The chances are likely that if you’re reading this blog, you are a student of mine who has earned a grade that does not align with your expectations. Notice that I deliberately used the verb earned when I might have chosen received. There is an important difference. Language matters. Even if their intentions are good, and I have no reason to assume otherwise, I must confess that I have come across too many students who have an undue focus on their grades, and their grades alone. My first bit of advice, with plenty more to come later, is to take a deep breath…cool off…try to get some perspective. I will help you with this. Do not internalize the grade you earned as a reflection of your character, worth, or intellect.
Perhaps in your cooling off period, and assuming that your essay is your chief concern, you noticed that I left comments that are particular to your individual paper, as well as some general thoughts for the entire class. I was abundantly and meticulously clear in my expectations for this assignment, having gone over the prompt with you, having shared with you the numerous handouts that explain the categories and factors I would use to determine your grade, including a grading criteria handout, helpful hints for writing, a handout on plagiarism, and how to construct an effective introduction. We also went over examples of introductory paragraphs in class, discussing aloud what constituted effective writing and relating this to the strategies and manners in which I suggested that you write your introduction. In the process we discussed A-level, B-level, and C-level work.
I would be curious to know how you worked on your essay, and more generally, how you approached studying for my class. Whenever I encounter a student who has struggled in my class, I usually ask about two things: 1) note-taking and 2) the number of hours per week outside of class that you dedicate to studying for my course. The expectation is that for every one unit of coursework, you will need to spend two hours of work per week outside of class studying and reading the material. Some students may need more. If your lecture notes are less than one page long, you need to bring your game to the next level. See the examples of note-taking that I posted. When you wrote your essay, did you turn your phone off or at the very least put it in a place where buzzes, vibrations, bells, and other notifications would not distract you? Did you try to put all of your energy into the essay, staying disciplined enough to not go on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter? In most cases I emphasize that multi-tasking inhibits our ability to learn and retain information. I’ve blogged about this before and even discussed the numerous articles that reference scientific studies on the subject. Did you take it to heart when I said that writing is a process and that it is best not to write an entire assignment in one sitting? The best work comes from constant revision. Did you print out your essay and read it aloud rather than examining it solely on the computer screen? Did you have a friend or classmate look at your work to make sure it made sense to them? Did you check your essay one final time before submitting it?
If you answered “no” to any of these questions, it would seem difficult to expect an A on your essay or your overall course grade. When I discussed the 2:1 ratio of hours of study per week, one student in my class scoffed audibly. When I asked if any students turned off their phones when they worked on major assignments like essays, no one raised their hands. This was a major bummer, man.
It might help you to learn that I did not always get A’s in college. I remember most of my classes and professors from UC Davis and while I am eternally grateful for my educational experience, there were at least a couple of times that I complained. It is from the perspective of hindsight and more importantly, from the experience I have gained from being a teacher at the college level for ten years, that I regret those decisions. I look back and realize that I was not deeply committed to all of my classes. I had other priorities: a social life, two rock bands, an on-campus job. My experience, I hope, will be valuable to you in at least two ways. One, despite encountering disappointment in the form of B-level grades, I did not give up. I tried my best and ended up earning a doctorate, presented my research at academic conferences, and published my arguments in peer reviewed journals. This didn’t happen overnight, so hopefully my own experience in academia, filled with both triumph and defeat (and seemingly, more often, defeat), will show that a slow and steady pace, exercised with patience and long-term thinking, can yield positive results. Two, I realized that I really just wasn’t a great writer as an undergrad. It was only by reading students’ writing as a teacher that I could dial down my own inflated ego.
Any professor who has taught long enough will tell you that predictable stream of grade complaints generally fall into a few categories. I worked very hard in this class, many students say. An article in Vitae channeled Angela Jackson-Brown, an assistant professor of English at Ball State University, who gave a fitting response: “It always amazes me when students feel like their English paper grades should be based on effort. I sometimes wonder: Do you ask the math teacher if she will give you points for trying even though parts of your mathematical equation are incorrect? If you took an astronomy course, would you want partial credit because even though you identified a star as a planet, you at least recognized that they are both in the sky?” As sad as it is to burst your bubble, you don’t get an ‘A’ just for working hard and you certainly don’t get one just for doing the work. Everyone works hard. This is what we expect. A-level work should be exceptional. A college degree should mean something beyond perfunctory work. It should signify a certain intellectual achievement and communicate to others that you have attained a basic mastery of a subject (your major) and at the same time have covered a broad and well-rounded literature spanning many subjects.
For some students, my response is this…if you were really that concerned about grades, you should have come to see me in my office much earlier in the term to talk about study techniques and any advice I’d have for you. More importantly, there are many other factors besides grades that you should consider when you assess what you have gotten out of a class. Some of them might include: did the professor challenge me intellectually? Did the professor give me a new way to look at something that I had not considered before? Have I acquired new skills and/or reinforced old ones? Have I gotten a general sense of the major themes that have played out in American history?
