Saturday, February 21, 2009

"A" for effort

 
Anyone involved in teaching has heard the sob story. One student works really, really hard in the course but only gets 65% on the final exam. Another student gets 95% without breaking a sweat.

The "C" student thinks this is very unfair. They should get a much higher mark because they put so much effort into the course.

The issue is addressed in the New York Times a few days ago [Student Expectations Seen as Causing Grade Disputes].
In line with Dean Hogge’s observation are Professor Greenberger’s test results. Nearly two-thirds of the students surveyed said that if they explained to a professor that they were trying hard, that should be taken into account in their grade.

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.”
Michelle Cottle has a comment in The New Republic [An A for Effort? Talk About a Lousy Idea]. Now, this isn't a publication that I routinely look to for views that are similar to my own1 but her comment below pretty much hits the nail on the head as far as I'm concerned.
No, Jason. What would be wrong is if a university trained its students to believe that they were excellent simply for getting up off their futons and doing what was expected of them. Did the reading? Attended class? Stayed up late working on a paper? Good for you, puppy! Sure, you did a craptastic job on that paper--not to mention the final--suggesting that you have no more than a fourth-grader's grasp of the material. But what the hell!? You worked hard. You showed up--even when you had that reallllly bad hangover. You may not have learned much, but you sure did try. Have a nice fat A. And here's hoping it comes in handy when your first employer fires you for not being able to tell your ass from your elbow when it comes to doing your job.

Sweet Jesus, where did such dizzying nonsense come from? Sure, it's easy to blame today's youth for being whiny, spoiled, and entitled. But the kids had to get these delusional ideas from somewhere. I suspect at least part of the blame lies with all those well-intentioned self-esteem-boosting messages that anxious parents, educators, and coaches feel compelled to spout in this era of making every child feel like a winner all the time. You know, the cheery, you-can-do-it mantras along the lines of, "All that matters is that you tried," "The only way to fail is not to try at all."

Um. No. While I understand the self-defeating doubt that we're trying to short-circuit here, there are, practically speaking, lots of ways to fail--much less fail to get an A. One of those is by not having much of an aptitude for a particular area of study. Not all of us are equipped to be rocket scientists, economists, or playwrights, just as not all of us are equipped to be actors or professional basketball players. 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."
Hopeful Monster has something to say over on Chance and Necessity [Student effort ≠ high grades].

I want students to recognize that part of what we're testing is innate ability, or intelligence. There's no getting around it. If you are smart and you work hard you are going to get a higher grade than a student who works hard but isn't very smart. It's unfortunate that there are very smart students who don't have to work hard to get an "A," but that's life. What should count in university is how well you understand the material, not how much effort you put in while trying to understand.

By the way, I think that university Professors have to shoulder a great deal of the blame for the current sad state of "higher" education. It's not just the students. We Professors have always had the power to fix the problems but for the most part we have done nothing about it. Many of us have actually contributed to the problems by giving out marks for attendance and allowing "extra" assignments to raise your grade.


1. By this, I don't mean to imply that The New York Times is any better.

18 comments:

  1. And here's hoping it comes in handy when your first employer fires you for not being able to tell your ass from your elbow when it comes to doing your job.

    Actually that's a pretty good idea.
    In many fields school is out of touch with the realities of the job market, and all they require of you from school is something you'd get a D for, but they require extra stuff that was not taught in school.

    Computer science comes to mind.

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  2. When a student requests credit for 'effort', I point out that s/he has already received such credit: by earning a 'B' or 'C' on an assignment rather than a 'D' or an 'F'. I will point out that what s/he is really asking, then, is to receive credit for 'effort' not once but twice. Another fact I point out is that I have no independent way of verifying student effort other than by looking at the results. If I were to go on the say-so of each student, grades would rapidly become meaningless, and students would soon be complaining about unfairness when student so-and-so receives an 'A' for his claim of doing work that other students 'know' he didn't perform. ('You can believe me when I say that I put in a lot of effort, but don't believe my classmate who makes the same claim'.) These explanations are usually sufficient to bring an end to student importuning.

