
indicator of how a particular paper measures up to a standard of
ideals, and if the student comes close to those standards, s/he should
get an A.  Few students get to this standard.  Which is all
right.  Some students are Mozarts, but many, many more are

And lest one think that our standards are capricious whim, they are
not.  Most of the grad students and professors I know work very
hard, talking with colleagues and teaching staffs and thinking on the
matter, to establish some sort of grading standard.  I’ve spent a
lot of time in teaching staff meetings talking about what should get
what grades.  We take this seriously, and many of us want to be
rigorous, because we want the best for our students.  We want them
to work hard at thinking and writing, even if the grade doesn’t account
for that, because we want them to learn habits that will allow them to
do the best they can do.

Posted in IvoryTower on 13 June 2005 at 9:56 am by Nate