The grade’s the thing

Between my first year seminar and two intro courses, I am teaching a lot of freshmen this semester. I really enjoy freshmen. They are fresh; they generally do what you ask of them (e.g. readings), and they show more progress in a course than the upper level students do. But this term I really feel a sense that they haven’t ‘gotten’ what higher education is about yet, as if they haven’t recognized that college has a different set of rules than what they are used to.

When I was a third-year undergraduate, economics began to make sense to me. Before that, I found it fascinating, but it wasn’t until the third year that it began to come together for me. I really felt that if I had another year or two to study, I could really master the subject. And so I went to graduate school. What a surprise that was. The more I learned, the less I knew. The more I studied graduate economics, the more I realized its complexities and how little I really knew about it. Mastering the subject is a life’s work, and even then one is never done. Mastering an academic subject is not a discrete skill, like learning to ride a bike, where once you’ve figured it out, you know you’re done.

Lately, I’ve been struck by how different the views of my freshmen are, at least most of them, from that expressed in the previous paragraph. What’s striking to me is that, for the most part, these are good kids, students who performed well in high school and who want to do well in college. And yet they’re still trying to play according to the old set of rules, from high school.

K started the conversation two weeks ago saying, “I don’t know how I’m doing in this class (The FSEM). Am I doing okay?” Fair enough; this is the course where I give formative feedback but no grades per se until the end of the semester. So K’s comments, prompted me to have a discussion about grades and learning in the course. One question we discussed was whether grades should be based on knowledge or learning. Knowledge is what you know including what you may have brought to the course, while learning is what you’ve added to your knowledge from the course. Interestingly, the students argued that a skills-based course, like music or art, should be graded on learning, while a content-based course, on knowledge. I’m not sure I agree, but the result of our discussion was that I told students that if they really wanted to know how they were doing in the course I would be happy to talk to them individually, but that I haven’t really considered any of their work yet in the context of grades. They seemed puzzled by this revelation as if to say, what context is there for learning other than grades? So far, I haven’t had any takers.

This summer, when I was ruminating about assessment in my intro courses, I decided to put less weight on the exams, and more weight on a collection of homework activities. My intent was to build more opportunities for low-stakes self-assessment into the course. As part of the homework, I included two sets of self-assessment activities for the students, a low level assessment which essentially helps students determine if they’re learning enough to pass, and a high level assessment which examines their likelihood of deeper learning (and presumably a higher grade).

Earlier this week, I handed back the first formal paper in the intro course. This is one of probably half a dozen assignments which collectively are worth about 15% of the course grade. So this paper was worth no more than 3%. Since it was the first formal paper I assumed that students wouldn’t necessarily know what I was looking for, so I didn’t give any grade less than a C-. There were a handful of A’s, about half the rest B’s and the other have C’s.

M1 (by all accounts a serious student) began freaking out about receiving a C+ on the paper. “I can’t get a bad grade,” was what she managed to say. M2 (another student) picked up the thread: “You don’t understand. My parents will kill me if I get a bad grade.” While I was not unsympathetic, I saw myself and the grades as contributing to the opening round of a conversation that will continue all semester, if not for the duration of the college careers. At this point, E (a sophomore), addressed the freshmen saying, “Oh, it’s different in college.” Exactly.

I began to think about the self-assessment activities. The online quizzes (the low-level assessment) yield a percentage score, which the students understand, but the quiz questions are very simple so they aren’t a very good test of the material. The meta activities (the high-level assessments) are abstract and complex and the direct feedback they provide is subtle. There’s no letter grade, so understanding how to complete them and understand the feedback takes time and reflection–Like playing a song well on an instrument. Most intro students don’t seem to have the patience for this.

Grades are only a rough indicator of what students are learning. I mentioned that in my intermediate theory course, the mean grade on the midterm exam is usually about 55%, but that’s not a sign of failure, rather it’s 55% of what a Ph.D. economist would know. Of course, I curve the grades for my students. L, a student in the intro course queried, “If the average is only 55 on the midterm, maybe you should make the course easier.” What does it mean to make a course easier? If I’m trying to learn Mandarin, can I make the language easier? Certainly I could make the test easier, but that would simply raise the mean grade. It wouldn’t mean the students had learned more. Macroeconomics is complex and difficult to master. I think the exams signal that. Even the best students see that they could do better, always. That’s the way macroeconomics, and probably most disciplines are in the real world.

