Thursday, February 19, 2009

Pleasing Students?! Or failing them?

There have been some interesting posts lately from FSP and MrsCH about student reactions to lower than expected grades from their professors/TAs... and the comments/discussion over at FSP was up to 32 comments last time I checked. Go check it out, it's worth the read....

Now, as neither a student anymore, nor a prof yet, I think I must fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum of opinions. I don't buy this not giving grades thing, nor do I think that trying really really hard is enough for an A. Examinations test knowledge and understanding. If you don't understand and fail to answer the questions well enough to demonstrate sufficient knowledge to warrant getting the points allocated to that question, you get a low grade. Period. How can people seriously argue that someone should get a A just for showing up to class? Doesn't an A mean anything to anybody anymore?

I've read the argument that grades are so important for getting into grad school, getting a job, etc. But how does giving everyone, despite drastically different levels of mastering of the subject matter, the same (arbitrarily high) mark help matters? Then the grades again become meaningless. I see grades as a way to rank performance. Of course, at least some component of the marking scheme for a given class/assignment/exam is likely to be subjective and based on the professor's opinion of the student's "quality" performance in that subject, but really, if you haven't internalized the material for the class, why should you get credit for it?

There's a reason you need all As and a perfect GPA to get into top schools.... because so many people have them due to false inflation of grades! If students were assigned grades on a scale that actually reflected performance the overall average GPA would likely fall, and then so would the admission standards. Or not. And then many fewer people would enter graduate programs.

Now, on the other hand, I was talking with Husband last week when he got back from his most recent tenure-track interview when the topic of teaching evaluations came up. They form an important part of tenure decisions and for that reason, it is definitely in the professor's best interest to score positively in the students' eyes. But at what cost? I think this must also be part of the explanation for grade inflation. Profs don't want to be harda$$es and grade tough because they know this will be reflected as a poor score in teaching evaluations, regardless of whether the professor is actually a good teacher/mentor.

This I think relates to the bigger problem of consumerized education systems. Tuition to universities and colleges is not cheap (at least not in North America). And, in my experience as a student and a TA, many students feel a strong sense of entitlement that they are paying for their university degree, and it's the fault of the professors if they don't get it (at the stellar inflated grading level they expect). What ever happened to responsibility for your own actions? Or acknowledging that just because you want to be a (insert highly paid profession here) doesn't mean you have the aptitude to pull it off? Do you want to be treated by your doctor/represented by a lawyer who got As in all her classes just for showing up? Or would you rather have someone who has been judged objectively based on competence throughout her academic career and found to be capable? (Please, understand that I'm not saying the only qualitites required for being a top physician are academic success, personality, dedication, compassion etc are all very important factors as well, of course, and these are evaluated separately by things like recommendation letters, personal interviews and volunteer experiences in care-giving roles).

I think that it is unfortunate that so much in our society is based on numerical evaluations. It's a bit of a broken system, I know. (part of that comes from illogical pay scale differences among different professions and how our consumer society drives people to attain high paying careers over careers more suited to their own unique qualitites and talents, but that's another post) And that must be where the desire not to evaluate based on points assigned to question X lies. But it is also twisted that there seems to be a feeling that time and money (and if all else fails, whining) are enough to get whatever you want.

1 comment:

  1. Great post!

    Do you want to be treated by your doctor/represented by a lawyer who got As in all her classes just for showing up?

    That's the scary part! Grade inflation is definitely an issue. I know the entrance requirement for our university is in the 80%'s - which is completely ridiculous! Especially when you find out the students don't know simple math, spelling or grammar.