Top ten grating questions

Let’s talk about grades. As I go into this below, a couple of the students from tonight’s class are going to recognize their own words. Don’t feel singled out–they are included here because they are representative of a lot of students’ questions over the last few years.

1. So, this is a writing course?

Like many teachers in higher ed, I prefer evaluating students through written work. It struck me as amusing tonight that a student assumed it was a “writing course” because they are evaluated by what they write in their blogs. In one sense, of course, he is entirely correct. I do hope that the students’ writing abilities will improve during the semester. After all, the ability to write clearly is probably the most important skill students can learn in any undergraduate program.

On the other hand, I cannot think of a senior level course in my own undergraduate program that did not require a term paper, and often midterm papers. Sometimes we even had blue-book exams, something most of our students haven’t even heard of. It speaks volumes of our own program that having writing as the major evaluative component makes it a “writing course.”

2. What do I need to do to get an A in this course?

I don’t really care whether my students get As. Seriously. If every student flunked one of my courses, and they hated me, but they learned something important, that’s really fine by me. I totally understand the wish to get an A, and even the desire to get nothing but As, but — to be perfectly honest — I like many of our B students better. I think in Stewart Brand’s book on the MIT Media Lab he notes that the director at the time (I don’t remember who) would only accept students who had an F on their transcript, because it demonstrated that they had something more going on than just getting As in school. Anyway, I’m always a little at a loss.

An A means outstanding work — it is not something that can be met by any single sufficient condition. I have often, in the past, tried to get this across by saying that someone who teaches me something important or who surprises me is likely to get an A; but to be fair, this isn’t always true. It seems to me that a certain degree of originality and creativity is necessary for an A, but so too is a thorough knowledge of the material. Unfortunately, and this can be highly frustrating to some students, I understand, I know an A when I see it.

Tonight, I suggested that if someone had come up with the existential sock puppets (posted earlier) that would likely yield an A. A group after class asked me how long a video would be needed for an A. What we have here is a failure to communicate. It wasn’t the fact that it happened to be a video that made it interesting, it was that it was an original idea, well executed. I suggested that if they created a flash like the current Jib Jab one that has managed to sneak onto CNN, this would likely garner them an A.

This goes along with what must be the question that bothers me the most: how long does it have to be? I often use the Disneyfied Mad Hatter quote (doesn’t appear, to my knowledge, in any of Carol’s stuff: “Begin at the beginning, and when you come to the end, stop.” I also sometimes note the infamous 3-page dissertation, but I cannot locate a reference at the moment? Anyone? [Update: A kind reader reminds me that the original is during the trial at the end, and the correct quote is:

‘Begin at the beginning,’ the King said, very gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end: then stop.’

Anyone want to help me with the 3-page diss? I think it solved a graphics problem, and that it was out of the University of Utah, by someone who later worked at PARC, but some or all of those could be wrong.]

I guess what I am getting at is that there is nothing wrong with wanting an A in a class, or a high GPA. Both of these things are good to have, I suppose. But if you look as any really successful people, they are unlikely to list among their accomplishments a high undergraduate GPA. Why? No one cares. Sure there are some caveats — if you don’t pull good board scores it might help you into a slightly better Law or B-School, but one grade, in the larger scheme of things, just doesn’t matter. Guess how often I wish I were teaching at Evergreen.

3. Are you a hard grader?

This is up there with “Did I miss anything important on the first day?” as one of the dumbest questions ever. What am I supposed to say? “No, I consider myself a ‘soft’ grader; perhaps even lackadaisical”? I grade as fairly as I can. In practice, this means that students get worse grades in my classes than they do in many others offered on campus. Several times, I’ve asked students what they think an “average” grade is. They will tell you, quite honestly, that they think it is a B or B-. Which leads to:

4. Is there a curve in this class?

Teachers in our department don’t actually curve exams; what they do is offer “saving” curves. And these are, again, usually curves around a B- average. Next semester I am actually curving the exams. That is, if the average on an exam is 90%, that will be a B-. (What did you think I was going to say, a C? Not unless I want my enrollments to plummet. Which, of course, I do, but I can’t let that happen or I will catch hell from the chair and the dean.)

5. Can you talk slower?

No. Seriously. I’ve tried really, really hard, and it is impossible for me to speak more slowly.

