Monday, May 14, 2012

Grades and Entitlement

This semester has been especially bad as far as people complaining about the grades in my class--and most of this, after the last assignment was handed back and the final graded. I've now heard from just shy of 20% of my students concerning their grades in the week's time since submitting their final scores (let alone actually submitting their final grades). Two of these emails were legitimate emails asking if I round my scores up [1], e.g. from an 89.7% to a 90% (A- to A) and from an 84.95% to an 85% (B+ to A-); I had actually already done this in both cases, though it is a little annoying to have to deal with these emails. A third was actually the only really truly good, outcome-affecting email in which a student rightly pointed out that I had submitted the wrong grade for him (for the first time ever, gah!), so I submitted an official grade change form.

The rest were largely complaining that they wanted higher grades; most were students who earned low A-'s for their course grades. An A is (or should be) earned by consistently excellent work in the course, so an A- should mean (and in my course, I try to ensure that it does mean) at the very least consistently good work, though in practice it ends up meaning "generally good enough to be above average" [2]. In any case, I would like to place below the text of an email which i received, and my response to it (names removed):

"Hello Instructor,
I just saw my final grade on the grade report and I am a little confused. I am unsure what calculation methods were used to determine the final grade. When I was trying to average things on my own, the outcome was fluctuating each time so I'd love to hear how the grades were calculated, curved, etc. Also, I do not feel the grade I received is an accurate depiction of my performance in the class. I would like to meet to address my questions. I am available and in town until May 16th. Thank you for your time. Student

And here was my response:
Hello Student,
Here is the breakdown of how the grades were calculated, as per the syllabus (which is posted on Blackboard):
"Lab Work/Participation 30%, Homework/Quizzes 30%, Exams 40%. The letter grade break-down is as follows: 90-100%=A, 85-90%=A-, 80-85%=B+, 75-80%=B, 70-75%=B-, 65-70%=C+, 60-65%=C, 55-60%=C-, 50-55%=D, 0-50%=F. Grades and other course materials will be posted on Blackboard throughout the semester. "

So your labwork/participation grade is 30% of your total; you scored a 40/40 here, though this was largely a gimme grade (only a few people did not score 40/40). On the homework, you did well, scoring 46/52 (88.5%, an A-); the class average was a 39.8/52, so you did well compared o the class here. However, on the exams you scored 67/100, but we dropped one, so this becomes 56/75 (74.7%, a B-), which is also slightly lower than the class' average of 70.3/100 --> 57.9/75. Curve-wise, this puts you 6/21 in the class and 13/42 if we compare both sections, so if a curve adjusted the grades, this would give you a low A- or a high B+; recall that I stated explicitly at the beginning of the semester that the class was supposed to be curved to a low B. As it turns out, I did not use a curve (other than the slight grade inflation you got in the exam questions), because the class actually ended up as a B+ average, so applying a curve would mean lowering most peoples' grades, not raising them.

Therefore, the scores on blackboard are correct as-is, including your weighted average % grade, which is your final grade in the class, an 86.5%. This weighted average is calculated according to the syllabus (40% for exam questions, 30% for participation, 30% for assignments), so in your case it's
(0.4*56/75 + 0.3*39.8/52 + 0.3*40/40) x 100% = 86.5%, a low-mid A-.

I hope this helps clarify things.


P.S. The A- is a good grade, reflecting what was in general good work. However, if you think that there is a better way to more accurately depict your performance in the class, please tell me how you would change the grading system, and I will consider applying it to future classes. Was the participation grade too easy (for example), so that it does not reasonably reflect the differences between a person just showing up and one who is putting lots of effort into the class in addition to just being there?
I have duplicated the email to me in it entirety, because it is a good sample of what kind of email I've received way too man of this semester. I duplicate my response in its entirety to give a sampling of just how much effort I put into explaining the grade scheme to each student who has sent me one of these emails, though there are slight variations [3].