One more anecdote from the intro course. A student told me this week that he thought he had fallen behind and asked to make an appointment with me. This student has missed a noticeable amount of class time and hasn’t turned in any of the assignments so far (one formal paper and several assessment assignments). When we met, he told me that he hadn’t read (all?) the chapters in the text, but then added “sometimes I surprise myself on exams and manage to pull out a good grade.” What would that even mean in terms of his learning. When he turned in his midterm today, he mentioned that he’d read some of the chapters, and was hoping for the best.

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6 Responses to The grade’s the thing

  1. Gardner says:

    Great post.

    Some of this is not new. I vividly remember my Intro Philosophy prof coming in with some blue books after our midterms and holding them aloft while describing how thin and uninformed some of the essays were. My essay was one of the “C” essays, it turns out. At that point I understood that I could not do a lick-and-a-promise studying anymore. And I don’t think I would have understood that otherwise. It’s one of the ways grades are genuinely useful.

    That said, I would never have dreamed of suggesting to the teacher that he make the course easier. I knew I could have worked harder and better, and I knew I should have, and I knew I’d have to if I wanted to learn more (and, of course, have that increased learning reflected in a higher grade). I’m sure the teacher could have been more inspiring, the room more inviting, etc. etc., but I didn’t take much time to think about all of that. I figured I was taking the class to learn, among other things, what it was like to try to learn philosophy at an introductory level. Doesn’t mean the teacher was the gold standard, but it was abundantly clear to me that *I* was in no position to judge. And it was also clear to me that I had lots of room for improvement.

    There’s a weird element of bargaining here that I’m trying to understand. I strongly suspected that many of my high school teachers didn’t understand what they were teaching at a very deep level. That was probably unfair, in some cases, but in others I was probably right. When I got to college, it was clear even from the assignments that the teachers understood their subjects at a very, very deep level. To me, that was very exciting. To be around genuine intellectual mastery was exhilarating, even if I screwed up and didn’t do my best work.

    Much to mull over here.

  2. Steve says:

    “That said, I would never have dreamed of suggesting to the teacher that he make the course easier.”

    I have a pretty good sense of the student who said that and I don’t think he was being either flip or disrespectful. Rather, I think he was trying to make sense of my statement that the average grade in that course was 55, coming from a world where an A is anything between 94 and 100, and anything less than a 60 is an F.

  3. Sue says:

    Many thanks for a v. interesting post… The step from simple regurgitation of data to critical thinking and methodological expertise is one that does frustrate many students — though others find it exhilarating, and certainly the two emotions can together. But why has the culture of the classroom seem to have changed? (Granted, not all for the worse.) There are certainly multiple causes, but it seems that with a degree that’s increasingly defined as a singular path to a job, with a K-12 system in which a specific culture (and business) of testing has been imposed, these fears are looking all too natural, unfortunately…

  4. As ever a really thought-provoking post, and one that is clearly germane both sides of the Atlantic. I’m going to post this on for my first year Economics and Business study skills students to read. We’ve just finished a session on the qualities of the top student (see my blog post tomorrow on WordPress on this topic), and I think they should get the benefit of seeing the distinction you draw between knowledge and learning. I’ll reiterate the point when we cover ‘Learning styles and strategies’ in a couple of weeks…

  5. Mary-Kathryn says:

    I’ve read your post several times, and I think I understand it~

    I am a student . My reality is that the system is driven by grades. I can’t get through the university without those good grades, so yes, they matter. Alot. Also as an adult student, I need very direct feedback. I have children and an outside life, so my time in school has to count. Every second of it. If I’ve fallen off the tracks, I need to know pretty quickly. I have found my instructors to be like you, willing to help.

    You echo what I believe {or at least I think you might} in your philosophy of learning. I’m always telling my children “I am more proud of you if you open the book and get a C, than if you don’t and get an A.” In other words, it’s the learning that is important to me. That goes for myself as well. I love being a student but at times, I feel such sorrow. I sit in classes with kids who are there in body, but not in heart. Learning needs the fire of the heart.

    But I don’t believe all is lost for those students. I watch professors as they carefully nurture that womb of classroom learning. I also watch some of those students’ hearts grow. The students may not arrive with the fire, but professors create the spark. It’s alot of work, but I guess you and other professors go full tilt at it. :o)

  6. Pingback: Pedablogy: Musings on the Art & Craft of Teaching » Blog Archive » It’s not just semantics

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