Friday, May 13, 2011

Loss of Classroom Autonomy and Grade Grubbing

After mecifully not having too many grade grubbers last semester, this semester, they have come out of the woodwork. I have one particular student who has sent me multiple emails (starting about three weeks before the end of the semeser) begging me for bonus work because the student knew that s/he was far away from getting an A. I don`t do bonus work, but I did allow the student to hand in an assignment that s/he had missed. It was only worth 5%, but, as the student figured out, those 5% assignments add up quickly. The student actually wrote to me that s/he received A`s on all of the major writing assignments and refused to get a B in the class because of some "stupid" 5% quizzes and assignments.

And this is where things start to get a bit tricky for me; there is a significant portion of the grade in my class that is based not on what I have assigned and developed, but things that I have been forced on me because of` "accountability" and "student learning outcomes." I have tried to minimize the impact that these assignments and quizzes could have on the students` final grades, but inevitably, they add up.

So I`m torn; part of me wants to just round everyone`s grades up if they completed the "required" portions and be done with it. But part of me also wants to write that a) it was clearly outlined on a syllabus that these assignments would be worth something and b) they should be grateful that I am technically not following the guidelines by making these assignments only worth 5% each (they are supposed to be worth 10% each). And still another part of me wants to say, look at your homework grade. That`s where you lost your A.

But this situation raises a great deal of questions for me. My students` know that certain parts of the course are not of my doing nor are these parts what I want to be doing or evaluating. And I resent the fact that so much of my students` grades are based on elements I have absolutely no control over. As we increasingly stadardize college courses, particularly general education and writing courses, what are we really accomplishing other than simply collecting "data" and undermining the authority and autonomy of the individual instructor? Students are not stupid; mine have figured out the weakness in the process and are exploiting it for their own benefit.
And I feel powerless to stop them, really. I am tempted to really commit career suicide by recommending to the student that if s/he is unhappy with the grade I assigned, then they should take it up with the Provost, the person responsible for all of these "assessement" measures. I know it will get kicked back down to our department, saying that we were "free" to develop whatever assessment measures we wanted (just as long as they fit into this long list of requirements that have nothing to do with our dicipline).

Maybe this will help students understand and fight back on this move towards standardization in higher education. Because the faculty certainly aren`t getting anywhere.


  1. Creeping content standardization has been going for a while - faster and sooner discernible in some places (4profits, tech schools, cc's more career and certificate than transfer oriented) than others. I'd like to think there is still time to turn back the tide but have doubts.

    Have you seen this article on cornering the education market?

  2. You make a great point. But I also see the possibility to do one of your other "in real life" teaching moments.

    Because "in real life", many people work in bureaucratic organizations. And they are required to do stuff that seems pointless even though it doesn't seem to contribute to getting the results their employer needs and wants. It's frustrating and feels like a waste of time, but they have to do it.

    The fact is, higher education institutions are pretty big, and bureaucratic, and have some pretty silly rules. They are not unlike other large organizations in this respect.

    I hope it is clear that I agree with you on the loss of autonomy and ridiculousness of these "accountability requirements".

  3. US higher education is dead. The average grade is nearing an 'A' by now. Teachers cannot fail students because tuition pays for teacher's salaries. They don't want to turn off administrators either by giving them extra work, and students' grade complaints mean extra work. About 70% of all students are not college material (they would fail even in my grade school 40 years ago), yet colleges are churning out semi- or fully illiterate graduates.

    Oh, yes, 'learning outcomes.' They are a joke. I do what can be done. If the standards presumably applied in the lowest level of writing classes were applied before graduation, about 60-80% of the students would never receive a college degree. Administrators are busy to document that everything works, while hardly anything does.


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