Sometimes I receive emails from my students that say, “Why did I get a ‘B’ on this?” or “Why did you take two points off my submission?” It’s easy to read between the lines to figure out that these are more polite ways of saying, “Why didn’t I get my ‘A’?”
Having taught college-level history courses since 2007, I have come across a disappointingly high number of students who express an undue emphasis on grades, as if their grades, and their grades alone, will determine not just their own happiness, but their ability graduate and obtain a successful, satisfying career in life. This mentality is tough for many professors to accept. Most of us teach because we care intrinsically about the joy and importance of our subject; handing out grades is probably the least enjoyable aspect of our job.
I do not consider myself a hard grader. I’m probably average in the grand scheme of things. There are plenty of students who can and do get A’s in my classes. But that’s kind of besides the point. It would be helpful, I think, if students looked at their college experience as an opportunity to work with and encounter a lot of different professors with different teaching styles, demands, and expectations, much like the so-called “real world” for which college is supposed to prepare them.
When you wrote your essay, did you try to minimize distractions? 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?
Plan Ahead and Prepare. The best students are often the ones who plan ahead. What that means is that you should get started early on your essay, other assignments, or preparing for exams. It means not starting the night before a deadline.
How much work are you putting into 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 2-3 hours of work per week outside of class reading, studying, and completing assignments. This means a 3-unit class requires about 9 hours of week outside of class. Some students may need more time. Are you putting in this many hours? If you’re not, then I don’t think you can expect to automatically earn high grades.
I did not always get A’s in college and in hindsight, I regret complaining to a few of my professors about grades. I am eternally grateful for the education I experienced at UC Davis. I was lucky to have amazing TAs and professors. In a few instances I was unhappy with a grade I earned. 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, 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, playing guitar in two rock bands, and 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. I now have a book with a reputable university press. This didn’t happen overnight. Hopefully you can learn from my own experience 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. Every semester I am pleased to encounter the writing of lots of students whose skills are superior to the ones I held at the same age. It was only by reading students’ writing as a teacher that I could dial down my own inflated ego.
Sometimes whether you get the job or win the award has nothing to do with how hard you worked or how much talent you have. I look back at all of the time I spent stressing about grades as an undergraduate or graduate student, and fret that it was such a waste of time and energy! Because in the grand scheme of things, grades had very little or nothing to do with whether or not I got accepted to graduate school; whether or not I received a fellowship; whether or not I received a tenure-track job, an increasing rarity in today’s job market. 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.
The Grade you earned is NOT a reflection of your character, worth, or intellect.
Nor does a grade always correlate with effort. Sometimes when students express surprise or unhappiness with a grade that they have earned, they will say that they worked very hard on the assignment. While I certainly appreciate that many of my students are admirably juggling multiple responsibilities with classes, work, family responsibilities, and the occasional emergency, working hard is the bare minimum and something we expect from everyone. A college degree should definitely mean something. 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. An article in Vitae published a very direct if harsh response from Angela Jackson-Brown, an assistant professor of English at Ball State University: “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?”
Mastery of the Material. 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 with teachers who instilled sound habits of mind, need very little effort to master the material. Others may work numerous hours and just get by with a “C.”
A-level work should be exceptional. Students who submit good work that is not exceptional should not expect an “A.”
Another theory of grading holds that grades are a method 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 put up a better performance.
Grade Inflation is a Documented Phenomenon. Many argue that it harms students and professors. Grade inflation is the gradual rise in average grades earned over time without a commensurate rise in performance. We see grade inflation when most students in a class earn an A, A-, B+, or the occasional B. So just as price inflation often corresponds to a devaluation of the currency, grade inflation corresponds to a devaluation of student performance. A’s are handed out just like the dollars that grow on trees.