I once got an email from a student who said that she was the only person in her group who actually did the reading in preparation for group activities. I honestly don’t know how to respond to this. I’ll probably either take the safest route of saying nothing or just kind of saying, “yeah, that’s really not something you should be telling your professor,” but you can imagine my urge to scold. In another instance I received a panicky email, riddled with punctuation and grammatical errors, expressing surprise that she did not receive her A. This is the world of high tuition we must now struggle to confront. It is a customer-is-always-right mentality. I was professional in my response and have taught long enough to know that sarcasm doesn’t go over well with most people, but can’t a student see the irony in this? Might a poorly constructed, hastily conceived email be indicative of a level of effort and performance that is decidedly not A-quality material? Then there is the always sharp and amusing Slate writer, Rebecca Schuman, who undoubtedly captured the sentiments of countless professors when she opined in an article: “as a professor, there is little worse than spending an entire semester attempting to connect about a subject you find both interesting and important, only to have [students] ignore everything you do until the moment their GPA is affected.” Schuman went on to say that if you (as in the student) need a certain grade (and you’d be amazed how many needs there are nowadays), then follow my advice. If you concentrate on learning the right habits, good grades will fall into place.
There are lots of theories of how best to distribute grades, but one overriding concern is whether a student has truly mastered the material. Whether you master the material may not always correlate with effort. Some students, having harnessed their own inner talents or gone to prestigious schools or having encountered teachers before who pushed them, need very little effort to master material. Others may work numerous hours and just get by with a “C.” Grading, it should be known, is also a way to compare student performance. It may be tough to hear, but if you’re a student who is unhappy with a grade, a very likely reason is that many of your classmates just put up a better performance.
I look back at all of the time I spent stressing about grades as an undergraduate or graduate student, and I think, man, what a waste of time and energy! Because in the grand scheme of things, whether or not I got accepted to graduate school; whether or not I received a fellowship; whether or not I got a job all seemed to depend very little on my GPA. Much larger structures were always at play; structures that were far greater in magnitude than any individual’s ability to control. Let’s say a history department wants more gender or Latin American historians and less political and economic historians. Do you think that all that groveling and extra effort to turn a B+ into an A- would really matter when it came to whether a department hired me or not? No, state budget cuts, economic forces, changes in the discipline—all these things would arguably matter much more. This is one thing I’ve been trying to tell my students…larger structures often matter much more than individual choice. Your decision to work extra hard may be irrelevant when five reactionary, religious men in robes with a narrow, pre-1929 mindset of the Constitution decide to rule, with no other intellectual fortitude than their own whims, that labor unions are somehow inconsistent with Congress’s ability to regulate interstate commerce.
Whenever we go through something like college, we are confronted with the choice of emphasizing either principles or outcomes; the journey or the result. In this example, the outcome is the grade you earn and whether or not you receive unit toward your undergraduate degree while the journey is the hours you spent cultivating sound study habits, studying for exams, attending class, taking notes, writing an essay, etc. I can assure you that you’ll get a lot more enjoyment out of your college experience if you focus on the journey and not be so consumed with the outcome. Focusing only on an outcome puts a lot of pressure on yourself! Let me be clear: I am not saying that you should forget about grades or ignore them. Yes, they are important. But what I am asking you to do is to bring your emphasis on outcomes more in harmony with the process.
While I personally believe college should be tuition free (it pretty much was according to the California Master Plan of 1960, signed by Governor Pat Brown), you pay a lot of money to take my class. The default setting, unfortunately, for too many students and parents is to assume that paying hundreds or thousands of dollars for a class should equate to a desirable grade. Wrong. I’m turning that argument on its head…What would you rather have, paying lots of money for a class in which you learned very little and got an “A” or paying lots of money for a class in which you learned a lot but got a “B” or a B+? In our consumerist, instant-gratification culture, have we completely lost sight of the notion that learning should be its own end?
Besides, a lower grade can also push you to do better. That’s kind of the point, right? If you get an “A” with minimal effort, you haven’t really pushed yourself. Say you get a “B” in a class but then work incredibly hard to improve your writing skills and then in the next class you get an “A” by the same professor. Wouldn’t it have been worth it? Wouldn’t you feel proud of yourself for the real, measurable improvement in your skills? But you wouldn’t have gone through this unless you had a professor who gave you a B.
Here’s an analogy from a completely different phase of my life, when I was a junior tennis player. Let’s call this the Wes Hollon approach. When I started out as a junior tennis player, I would put a lot of pressure on myself. I would get nervous and blow matches I should have won. Wes diagnosed this flaw fairly easily and he told me that my problem was that I was too focused on winning and losing (the outcome). Instead, he wanted me to focus on mastering plays, whether it was hitting forehands crosscourt, taking less risks on my first serve, or whatever. These plays, in effect, were the process, not the outcome. His philosophy was that if you focus on the process, the outcome will fall naturally into place. And you know what? He was right! I started winning more matches! Now apply this to your studies: focus on developing your academic skills as part of a lifelong journey; don’t sap up all of your energy by focusing on outcomes.
In the next installment of this series, I overview some of the academic literature behind grade inflation and why this ends up hurting both students and professors alike.