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  3. Call me crazy but hasn't it become pretty obvious that people are going to university solely because it's the 'next logical step'? We've got people signing up for honours research projects not because they're actually interested in research, but rather because it'll look better on their med-/law-/X-school application. They don't put in a lick of effort, and yet no one seems to fail.

    I've asked some profs why no one fails, and I've been told that it's 'not worth the effort'. We're creating this crazy university mentality that's completely at odds with the expectations of the real world. Do you get extensions for job interviews or grant applications? No. A 4th year student who had two months to write a paper only to hand it in two days late is lazy. But hey, it's perhaps only a 5% mark penalty, so no big deal. Too bad that in real life it's the difference between potentially getting an NSERC scholarship and not even being considered.

    I'm ranting here but I hear so many people complain about these problems when there are some good, at least potential, solutions on the table. Stop coddling the students and encouraging them to complain and expect better marks.

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  4. I don't know how things are at the big research universities, but at many of the smaller "teaching" oriented universities, faculty are under immense pressure to be popular with the students.

    People actually look at sites such as "rate your professor" and use that against people!

    Even worse, faculty who hold the line on standards are frequently undermined by faculty in other departments (some in the engineering departments are the worst offenders )

    At some places, the inmates are really running the asylum.

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  5. Perhaps not completely relevant, but on high school report cards they gave separate grades for achievement (A-F) and for effort (1-4). Of course this resulted in childish games with the teacher every semester - it was often easy to get an A, the only challenge was how far down we could push the effort grade.

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  6. I don't know how things are at the big research universities, but at many of the smaller "teaching" oriented universities, faculty are under immense pressure to be popular with the students.

    Same or worse. At least for non-tenured faculty. Why do you think Harvard undergrad education is so famous for grade inflation?

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  7. Coincidence

    I am in the process of reviewing an English grammar and writing text book for College English courses and in an example of "freewriting," the hypothetical? student complains about not getting a B- in a required English course even though the student struggled and learned hard work. The student claims the best teachers are the ones who award a high B or an A to students who struggle and work hard.

    I intend to recommend that the authors delete this example because it suggests/implies that the student is making a valid point.

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  8. Ollie says,

    At some places, the inmates are really running the asylum.

    I agree. That's why I can't blame the students for everything that's wrong with universities.

    It's actually our own fault.

    And we can fix it if we have the guts to do it.

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  9. Somewhere along the way the purpose of school has been lost. As a teacher of ninth-graders for over 21 years I've noticed that the only things students expect out of school are grades. Parents seem to think this as well. Everyone seems to have forgotten that grades are only a measure of learning, the real purpose of school.

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  10. If people were going to school in order to learn, there would be no need for grades. We only have them because we need to somehow ensure that people actually learn something despite their unwillingness to do so. But if people don't want to learn they will always find various ways to cheat out of it and the system will break down, unless great effort is invested in monitoring the outcome of the process. Which will never happen as for teachers and professors the path of least resistance is grade inflation and saving oneself the effort of dealing with unhappy students.

    If we want to change things, it will involve cultivating a culture of respect for knowledge and learning, and this has to start long before a child even enters school. Until we do this (and we will not), we will have people going to high school so that they can go to college after that, and going to college so that they can get a job/get into med school or law school, and then going to med school or law school so that they can get paid after that, and acquiring only the bare minimum of knowledge required for them to progress further.

    However, the predominant view in society today is that education's purpose is to prepare people for the job market...

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  11. Same or worse. At least for non-tenured faculty. Why do you think Harvard undergrad education is so famous for grade inflation?

    Also, don't forget who goes to places like Harvard - it is usually the most ambitious students, and the overlap between those and the students who are in it for the science/art/whatever they study, and not for the career, isn't necessarily large. This is especially true for a place like Harvard which is extremely prestigious, but in the same time science isn't the dominant thing going on. My impression is that institutions entirely dedicated to science and technology like MIT and Caltech tend to be better, but not by much.

