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December 08, 2004

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» This girl isn't one of my students, but she might as well be: from Tall, Dark, and Mysterious
(I got this link from Ernie. Blame him.) Ladies and gentlemen, meet Alice Slater, who thinks it's like totally unfair that her professors are assessing her knowledge. I realize I'm firing into a barrel of slow-witted guppies that have already floa... [Read More]

Comments

Suresh Venkat

aieee caramba: this article deserves such a violent fisking that I can't even think straight trying to compose one....

sad sad....

AC

Ack! Perhaps a good analogy to give this student would be that of a driving instructor. You may have paid the instructor loadsamoney to teach you, but if you can't do a good job of parallel parking you ain't getting that license. What's confusing this student is that the US internal exam system rolls teacher and examiner into one. Had she been familiar with the external exam system in UK or India...

I didn't read that article as her claiming that she got an F and thus is complaining about it. Sounds more like she's a columnist for the school newspaper and decided to write a controversial article about a fantasy of hers.

Joe

Too many students blame everyone but themselves for their lack of achievement. It follows the whole "I'm a victim" excuse used way too much.

Otfried

Isn't it a bit saddening if academics are so brain-washed by The System that they cannot follow a college newspaper columnist into an utopia of a university where not every course is graded? For what it's worth, my own university education was like that: all courses were graded pass/fail only (where a pass essentially meant participation), with (intensive) oral examinations after two years and at the end of the program only. Let me not try to explain why this was fantastic (just imagine how much time you would have to do positive things in teaching if you didn't have to worry about grading, and, like my professors, you could give unsolved problems as homework to undergraduates without fear of being sued).

And, let's be honest, all the retorts are not entirely honest. Certainly a driving school doesn't ensure you pass just because you pay. But any driving school where, say, half the students fail to get the license will go out of business. Fast. Similarly, a cram school whose students don't pass the exam they had been studying for will quickly find itself without students.

It's similar for universities. For an individual student, the paying of tuition does not guarantee a degree. For the student body as a whole, however, it does. When a majority of the students fails to meet our expections, we revise our expections. Few universities will operate below their capacity to uphold standards, and accept that they lose tuition/government money, are not able to hire more faculty, etc. Don't tell me the department head is not coming to your office when you try to fail more than the permitted proportion of students.

In the country where I've been teaching for the last four years (no longer, thank God), about 1/3 to 1/2 of the students in the CS program are out of place there, in my not so humble opinion. In many exams, the majority of students gets grades just above and just below the threshold for passing, and go on retaking the exams until the statistical noise pushes them over the line. An enormous amount of time and energy is wasted, as far as I can see without any return. The students do certainly not understand the material better when they finally pass at the fourth attempt.

Moebius Stripper

Oh god, oh god, THANK YOU.

What a spoiled little brat (the writer of the article, not you). Apparently the department head here gets a lot of students saying that they're paying good money for this class, ergo, they deserve to [pass | get a C+ | get an A+].

The students I have the most trouble dealing with, for the most part, aren't the ones doing badly. The ones I have the most trouble with are the ones doing badly and who think that their doing badly has nothing whatsoever to do with how well they do or do not know the material. You know, if you fail a test, you should be thinking, "hmm, I don't know this stuff as well as I could" rather than "hmm, my teacher has failed to adequately assess my knowledge."

Ailee Slater is a sophomore English major at the University who writes:

"I think many students have been part of a class in which they became exposed to important educational material and gained wonderful skills of analysis and understanding, however, their grade on a midterm or final did not necessarily reflect this education."

Apparently this English major doesn't know what a run-on sentence is. No wonder she's failing.

Jeff Erickson

"Isn't it a bit saddening if academics are so brain-washed by The System that they cannot follow a college newspaper columnist into an utopia of a university where not every course is graded?"

Having just gone through the tenure process, I'd have to say no.

"When a majority of the students fails to meet our expections, we revise our expections."

Ahem. What you mean "we", white boy?

Otfried

"Isn't it a bit saddening if ..."

"Having just gone through the tenure process, I'd have to say no."

I'm afraid I can't follow you there (perhaps never having had to go through the tenure process is the culprit). It would have been saddening for non-tenured faculty, but from tenured faculty nobody would expect the ability to imagine a different world? That seems to say more about the tenure process than about this poor college paper columnist whose introductory paragraph you took so nicely out of context.

"When a majority of the students fails to meet our expections, we revise our expections."

"Ahem. What you mean "we", white boy?"

I mean the faculty and administration of the university. Can you fail as many students in your course as you think deserve it? Of course each individual faculty disagrees, but as a whole, we accept the inevitable.

And it beats me entirely what this has to do with me being white. As you know quite well, I've been teaching at universities where the large majority of faculty and students were not white, and I know what the situation was like there.