6. Can you use easier words?

OK, I can understand such a request from a second-language speaker, but both times I’ve heard this, it’s been from native speakers. I am sympathetic, really, but we somehow have to keep calling ourselves a university, don’t we?

7. Can I get your notes ahead of time?

I don’t have notes, usually. And when I do, you won’t understand them, because they are just to remind me of things (as hard as this may be to believe) that I already know. And I don’t do PowerPoint bullets unless it is absolutely necessary. I got sick of students copying down the overheads and thinking that they actually had notes to study with.

8. When will we get a study guide?

When they start sprinkling fresh soil on the coffin that houses my dead, cold body.

I actually had someone complain, after I handed out a detailed list of 120 questions from which I drew 40 for the exam, that it was unfair of me not to ask all of the questions. I used to do study guides, now I test more often and hope people will be encouraged to take notes.

9. What does the test cover?

The lectures and the readings. It’s not rocket surgery. (I used that phrase tonight in class, and I’ve decided to keep it.)

10. But this is the lowest grade I’ve ever gotten. Can’t you raise it just a little?

This should be a relief for you, now that the bar is a bit lower. (With thanks to Don Pember.)

All of this makes me sound like I am the meanest teacher on earth, and I don’t think that’s the case. I just hate the place grading has in the university. I would seriously consider just doing away with grades (As for everyone), and I know people who do this at the grad level, but whenever I’ve gotten close, students seem to lose any motivation for the material. Nonetheless, I may just decide to base the grade on some set of sufficient conditions: if you attend class and complete the assignments by the end of the semester, you get an A. Heck, I might even do that next semester.

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  1. Posted 9/8/2004 at 10:52 pm | Permalink

    not anywhere clost to being the meanest. i resolve most of these questions structurally. i have my courses built so that each thing they do adds up to a final 100 points, it is cruel, realist, and more effective than you might think. when they miss 2 points on their first assignment and realize that they now can at best get a 98, they begin to perform at a high level. well some of them.

  2. Posted 9/9/2004 at 12:23 am | Permalink

    Meanest? Hardly. Look at it this way: classes where there are clearly defined paths to A’s mean that a body’s performance is measured solely against the prof’s expectations. You either meet them or you don’t, and most don’t, or that prof would get a lot of pressure about inflating grades. An open-ended course, on the other hand, gives students the opportunity to excel in a variety of ways–just as there’s no one right way to write a novel or make a movie, there’s no one formula for excellence in courses that go beyond the scantron exams.

    Also, as someone who gets the “What do I need to do” question almost every semseter, I’m always struck by the poor strategy involved. When a student asks that question, what it tells me is that this is a person who’s less interested in learning than in the superficial symptoms of learning. There are reasons to care about grades, granted, but the first question out of your mouth at a job interview would never be, “So, what do I gotta do around here to make six figures?” On the other hand, if I turn back an essay with a C on it, and a student comes to my office because he or she wants to know how the essay can be improved, I’m impressed with that student’s initiative and work ethic. In many cases, you’ve gotten the answer to “What do I need to do?” but done so in a way that demonstrates respect both for the prof and the process.


  3. Posted 9/9/2004 at 6:54 am | Permalink

    Mean? Of course! When compared to the other courses offered in this department, and I imagine at any other institution, students think you are a horrible meanie with an exaggerated sense of what students are capable of. And I agree with you 100%. It’s absolute best approach. When they can waltz into a class, sleep through the lectures, and end up with an A, that cheapens the whole learning process. Grades were incredibly important to me up until grad school, when I realized that it’s cool to just learn stuff for the sake of learning stuff, and there are other things in life more important to stress about.
    When I taught MITIA, the students were not used to writing at all. They were even less accustomed to having an instructor read what they wrote, comment on it, circle their spelling errors, and critique their arguments.
    With such high enrollment in so many classes, the individual attention inherent in writing is rare.
    I was never directly asked by a student what they needed to do to get that elusive A. People did tell me that they needed an A, to which I liked to respond, you’re the one who’s going to determine that.

    Please continue to be mean and talk fast.