    So on average, it actually quite worse at Harvard than it is at a smaller university. I have heard stories from friends who have had friends of theirs TA-ing at Harvard, and who have tried to assign real grades. It totally didn't work because and after a series of complaints, they had to go back to grade inflation after the second or third assignment....

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  12. It's unfortunate that there are very smart students who don't have to work hard to get an "A," but that's life.

    This seems a minor point in this discussion, but could you please clarify for me why it is unfortunate that there exist some students with high inate abilities in their chosen field of study?

    Unfortunate for whom?

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  13. However, the predominant view in society today is that education's purpose is to prepare people for the job market...

    The Universities are enthusiastic collaborators in promulgating this point of view, otherwise ridiculously high tuition levels are impossible to justify. Academia sold its soul long ago and it's just silly and embarrassing to pretend otherwise now.

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  14. TheBrummell,

    This seems a minor point in this discussion, but could you please clarify for me why it is unfortunate that there exist some students with high inate abilities in their chosen field of study?

    Unfortunate for whom?


    Unfortunate for those students who have to work hard to keep up.

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  15. OMG, what if we start evaluating ideas by results? What becomes of ID when just believing it really really hard, or trying one's very best to make it look scientific, doesn't count for anything?

    The unsubtle point being that the DI is feeding off of this ill-begotten concept of "equality" regardless of results.

    Glen Davidson

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  16. quoth TheBrummell:

    This seems a minor point in this discussion, but could you please clarify for me why it is unfortunate that there exist some students with high inate abilities in their chosen field of study?

    Unfortunate for whom?


    For all but the most superlatively gifted, there will inevitably come a time when even someone with a high level of innate aptitude will need to actually do some work in order to be able to grasp the material, pass a test or write a paper sooner than the night before. It is unfortunate for the student if the stakes are high the first time they have that experience.

    (That is why some places like MIT have a pass/fail-with-no-record grading system for first year students - some of these kids may have been always been the top student in their school without even trying, but suddenly they find themselves in a situation where everyone around them is as just as smart if not smarter than they are.)

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  17. I think administrators and parents earn more of the blame than faculty. At research-oriented universities non-tenured faculty may have the power to stick to their guns on grades as it is their grantsmanship more than their teaching that gets them tenure. But this certainly is not the case at smaller teaching-oriented schools. Here, we have high level administrators that credulously accept student and parent complaints. We have a history of deans changing student grades to satisfy parents (particularly alumni parents). At the small schools where donations and tuition fuel the operating budget, it is a constant struggle to maintain the standards to which we were held when we were students. The administrators often praise us publicly, but routinely undermine our efforts.

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  18. Dr. Moran: Unfortunate for those students who have to work hard to keep up.

    Only if the course work is somehow relative. Would these hard-working students be any more or less fortunate if their classmates who work less and get better grades were absent? If grades are effectively relative, then the grade of the top performing student in the class impacts the grades of all other students. If grades are instead independent of relative position within a class, then the presence or absence of a high-flyer makes no difference to a mediocre student. Except, of course, in the realm of emotional responses to other people, such as jealousy.

    Theo Bromine: For all but the most superlatively gifted, there will inevitably come a time when even someone with a high level of innate aptitude will need to actually do some work in order to be able to grasp the material, pass a test or write a paper sooner than the night before. It is unfortunate for the student if the stakes are high the first time they have that experience.

    I like this justification much more. It is clearly true that for many first-year university students, their previous comfortable position at the top of the academic pile has been suddenly lost. This is certainly how I felt in my first year as an undergrad. Forcing people to develop good study habits as early as possible seems worthwhile, to avoid crushing failures when the stakes are higher.

    This I think brings us back to the main discussion: mediocre students clamoring for credit for mere effort is sympomatic that such low-stakes failure-and-learning has not occured. Is there a way to tell such a student to suck it up without coming across as rude enough to generate a complaint (and a parental complaint)?

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