It seems easy to forget that universities provide an education, not grades and a degree. As my education shows, grading is entirely non-essential to providing a good education. You do need to give students a chance to assess whether they understand the material, whether they can apply it in unexpected ways, and, indeed, whether they have enough talent in the area to complete their studies successfully. But none of this really requires the enormous machinery that many institutions have built up for the grading process.

Sadly, for many students the university is a machine that turns their tuition into a degree (which will then be the key that opens the door to the position they aspire). I often find that the students that argue most strongly in favor of strict grading are the ones who do well (and do, in fact, need the feed-back least of all), because they think that less strict grading will somehow devalue their degree (and leave them with more competition when it comes to opening that door).

Mitch

The article is not a fantasy. It's a sincere complaint about
paying money for a service and getting screwed on the service.
She (as well as many of the complainers) thinks the service is supplying good grades.

then her main points
1) college is expensive
2) teachers evaluate their own students
3) the teachers aren't evaluated relevantly (OK this wasn't really a major point of hers but it's in there)
4) grades are arbitrary
5) grades cause stress

Apart from the fact that she's a whiner, her solution about getting rid of grades would probably solve 2,3,4,5.

I think we should cut out the middle man, let students apply directly to the Greek system and pay their money there.

If I remember correctly from some budget pie chart I saw long ago, it seems only 10% of income of a university comes from tuition. OK, a state university. OK, a big research I state university with a good reputation.

Kris

Isn't she describing almost describing graduate school? She writes:

"This columnist understands that a world without grades is a fantasy utopia, populated by over-enthused learners who work hard not out of fear but out of excitement for their own continued education."

That pretty well describes by graduate classes. Not that they were ungraded, but grades weren't the important part of the experience, as they often are in undergraduate classes. For example, many people not being graded attend the classes.

On a different note, there is at least one undergraduate institution that dispenses with grades entirely, though they have an evaluation system. See:
http://www.evergreen.edu/studies/

Moebius Stripper

What really floors me about this article is the student's impression that grades are nothing more than telling a student that they suck, or that they rock. I teach an introductory college algebra course; my students require grades of at least C+'s in order to advance to calculus. Contrary to popular belief, I do not withhold C+'s just to make my students unhappy. Rather, I have a testing and grading scheme designed to give C+'s and higher only to those students who I feel are ready for calculus. That's not arbitrary. My tests are imperfect, and I end up with some students whose tests over- or understate their abilities; but that's a far cry from arbitrary.

So, here's my question: in a gradeless, utopian society, what do we do about courses that have prerequisites? Would people recommend that I just allow all of my (willing) students to advance to calculus, whether or not they have a good handle on the material I taught them this term? This would result in calculus classes populated by students who are asking questions about grade 9 material.

Jeff Erickson

The "white boy" comment is the punch line of an American joke. Lone Ranger and Tonto are riding along when they hear screams coming from over the hill. They run to the crest of the hill and look down on a small group of covered wagons being harrassed by a dozen Indians. Lone Ranger says "Okay, this is what we're going to do. We'll rush down the hill, guns blazing; if the Indians don't run off, we'll shoot them down." Tonto looks at the Lone Ranger and replies, "What you mean 'we', white boy?"

In other words: You might revise your expectations, but don't expect me to play along.

In the long run, the tenure and promotion process is just another pass/fail grading system, only with less intermediate feedback along the way. Having just gone through that process, it's difficult for me to imagine an academic system that doesn't require it.

"It seems easy to forget that universities provide an education, not grades and a degree." — No we don't! Universities only provide a fertile environment in which to cultivate an education. We provide the fertilizer, not the crop.

"You do need to give students a chance to assess whether they understand the material, whether they can apply it in unexpected ways, and, indeed, whether they have enough talent in the area to complete their studies successfully. But none of this really requires the enormous machinery that many institutions have built up for the grading process." — But most students do require feedback from instructors. As I'm sure you've seen yourself, Otfried, well-meaning but inexperienced students can easily fool themselves into thinking they understand more than they really do. This is really the level of grading I'm talking about, and the reason I object so strongly to the original article. The original writer suggests that BELIEVING she understands the material should be good enough to pass, or even to get an A. It isn't. It shouldn't be.

Otfried

I've just posted a lengthy comment to your more recent blog entry without seeing this followup here.

Thanks for the explanation about the Lone Ranger! I don't think we are in much disagreement (for instance, when I say "universities provide an education" I mean "universities provide access to knowledge, and the guidance to use it"). And certainly I don't believe grades can be replaced easily or in the short term.

What confused me most were the personal attacks in replies to a mere hypothetical piece (see my other post).

It may not surprise you that I'm not a fan of the opaque tenure process. You probably know that not all academic systems have it.

Since you generalize to the necessity of pass/fail in academia, another interesting procedure is the grant application process. I've often found the criteria by which proposals had been ranked entirely incomprehensible. Perhaps I should insist on my right as a tax-payer to be awarded a grant :-)

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