  4. Patrick Finch
    Posted 9/9/2004 at 8:09 am | Permalink

    Adament about getting into a decent MBA school, I would be inclined to think “this class could potentially ruin my GPA.” But it is true that one grade will, in fact, not bury anyone. (Just don’t think this about every class.) It is also apparent that this class will not yield anything less than a C to anyone who simply keeps up with his/her blogging. So, if I receive a B or C, I would say ‘who cares,’ and realize that in future endeavors the knowledge gained will help my career more than a letter will. Graduating in December, I have in the past logged countless pages of notes, only to trash them at the end of the semester, dismissing any beliefs that I would need them in the future. (Here comes the kiss-ass part.) It is refreshing to take a class where the things I learn will help me to be successful.
    When I look back to how much I stressed about grades in the past, I shake my head, knowing now that skills obtained at work, or from a great book is just as important (if not more) than being lectured to. I guess it’s all about knowing what matters in life.

  5. Amber
    Posted 9/10/2004 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    It is refreshing to see that someone else feels the same way I do about the nonsense that is college grading and the obsession of students with “how do I get an A” and “are you going to curve your tests”?
    The second question about curving tests always implies to me that once students know you curve tests they do not have to study or try as hard anymore because they have the cushion of a curve to fall back on. That really disappoints me because the students worry about doing well enough to benefit from the curve and not performing to their best ability. Also, the overall focus shifts from concentrating on the learning process to obsessing about these abstract grades.
    In the unique position of being both an instructor and a student at the same time, I can totally understand the feeling that “getting an A is the most important thing” – however, I know from experience that the grad classes that I got a B (gasp) in were the ones where I learned and was challenged the most.
    As a new instructor it is difficult to assert yourself as someone who actually cares about learning and wants to focus on writing and ideas without getting very mixed reviews. In a sea of bubble tests and inflated grades students are confused and unsure of how to process this strange and novel method. Alex, I was also told my course was “writing intensive” and “overly difficult” because students were required to write out their own notes rather than print them out from UBLearns AND do a 3-6 page research paper.
    I was also asked the most mind-boggling question at the beginning of this semester when a student remarked, “So I am actually going to have to come to class to get the notes and stuff I need to know for the tests?” How do you possibly answer that question without laughing or crying?

  6. Brenda
    Posted 9/11/2004 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    I have been surprised at the widespread lack of writing ability among typical undergraduates–this includes upperclassmen. I am not talking about the relative sophistication and writing prowess that students are expected to develop as they progress in college. No, I am referring to the ability to construct a coherent essay of grammatically correct sentences with proper spelling and punctuation. Since faculty and TAs have commented to me on how common and troubling this is, one begs to ask, “Why this is the case?” Are students not supposed to demonstrate, at a minimum, a proficiency in reading and writing at the eighth grade level just to graduate from high school?

    I think that part of the problem stems from the fact that far too many primary and secondary schools promote students who are not deserving of promotion. Think of this as a kind of “trickle-up illiteracy” that can in part be blamed on the faulty “failure will ruin their self esteem” philosophy or worse, “their parents will sue us if we don’t pass them” atmosphere increasingly and disturbingly common among administrators. This is not to say that students themselves should not share blame. Effort and ambition are necessary for any kind of success. However, the system too often rewards minimal effort, even mediocrity, rather than promoting and saving praise for exceptional effort. Would you believe that one local district actually allows students who fail or do poorly on an exam to take it again? Excuse me??

    Since this comment is getting far too long, and sound too much like a rant, I will continue this on Smurf’s Garden (I didn’t pick the name, ok?) :-)

    On a final note (for now) perhaps all students, native speakers included, should be required to take the TOEFL exam. The results would make for an interesting study, I think. -blb

  7. jpt
    Posted 9/13/2004 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    Over the course of the past 15 years I have been in management positions that have required the hiring of individuals into entry-level through executive management positions. I can safely say that I have not once made a hiring decision based upon a candidate’s GPA. In all cases, I have had access to the candidates transcript(s) due to it being a requirement for employment at the organization at which I am employed.

    The candidate that can explain how their undergraduate or graduate experience helped them develop into a life-long learner will surely gain the position over the individual who stands hollow behind a 4.0 GPA.

    My two cents, use College to learn “how to learn” and “how you learn”; those two things will last the rest of your life.

  8. Posted 9/13/2004 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    stick in the mud. I just told all my students that they can get good marks and I never fail anyone. They fail themselves. As for the other questions, I think students are trained in this insanity by their previous instructors and teachers. How can you blame the students for acting in a way that has led them to success?

