Wednesday, June 8, 2005

A's for everyone

From a piece by Alicia C. Shepard, journalist-in-residence at American University:

It was the end of my first semester teaching journalism at American University. The students had left for winter break. As a rookie professor, I sat with trepidation in my office on a December day to electronically post my final grades.

My concern was more about completing the process correctly than anything else. It took an hour to compute and type in the grades for three classes, and then I hit "enter." That's when the trouble started.

In less than an hour, two students challenged me. Mind you, there had been no preset posting time. They had just been religiously checking the electronic bulletin board that many colleges now use.

"Why was I given a B as my final grade?" demanded a reporting student via e-mail. "Please respond ASAP, as I have never received a B during my career here at AU and it will surely lower my GPA."
You can read the rest by clicking here.

comments: 3

Stefan said...

I read with interest and a sense of commiseration Alicia C. Shepard’s article concerning the familiar and frustrating phenomenon of student challenges to grades (“A’s for Everyone”). It’s a topic where, as an English teacher at a small liberal arts college, I have some experience. In an extreme case, parents threatened me with a lawsuit after assigning an F to a student—their daughter—that I’d literally never seen (the situation was eventually resolved when the administration invented something called “retroactive withdrawal), and in recent semesters I’ve come to expect challenges as a matter of routine. Last fall I received five e-mail challenges within three hours of posting grades. As in Ms. Shepard’s experience, there was no agreed upon schedule for posting, and I imagined my students at the college website, wearing out the “refresh” button. This brings up something that her Washington Post article mentions but doesn’t expand upon: the role of Internet technology in grade challenges. Because students can learn their grades almost immediately and especially because they can respond at once via e-mail, there is a temptation to challenge unwanted (though usually not undeserved) grades where once there was not. Further, e-mail sometimes creates a sense of insulation similar to what we often feel in our cars; we say and do things that we’d never consider otherwise. This explains the rather shrill tone evident in Shepard’s first e-mail challenge, where the student demands an explanation “ASAP.” Such a demand seems inappropriate and disrespectful, but it is gentle compared to some challenges that I’ve received. In the past, when grades were mailed several weeks after term’s end and several weeks or months before a new term begins, a cooling off period existed that, I suspect, allowed more students to come to grips with and accept the justice of their grade. In contrast, today’s students are able to respond in the heat of the moment and through a medium that makes it easier to say that which they never would in person or even over the phone. Having said that, it may be worth pointing out that some of this is not entirely new. The confusion between hard work and mastery of a subject, for instance, is not, as Shepard and her colleague, John Watson imply, a recent development. In his 1963 essay, “Examsmanship and the Liberal Arts,” William G. Perry, Jr. writes of the difficulty of correctly evaluating students whose main skill is diligence. Such students, he says, tend to earn a sympathetic C (a point that surely dates his essay) but perhaps ought to earn an F. As Arthur Levine suggests in Shepard’s article, "One of the things an education should do is let you know what you do well in and what you don't," and grade inflation, whether this means giving Cs to students who should fail or giving A-/B+ to the entire student body, doesn’t allow such self-discovery. Yes, it is difficult to fail a student whom you know to have worked hard, but, as Perry concludes, “Mercy lies in clarity.” Given that “the role of a college-level teacher has been transformed into that of a service employee" (a shift that has been at least partly encouraged by university administrations who just can’t say no to marketing slogans such as, “the pursuit of excellence”), it appears that grade clarity is going, if not gone.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for the comment, Stefan. I think you're right that depersonalizing technology and a service-employee model help create this mania for grade appeals.

Something in Shepard's piece that stood out for me is the weird subjectivity that seems to prompt many of these appeals. Consider the student who says "While other students may have outdone me with quiz grades, I made up for it with participation and enthusiasm." Says who?! Does enthusiasm play a part in calculating semester grades? Is there some percentage of the semester grade that it counts for?

I wonder whether some students see grades as things doled out simply by whim--as in the familiar phrasing "He [or she] gave me a [letter grade]." Having clearly stated percentages on a syllabus (what work counts for what percentage of the semester grade) at least gives a prof a pretty soild basis for justifying semester grades.

I can still remember, by the way, the first non-A semester grade I got in a college course (a B+, second semester, freshman year, 20th-century American history). I was crushed, esp. after doing a 20-page research paper on Al Smith and the 1928 presidential election, with much consultation of primary and secondary sources. Did it ever occur to me to challenge my prof, or to plead and wheedle my way to a higher grade? No way.

Michael Leddy said...

Oops--that should've read "Having clearly stated percentages on a syllabus (what work counts for what percentage of the semester grade) at least gives a prof a pretty solid basis for justifying semester grades."