Now, I don't just put this up on the blog to vent--though I suppose that this post does allow me to do that, too (it is, after all, a rant)--but rather to illustrate a point which largely comes up in conversations I've had and which occasionally comes up on this blog. That point is that we have a serious entitlement problem [4] in our culture. In our athletics programs, it is the "everybody gets a trophy" mentality; in the government, it is manifest in the various hand-outs and "social" programs funded by the government at all levels, or if you'd rather it was the "too big to fail" bailouts which were widely protested--if largely by people whose biggest gripe was at times that they wanted a piece of the action, too.

And in the school systems, it is manifest by the "everybody gets an A for effort" mentality which has slowly degraded from "A for effort" to "B for showing up!" and "degrees for participating!" An A once meant "excellent/superior work" and a B "good work," while "adequate or sufficient work" or "satisfactory work" meant a C, and "inferior or unsatisfactory work" a D. More students failed in those days, though to be fair most students now who know that they are failing (or, heck, even pulling a C-) will drop out of the class if they can do so. Some universities still keep the pretense (at least) of the old grade system, but the expectation has shifted at first gradually, and then more rapidly, so that it often seems that the average student expects a B+, the slightly better-than average an A.

I will not attempt to determine the reasons for grade inflation--they are multiple, if not legion--but I can say that one of the effects is that grades have become all-but meaningless, at least in some majors [5], and weed-out classes (which apparently include the class I teach) become even less popular. Combine this with the fact that many student will also complain about the workload--I probably give 2 hours' worth of homework outside of class for each hour in class on a heavy week, and mine is apparently a "hard" or "high-workload" class for my predominantly pre-Law/Business/Communications students--and we now have a group of people who all want to be rewarded and lauded without actually putting any effort into their studies.

This attitude has been inculcated throughout their pre-college careers, and few if any college instructors bother to try and fight the current on this one. After all, many (perhaps all) of the instructors are expected to put in a full week's worth of work doing research, the results of which often have much higher direct repercussions for them than does the quality of their teaching.

The result of all of this is that it is more proper to call this system the "school system" and not the "education system," as it has retained the same format of sitting in a classroom and listening to lectures, but has lost much of the qualities of system which actually educates. Granted, this is not solely because of grade inflation--indeed, I think that grade inflation is one of the symptoms. Grade inflation does create a school system which turns out graduates who have learned from constant experience that they do not need to work for the things they want. These are the people who are not only to comprise as much as half of the workforce in the coming decades, but also who are ultimately to be the country's innovators and leaders (or rulers) and the shapers of our culture. It is a culture which first forgot the difference between good work and hard work, and which is now in the process of forgetting the difference between hard work and any work.

Perhaps most important of all is that it takes both good work and hard work to develop virtues, to shed (or at least fight) vices, whether moral or merely civic. It is these virtues which ultimately allow a culture to survive; they are so many spots of light which will hold back civilization's next dark age; but once the cult of self-esteem and its inculcation of "tolerance," laziness, and pride displaces from culture the cardinal virtues virtue and the diligence and vigilance which it maintains, the dark ages will come calling.

[1] I use a set scoring system for assigning grades, since frankly there aren't enough students to make a really meaningful curve other than to say that the average grade point for the class should be roughly a 2.9-3.1 (B).

[2] The class is in theory curved to anywhere from a B- to a B, or even a B+, though this time my curve was a very high B+ thanks to all the C and lower students Q-dropping around the time of the midterm. It also doesn't help that these particular students do not understand how a curve works in principle (hey, not everybody understands Gaussian distributions etc).

[3] Not all wanted to know about curves, for example, and this is the first time I've put anything into post-script soliciting advice on future grades. We'll see if/how that one plays out, but I will actually seriously consider any suggestion sent my way.

[4] Though to be actually fair, this particular person actually responded to my email thanking me for my time and said that my clarification helped immensely. So not all of this is due to people's feeling entitled.

[5] Engineers and some science majors, not to mention many graduate and professional schools, still more-or-less make their students earn their grades. Some inflation is ok at these levels anyway, since the students who are enrolled are at least theoretically the top students in their fields anyway, but I still think that even here a grade of B+ is on the high side of average; of course, B- is what is considered a passing grade in my graduate program, and B+ overall is the minimum G.P.A. to qualify for Ph. D. Candidacy (or to graduate); I think that C, B-, and B- seem fair, respectively. And yes this would mean that my own grades would be reduced, too.

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