    Why not sit back, have a beer, and undermine the entire process with a bit of well placed convolution.

  9. Posted 9/13/2004 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

    I faced similar questions today – how totally uncanny. Students here in the Great-White-North sound very similar to US students. It’s all about the grades. It often sounds as though students are not really interested in learning the material as they are memorizing the facts and focusing on getting a good grade on a final exam. My classes tend to be more interactive, with very little traditional lecture style (if at all possible). Some students enjoy this, others do not – and would rather sit like a sponge and soak it all up.
    We have to remember that some students do want to learn, but there are clear pressures on them to succeed – especially with the double cohort we are experiencing here in Canada. It is getting harder and harder to get into University – with increased enrollment, retired faculty members and cuts to hiring to new faculty. Tuition is rising every year, and some rely on scholarships – for which they must maintain a certain grade point average. Grad school is also becoming very competitive (for the same reasons listed above). (As an aside, I have seen many job ads that are asking for undergraduate and graduate transcripts for Asst Prof/tenure track positions!!! If only I had known!)
    Given the systemic problems within the education system, I cannot totally blame the students for some (I note SOME) of the questions they ask given the pressures they face. I think we really need to remember this when we deal with them. Part of the problem is that because classes are getting larger and larger, it is getting harder to get to know our students in order to find out what is going on in their lives. We just end up assuming that they are grade hungry and want something for nothing. Perhaps this is not the case.

  10. Pete Gaughan
    Posted 9/14/2004 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    This challenge is not limited to college, or even to academy of any level. It’s like second-language learning; if we aren’t taught as children that our experience is (in some way) under our own control, then after puberty it’s too late.

    Last night, refereeing an under-10 soccer game, during the fourth quarter a player on the very losing side asked me plaintively, “How many more goals can they get?”

    I had to pause a beat before saying, “If you stop them? None.”

  11. Posted 9/14/2004 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

    Thank you everyone, for your comments!

    Amber: I had actually scheduled a 1 credit seminar for teaching assistants to talk about strategies for teaching (and grading), but at the last minute, with my new position, I realized that I wouldn’t have time to organize it. I hope I do next year. When I was a TA, we had a chance to do this, and it really helped me grow as a teacher.

    Jason: I couldn’t agree more. We train the students that the grade matters and then complain when they go for the grade. It’s very hard to blame them for this. On the other hand, it doesn’t make the questions any less annoying. (But it does make me try not to give into the pressure to teach that way.)

    Sorry I can’t answer one-by-one, but I very much enjoyed reading your comments.

  12. Posted 9/17/2004 at 4:18 am | Permalink

    And this would be why i love the Pass/Fail culture of my undergrad. I was lucky enough not to hear these questions when i taught there, but boy did things shift when i went to schools with grades.

  13. Posted 10/31/2004 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

    ha! that’s very funny Alex. Ill be sending my students to your page. Great to meet you and will be speaking about academic share…

  14. Marj
    Posted 5/18/2012 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

    Bit late I know, but George E Smith got his PhD from the University of Chicago in 1959 with a dissertation of only three pages.

    • alex
      Posted 5/18/2012 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

      What are you doing back here? :) Thanks for filling in the blank…

4 Trackbacks

  1. By mamamusings on 9/13/2004 at 6:31 pm

    alex halavais’ most excellent grading faq
    Thank you, Alex, for saying so clearly and eloquently what I find myself having to explain every year to almost every class. Things that particularly hit home: It speaks volumes of our own program that having writing as the major evaluative component m…

  2. By BlackboardBlog on 9/14/2004 at 3:44 am

    ” I have my courses built so that each thing they do adds up to a final 100 points. It is cruel, realist, and more effective than you might think. When they miss 2 points on their first assignment and…

  3. By Joe's Teaching Log on 9/14/2004 at 10:47 pm

    Grading FAQ
    Alex Halavais’s FAQ for typical questions students ask about grading policies — Alex Halavais » Top ten grating questions — gives me a few chuckles and a warm feeling of vindication somehow. Especially this one: 2. What do I need…

  4. By Mama Write's Sideblog on 9/25/2004 at 7:51 am

    Top Ten Student Questions
    Alex’s top ten grating questions from students. I get something similar, and the answers are almost always provided in the material I’ve given the students… if they’d just read it, of course….

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