College Math Teaching

December 21, 2013

Oldie but goodie: Physics professor discovers that some disassociate grades with performance.

Filed under: editorial — Tags: — oldgote @ 3:29 am

I shall post this article on my class websites:

What alarms me is their indifference toward grades as an indication of personal effort and performance. Many, when pressed about why they think they deserve a better grade, admit they don’t deserve one but would like one anyway. Having been raised on gold stars for effort and smiley faces for self-esteem, they’ve learned that they can get by without hard work and real talent if they can talk the professor into giving them a break. This attitude is beyond cynicism. There’s a weird innocence to the assumption that one expects (even deserves) a better grade by begging for it. With that outlook, I guess I shouldn’t be as flabbergasted as I was that 12 students asked me to change their grades after final grades were posted.
That’s 10 percent of my class who let three months of midterms, quizzes and lab reports slide until long past remedy. My graduate student calls it hyperrational thinking: if effort and intelligence don’t matter, why should deadlines? What matters is getting a better grade through an unearned bonus, the academic equivalent of a freebie T-shirt or toaster giveaway. Rewards are disconnected from the quality of one’s work. An act and its consequences are unrelated, random events.

Their arguments for wheedling better grades often ignore academic performance. Perhaps they feel it’s not relevant. “If my grade isn’t raised to a D, I’ll lose my scholarship.” “If you don’t give me a C, I’ll flunk out.” One sincerely overwrought student pleaded, “If I don’t pass, my life is over.” […]

Most of my students are science and engineering majors. If they’re good at getting partial credit but not at getting the answer right, then the new bridge breaks or the new drug doesn’t work. One finds examples here in Atlanta. Last year a light tower in the Olympic Stadium collapsed, killing a worker. It collapsed because an engineer miscalculated how much weight it could hold. A new 12-story dormitory could develop dangerous cracks due to a foundation that’s uneven by more than six inches. The error resulted from incorrect data being fed into a computer. I drive past that dorm daily on my way to work, wondering if a foundation crushed under kilotons of weight is repairable or if this structure will have to be demolished. Two 10,000-pound steel beams at the new Aquatic Center collapsed in March, crashing into the Student Athletic Complex. (Should we give partial credit since no one was hurt?) Those are real-world consequences of errors and lack of expertise.
But the lesson is lost on the grade-grousing 10 percent. Say that you won’t (not can’t, but won’t) change the grade they deserve to what they want, and they’re frequently bewildered or angry. They don’t think it’s fair that they’re judged according to their performance, not their desires or “potential.” They don’t think it’s fair that they should jeopardize their scholarships or be in danger of flunking out simply because they could not or did not do their work. But it’s more than fair; it’s necessary to help preserve a minimum standard of quality that our society needs to maintain safety and integrity.



  1. I went to his original post to comment, but I don’t see a way to do that there. He ends with “I don’t know if the 13th-hour students will learn that lesson, but I’ve learned mine. From now on, after final grades are posted, I’ll lie low until the next quarter starts.”

    Hmm, perhaps students bug him so much because they see his as a kindred spirit – someone who doesn’t really want to face the consequences of his actions. Why lie low? Why not send this post out to each student who asks him those inappropriate questions?

    He distinguishes between can’t and won’t. I tell students I can’t change their grade because it wouldn’t be ethical. Once I have decided to be an ethical person (which I did long ago), I have no choice in this matter.

    I get a few students with those stories. More I get students who are very unhappy. They didn’t do as well as they would have liked. I understand that. I am unhappy with them. Finals are a very hard time. I was close to tears more than once.

    Comment by suevanhattum — December 21, 2013 @ 5:58 pm

    • I don’t know where he teaches, but often these complaints end up in the lap of the department chair, deans, etc. Also, the percentage of complaints of this sort is sometimes a function of where one teaches; I didn’t see it this much at the University of Texas but more at my current institution. I see LESS of this now (over the past 4-5 years) than I did 10-15 years ago, but I see some of it.

      The lesson for me here is that some (not all) students see grades as a commodity that I have rather than a result of their performance. Trying to get them to see “I need a grade of X” is NOT a factor in what grade they earn is tough. But I suppose, it is part of my job to teach them that? 🙂

      Thanks for presenting a different perspective.

      Comment by blueollie — December 22, 2013 @ 1:00 am

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