According to Rosovsky and Hartley, between 1960 and 1997, average collegiate grades increased nationally from a 3.07 GPA to a 3.34. Gradeinflation.com has datasets that show these statistics. If trends continue, virtually every college student will get an “A” by the mid-21st century and the average GPA will approach 3.8, which is higher than my own undergraduate GPA. One study of the CSU and UC systems, where I have spent over fifteen years as a student and faculty member, showed grades inflating at about forty percent of the 32 schools surveyed (9 branches of the University of California and 23 CSU branches). A small percentage of these schools were actually deflating grades while at a larger number of schools, grades had stayed about the same. The study, which analyzed grades between 2009 and 2013, reported an average GPA at UC campuses of 3.03 while the average GPA at the CSUs was 2.93.
A rise in grades would be acceptable if it reflected a rise in student performance. But if anything, the data suggest that performance has been declining. American millenials, when judged against their peers in other countries, have performed quite badly in literacy, technical skills, and math skills. This is true even for those with advanced graduate degrees.
A growing chorus of professors argue that grade inflation is harming both students and faculty. It harms students because it packs a wide range of student performance and achievement into a narrow range of grade distribution. Let’s say 80% of students in a class receive a B+, A-, or A. This would be an example of what is known as grade compression (sometimes scholars distinguish between grade inflation and grade compression but I would prefer to view them as part of the same phenomenon).
As grade compression occurs, we are less able to parse out and differentiate the truly exceptional work from work that is only slightly above average. This devalues hard work. It rewards the underachievers and punishes high-performing students. If a professor gives an A- to a person who slacked off most of the term but managed to put together a strong effort on only exam without truly internalizing the material, and yet at the same time gives an “A” to the person who has performed extraordinarily well, the exceptional student is not rewarded in a manner commensurate with his/her effort.
An additional harm to students wrought by grade inflation comes in the form of leading students into fields for which they are ill suited. By giving out higher grades, colleges give an implicit endorsement to employers that a given student would make a strong candidate for a position. The student who shows up late, talks and texts in class, and doesn’t do any of the reading—but yet pulls off a B+ because the professor is a pushover—may be in for a rude awakening upon entering the workforce. There is a school of thought—call it traditional, old fashioned, or disciplinarian if you wish—contending that professors are ultimately not doing students any favors to prepare them for the job market by being too lenient.
A lower grade is supposed to motivate you to do better. As one student at Princeton University commented in an article by William Abbott, “if I get the same grade for my very best work that I get for work that is not my very best, I’m less motivated to try to stretch as far as I can.” The incentive for improvement is one of the justifications for why we have grades in the first place, despite their problems. 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 improvement unless you had a professor who gave you a “B” or a “C.”
The late UCSB economist, Philip Babcock, in a 2010 essay, wrote that average study time would be about 50% lower in class in which the average grade expected was an “A” compared to the same course taught by the same instructor in which the average grade expected was a “C.” To rephrase, if professors gave lower grades throughout the term, students would make the natural adjustment of studying harder. And to the extent that more study leads to more learning—at least up until a certain saturation point—we see, therefore, that passing out lower grades will actually lead to more learning. And that’s what we want, right? For what else is the job of a university, and the professors who work there, than to provide an environment in which the student learns the most?!
I know you want it to come to you easily. Believe me, I was there because like yourself, I, too, was an undergrad who wanted to get A’s and move on with my life. But sometimes the most satisfying experiences in life come to you after many hours and even years of hard work. It may be frustrating and you want to give up, but I’m confident that you can rise to the occasion!
It’s the LEARNING that matters, NOT the grades! Grades are arguably the least important factor to consider when you evaluate a class. Among the factors you should consider are: 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?
You might enjoy your college experience more if you focus more on the process, and less on the outcome. The outcome of a class is the grade that goes on your transcript and the units that accumulate toward earning a college degree. The process is the intellectual journey of numerous hours you spend cultivating sound study habits, studying for exams, attending class, taking notes, writing an essay, etc. Focusing only on an outcome puts a lot of pressure on yourself! Now, I am not saying that you should forget about grades or ignore them. But what I am asking you to do is to bring your emphasis on outcomes more in harmony with the process.
Here’s an analogy from a completely different phase of my life. When I started out as a junior tennis player in my teens, I would put a lot of pressure on myself. I would get nervous and blow matches I should have won. We call this “choking.” My coach, Wes Hollon, 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 too much on outcomes.