College Students Need to Toughen Up, Quit Their Grade Whining

We need to get a grip on what grades mean.

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By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

If you didn't see it, check out yesterday's New York Times piece on grade inflation and college student expectations these days. It'll make you cringe. (Unless of course you happen to be a student, in which case it may make you seethe. Or roll your eyes.)

If you're 30-something or older, this—from a University of Maryland professor—probably strikes you as a fair grading standard:

"I tell my classes that if they just do what they are supposed to do and meet the standard requirements, that they will earn a C," he said. "That is the default grade."

This is the way things were when I was a student, grade school through college: Do an adequate job, get a C; do an above average job, get a B; do a spectacular job, get an A. (At least that's what I was told—I can't claim a great deal of experience with that last category.)

Things, I can tell you, have changed.

A recent study by researchers at the University of California-Irvine, found that a third of students surveyed said that they expected B's just for attending lectures, and 40 percent said they deserved a B for completing the required reading.

If B is the new C, maybe we should add a new letter to symbolize something better than A.

In any case, there are a whole confluence of factors at work here, but one is particularly intriguing:

James Hogge, associate dean of the Peabody School of Education at Vanderbilt University, said: "Students often confuse the level of effort with the quality of work. There is a mentality in students that 'if I work hard, I deserve a high grade.' "

In line with Dean Hogge's observation are Professor Greenberger's test results. Nearly two-thirds of the students surveyed said that if they explained to a professor that they were trying hard, that should be taken into account in their grade.

Well ... I don't have a problem with effort being a factor at the margins. Knowing that a student put a great deal of effort into a paper has in my experience pushed a borderline grade into the higher category. But the larger point is important: effort is not a substitute for results.

"I think putting in a lot of effort should merit a high grade," [University of Maryland senior Jason] Greenwood said. "What else is there really than the effort that you put in?"

There's the result of the effort. Students should work hard. And hard work generally begets better results than does sloth. But should someone who works harder but produces an inferior product get a lower grade than the startlingly bright student who can coast to an A? And how does one measure "hard work" anyway? One person's long slog is another's routine. (There's a reason why someone coined the phrase "A for effort"—because the actual grade is something else.)

This broad discussion matters for two reasons.

First, if one accepts grade inflation, if B becomes the standard of basic adequacy, it severely degrades the feedback inherent in grading. And second, this means that students get an unreal sense of their work, which ill serves them when they leave the cozy confines of college and university.

Entering the real world with an inaccurate sense of their abilities and a feeling that their work should be judged by their own estimation of how much effort it involved only bodes for troubles ahead.

PS: If any of my students read this far, feel free to tell me in class on Monday why I'm wrong.

PPS: I enjoy teaching; I enjoy my students, some of whom have become friends; I find the systemic grade inflation enormously frustrating in large part because it ends up undermining the students.

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