It’s not just semantics

I returned the first exam in my intro course the other day. The average grade was a bit lower than normal. I wonder if that reflects the somewhat higher than normal number of first year students in it.

I did the return a bit differently this year. Usually, I hand back the exam and spend the class going over the questions. The mood is somber and the attention questionable. This year, I gave back the exams at the end of a class lecture, and asked students to look over theirs and try to figure out what they did wrong. (The exams are multiple choice; the correct answers are provided on the corrected answer sheets.) My thinking was that rather than my doing the processing of results for them, I would ask them to do it. As a final step, I asked them to email me the numbers of any questions they couldn’t figure out on their own (or otherwise wanted me to go over). I collated those choices and we will go over them in class today. We won’t waste class time on questions everyone answered correctly or on those where students made simple mistakes. Additionally, the students should be no longer in the trauma of just receiving a poor grade.

For the first years, this was the first time many had ever received a ‘poor grade’ on an exam. In some cases, this poor grade was a C. I’m not making fun of this reaction–these students have performed well in high school and see themselves as good students. But as I noted previously, the rules are different in university. Because of the larger than normal number of first years this time, I’ve thought more carefully about how they react to this.

I think there are faculty who see the rules of higher education as not much different than in high school, just with higher standards. Students who were successful in (e.g.) science in high school, don’t do as well in college, and this simply represents a winnowing of the field when the bar is higher. Survival of the fittest. Those students likely will find another discipline which better matches their talents and abilities.

There is no doubt some truth to this view, but over time I’ve come to subscribe to a different one. The rules of higher education are substantially different and not merely, or perhaps even primarily, the higher standards of competence. Learning is far more than grades. Grades are at best a rough indicator of learning. Over the years, most of my best students were not the students who got the best grades, at least in the lower level courses. Rather, they were the ones who had to struggle with the material. Strangely we tend not to test on the most important parts of learning. In part that’s because it’s difficult. Assessing factual knowledge is much easier than assessing critical thinking ability. Over time, I’ve tried to re-align my assessment to match my assessment with the more important parts of teaching and learning, but it remains imperfect. It seems to work best in less structured formats where I can ask students to ‘show me what you’ve learned,’ rather than asking every student to answer the same questions.

What I try to teach my students is an understanding of how to do economics, as well as an appreciation for the power of the economic way of thinking. Writing the previous sentence seems almost to trivialize the two goals. Both goals are richer than the words suggest. In high school, I think most teaching is about a discipline. In university, we should be teaching how disciplinary practitioners practice their arts and sciences. I see a fundamental difference there. When students see an application of economics in the real world, I want them to be able to analyze the situation the way an economist would, even without the complexity or deep understanding that a professional has. When I talk about the appreciation for the power of economic thinking, I mean something like what an art or literary critic brings to the table though at a lower level.

These are achievable goals for my undergraduates and they don’t correspond necessarily to the normal structure of grades. Indeed, in some ways, the grade structure is orthagonal to what I’m trying to accomplish. In 25 years of teaching, I’ve only had two or three students who I concluded were unable to learn what I was trying to teach. (That doesn’t mean only a few students didn’t learn, just that only a few were unable to.)

When I discuss the exam today, these are some of the things I will say. Unlike the view of higher education laid out in the fourth paragraph above, I believe that all students can achieve a level of competency in what I’m teaching. Getting a failing grade on an exam doesn’t mean one is unable to learn the subject. It just means one hasn’t figured out how to learn it yet. This is not just semantics. There are different ways of learning, and different faculties to tap into. This lesson is particularly important for first year students who may not have study skills or habits amenable to higher education. A student who appears attentive in class and yet did less well on the exam than I expected said to me yesterday:

You mentioned that staying up all night before the exam to study wasn’t good practice. Were you serious? That’s the way I’ve always studied.

I am confident she can learn a different way, one which relies less on absolute talent, and more on more thoughtful uses of the talent one has, one in which she can learn economics effectively.

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6 Responses to It’s not just semantics

  1. David says:

    I empathize with students when it comes to grades. We have been told since our first SOL exam in third grade that those numbers will determine our success in life. I don’t agree with quantifying our learning progress, much less using those figures as determinants of success, because the means of measurement is arbitrary and almost always tainted. It is arbitrary because there is no fixed way to grade progress, yet to standardize it would assume that all students learn the same and have equal advantages. It is tainted because extraneous variables skew the data, variables that have nothing to do with how much as student knows about the subject; perhaps a student has had a rough night, has had family issues, or is simply hungry.

    Grades might have a small degree of accuracy, but they should always be viewed with skepticism. Yet the two biggest factors high school students are urged to maximize are their GPA and SAT/ACT scores. These are the two big tickets to college, thus a career and thus success. With graduate school on the minds of many college students, a high GPA seems all the more important in receiving a higher degree.

    But if these scores are not as crucial for grad school or careers as most students believe them to be, then there is an epidemic error in the perception of what learning means throughout campuses, and students (and faculty) are approaching learning in an ineffective manner. I don’t agree with the grading system, but I am still pressured by it because I sense that the scores will come back to haunt me in my next interview. What is your take on the role of grades after college, even if it’s only to open that first door to careership?

  2. Mikaela says:

    DAVID!! I found the blog and of course where I am quoted. I agree with you that the importance of grades is wicked overvalued in highschool. As a result, I think my initial shock of my “bad” grade was because of this.

    thats all. im glad my bad study habits give you something to blog


  3. Jenny says:

    Your thoughts on the differences between high school and college are intriguing. As an elementary school teacher and the wife of a college professor I’ve spent a surprising amount of time thinking about this. You’ve helped me organize my thoughts more. I think you are right that the differences are much greater than simply higher expectations. Add those academic differences to all of the other changes in a student’s life moving from high school to college and I’m astounded at how successful most freshman are!

  4. Gene Roche says:

    I agree with Jenny that your distinction between the way teachers in high school approach their practice and the way university faculty approach theirs is very important. When I taught high school English (183 days, 6 hours and 12 minutes–not that I was counting) my primary disciplinary focus was on K-12 pedagogy, just as it was for my colleagues in math, or social studies or home economics. I knew about disciplinary communities in literary criticism, but I never thought of myself as participating in them. At some level they provided the content for parts of my curriculum, but thinking like a literary critic was never a key outcome for my classes. Learning how to analyze a poem, short story or novel by applying some concepts that had been developed by literary critics was a key outcome.

    At most universities, most faculty are intimately connected with their disciplinary communities, defining themselves as economists, biologists, linguists, or physicists who do their work at a particular institution. In my experience, most of them see their primary mission much as you do:

    In university, we should be teaching how disciplinary practitioners practice their arts and sciences.

    The one question that I still wrestle with daily is how we help students integrate the various perspectives that they are exposed to during a typical semester, year or degree program. Is that a natural outgrowth of just taking 10 courses a year, each one of which might well offer a unique definition of what it means to practice that discipline? If it isn’t natural, what does the university offer as support for students in integrating these various perspectives into their own learning? If we don’t offer that kind of support, should we be providing it?

  5. Steve says:


    Regarding your last question, you might want to look at our RavenDesk project which we just rolled out for freshmen. You can find it at .

  6. Gene Roche says:


    Thanks for the link. Looks very interesting and should become much more valuable as the links fill out. –Gene

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