The semester looms like some evil monster approaching through the fog. We can hear its roar of battle and our heartbeats accelerate into fight-or-flight, adrenaline starts pumping — or, in my case, I think “hibernate now, sleep. Get sleep.”
By now it’s clear that the Chronicle of Higher Education often provokes me into thought which then pours out here on my sinful road to intellectual perdition. A recent editorial in the Chronicle on the topic of grading caught my eye. So, some mental salad about how to approach the dreaded topic with our students.
I think it is safe to say that the majority of us approach our students full of hope that we will successfully teach them something and that this will contribute to their over-all success. I know that I am elated when I see my students achieve or get past a hurdle. I also know that when I grade and I see them struggle or even fail, I personally begin to feel bad. My first move is to assess the problem: is it isolated to this student or is it across all the students? If one student, is it a trend? If across all students: what did I fail to communicate and how can I improve and find a way to reach them that they will understand?
I hope we all do this. Scholars we may be, but educators we most definitely are required to be. I’ve heard a myriad of commentary from my professors as a graduate student ranging from: “Your research is paramount. Research is what we do. Your teaching is secondary. You must not let your teaching interfere with your research.”
To: “You will be hired to teach. They will assume your research is important to you. You must have good and demonstrable teaching skills because they’re going to hire you to fill a need. ” I’m pretty sure (though you senior scholars out there will know best) that the road is a combination of both. Since, usually we’re hired to deal with both areas of our career simultaneously and with aplomb if we’re hoping for that prized tenure line depending on the type of institution we end up working at.
Inside this process is grading. Students would prefer not to have to produce work. We’d often prefer not to have to grade that work. It can be a nasty situation on both ends. Grading becomes even more tricky when we factor in what students expect and what ‘reality’ exists in the classroom.
We all explain the grading scale (some of us better than others) and how it breaks down into their work (or lack thereof). This never cuts off the inevitable questions down the road, the confusion, the angst, resentment and arguing. Not one semester has gone by when I have not received a post-semester inquiry about a grade or a last-minute freak out. I’d say this is true for all of us (if not, please share your secret).
For what it is worth, I try to explain during week 1 that an A does not mean you did your work and came to class. For those tasks, a C will be awarded. I explain that an A means you have exceeded expectations with some amount of distinction, gone the extra-mile, really devoted yourself to not just passing, but mastering, the content of the course.
This is often met with incredulous gasps of horror.
I’m not going to touch the reasons for this misconception of what an A is — not my area of education. Their previous teachers from different levels of education work incredibly hard with scant respect from students, parents, and administration as it is.
What upsets me (actually physically and emotionally upsets me) are the situations that I’m going to go ahead and call emotional abuse. The article sums them up nicely. Things akin to: “I will lose my scholarship,” “I will lose my financial aid,” “I will be barred from playing my sport, and then I won’t be able to afford school,” “I will not get into my major.” And the ultimate: “I will not graduate.” And the list goes on, and on, and on.
Ouch. Seriously. Logically, we all realize that we are not in control of the choices our students have made and that they must learn to manage their obligations academic, extra-curricular, and social. But, we get the abuse nonetheless. Thankfully, however, we do not have the level of parental interference (yet, it is increasingly more common that we do) that our colleagues in secondary education have. I blatantly tell my students: I do not want to hear from your parents. Yes, you heard me. I do not want to hear from your parents short of an actual emergency situation where you are not able to speak for yourselves. I then explain to them rationally that they are now in charge of their education. That I cannot actually, legally, speak to parents about student performance. I use the big A word, accountability. Conversely, I let them know that for all intents and purposes, I am a safe space for them. I’m not their friend, but if they need someone to talk to because something in their lives has become too much to manage on their own, they can come to me and I will help them find the resources through the school that they need.
So far, this tactic has worked nicely. No parent emails.
What also gets awkward, and I have encountered this at 2 institutions, is quiet department mandates that there should not be more than X students below X grade. (Yikes, I thought this was college?)
Increasingly, however, I have students who are arguing B range grades. Not D. Not C. B range. It was not so very long ago that I was an undergraduate. I considered a B a perfectly fine grade especially if I struggled with the topic. I always shot for the A, but I also always knew what range my grade would be in before it was posted. I knew the caliber of my work as well as the course grading policy.
Students will always complain about grades. No surprise. Usually at the 18-21 age range they will also reduce anything difficult down to it being ‘stupid.’ I get that. I was incredibly grateful to see Ahmed Afzaal’s post (see above link) on our approach vs. their approach to grading.
This semester I will be starting off differently. I will cover the same points he covers in his article, reinforcing that we want to see them succeed, we do not look for reasons to punish them, and that grading is a tool to convey information about the level of their performance.
I think I might also ask them to not come to me with the doomsday proclamations I listed above, that in the end, it is unfair,uncomfortable, and ultimately, as the Vicomte de Valmont said, “ce n’est pas de ma faute.”
If you’ve had success in warding off the messiness of student grade confusion, stories of harrowing grade negotiating, or fool-proof methods, share with the group!