Tuesday, December 14, 2010

What difference does it make that you get an "A"?

The students are handing in their papers and writing final exams. Once the grades are in (and even before that), it will begin. The grade grubbing. It's my least favorite part of the semester. It has already started; students who have missed a lot of assignments and then have not done well on major papers are at my desk before and after class, asking if there is anything they can do (build a time machine, go back to the beginning of the semester, do better). But the students who really frustrate me are those students who come to me demanding to know:

"Why didn't I get an A" or "How can I get an A"? 

I tell my students at the beginning of the semester that if they work hard, attend class, do the assignments both big and small, take it seriously, and take advantage of the services and support offered to them, then there is no reason why they can't all get A's. But as the semester progresses, it becomes clear that some of the students' only motivation is to get an A. It doesn't matter that becoming a better writer is a valuable life skill, they just want to know what list of changes they need to make in order to make something into an "A" paper. It's one of the reasons why I try to keep from too heavily editing students' papers; the students don't see it as an opportunity to learn, only an opportunity to get an A. 

There has been a lot of debate recently about how we evaluate students and how pressure to do well (get a high GPA) is leading to an erosion of the educational experience. Students increasingly don't see anything wrong with cheating; all that counts is that, in the end, they get their high grade and their degree. I try to work with my students on the process of writing, in order to make the writing the focus, instead of the grade. But it doesn't work. Especially since many of my classes are general education requirements that students think should be easier because they have to take them, in part to make up for lower grades earned in their more demanding classes in their major. 

And so the student who comes to me complaining about a B will be met with one question: why is it so important that your grade be an A? What are your priorities? Why? And then, what didn't you do this semester that kept you from getting an A? Earning a B in my class may be the opportunity a student needs to really take a hard look at why they are in school and how their behavior and choices are undermining their ultimate goals and aspirations. But, it is also a good time to ask, what difference will that A really make? 

I've earned A's and I've earned D's. I've had wild successes and massive failures. If all I did was stop at the letter grade assigned to any project or assignment, where would I be? I was wholly unprepared for a job because there wasn't the finality of a grade one way or the other, and that my bosses we not as ready or willing to reward me with the same accolades my work had previously earned. In school, the grade is final. At work, my writing was constantly being edited, revised, rewritten, and, worst of all for me, heavily critiqued. While I would always forget about a good or bad grade immediately after it had been posted, I didn't really learn anything, or was I ever motivated to improve. Working was a rude awakening to how inadequately I was prepared, despite my stellar (and not so stellar) grades.

What difference is that A really going to make? 


  1. The eternal battle with students over grades is one of the great failings of our educational system.

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  3. I think a lot of students don't appreciate the process of learning, they just care about the end and the reward. It's as if they feel entitled to get an A.

    It could also be because of their own or their parents' expectations (an emphasis on grades, on financial success..) or it may be that they see anything below an "A" as failure, which is wrong, especially if there was dedication and conscious effort put into getting that, let's say, B.

  4. If you've not already read Cal Newport's post on hacking the psychology of student motivation, I recommend you check it out.


  5. Interesting article about grades. I think the only issue is that it ignores the fact that many students strive to get "A"s because Bachelor education no longer holds the prestige it did in the past. With more students recognizing the need for extended education past a Bachelor degree, more students understand that getting all "A"s is the only way they will be able to gain entry into these higher education programs.

  6. @Martin: Thanks. That was a really interesting post. It reminds me a little of a college 101 class that is supposed to set up students for success. Unfortunately, the advice to do less and focus on studies often falls on deaf ears. The undergraduate degree has become more of a social thing than an intellectual thing. It's about making connections and making memories.

    I am please to say that after having posted (but not submitted) the grades, I only received a handful of emails begging me to provide for them an extra assignment in order for their grade to move up a letter (we don't have + or -, just A, B, C, D, E). I didn't bother answering; they already knew the answer.

  7. Aha.

    This is an important topic, and I struggle with it, too. It seems to me that university is become a place to gain a credential, rather than an education. And so with grades: an A is a credential, but learning to write a better sentence, or learning that you are a procrastinator who needs to work on time management, or learning that history moves you more than literature? That's education. And by focusing on the former, many students forget that the grade is not arbitrary, but meant to correlate in SOME CAUSAL WAY with the latter.

    It's hard.

  8. One of my housemates (we're seniors at a respected private university on the East Coast; she's a philosophy major and I'm a history major) and I had a talk about this at the end of last semester and came to the following conclusion:

    If we really learned something in a class and tried our best, we're okay with whatever the grade is. I've had some Bs that I've worked my ass off for, and I'm prouder of them than the As that didn't require as much effort. BUT if the class was awful and a waste of our time (which unfortunately, some were), an A is the only thing that's going to make it worthwhile. Everybody would like an A, obviously, but I'm only truly annoyed if I didn't get one if I don't have anything else to show for the class.


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