Saturday, October 22, 2005

A meditation on the grade of "D"

I love teaching: the preparation of lessons, the reading of assignments, dealings with students. I even enjoy grading papers--the work of it, once I get started (it's that getting started, though . . .). What I do not enjoy is assigning final grades for a student's performance in a course--especially "D"s.

As readers know, I'd recently promised this post because I recently had the unpleasant task of assigning a couple of "D"s for a just-completed course. And/But in a bit of serendipity at last week's mid-semester faculty in-service meeting, the president of the college asked us to consider whether, as our current statistical data on student preformance was indicating, a grade of "D" indeed does indicate "successful completion of a course." Good question.

"D"s limn a rather odd, and unpleasant, academic space. For those interested, this portion of a Wikipedia article offers some factual information my nation's A-F system. "D"s are, technically, a passing grade, but at my college they will not allow a student to advance to the next-highest class, and they aren't transferrable to other colleges as credit for a course. But here's what I really want to write about: what a "D", to me, represents beyond a numerical designation.

The first time I was introduced to the A-F system (during that troubled time known as "middle school"), all I remember of the explanation for the grades was how "D"s were explained: that a student had tried diligently to do the assigned work but just couldn't. To my mind, a "D" actually seemed worse than an "F". "F" could stand for the Spanish word "flojo" ("lazy"); that could thus be an assessment of character rather than of academic performance. "D" stood for "dumb."

I now think less pejoratively about "D" students, you may be relieved to know, but the fact remains that, to my mind, they still indicate, more so than does an "F", the student's basic lack of skills and/or ability for doing the assigned work in a satisfactory manner. At least, that's the conclusion I've come to because I allow students the opportunity to revise their work after I've graded it once. Like all conscientious teachers, I like to think--and, in my case, I all but promise my students at the beginning of the semester--that as a result of my instruction they will be better writers by the end of the semester than they presently are. And usually they are. But sometimes not. And even though, like all conscientious teachers, I do a little soul-searching at such times and wonder if I'm doing or saying something that's confusing to the student, I also recognize that several someones have been in charge of that student's formal education over the years, and I can't always fix whatever sins of comission or omission they might have committed over however many years over the course of a semester. But such things ARE fixable, though, and I tell the student so: the fault is not in themselves.

But in some cases I cannot explain a student's performance in my class by invoking his/her past (mis)instruction. At the open-admissions school where I teach, we occasionally see students who not only aren't ready for college work now, they will never be ready. It is in cases like this that I feel most acutely the tension between the terms "community" and "college:" some people in the community simply aren't "college material." That is not elitist; that is fact. And it is our collective duty not to perpetuate delusions.

Is it strange to say this?: The "Gentleman's 'C'" is all well and good for future presidents to "earn" while undergrads at Yale, but an utter disservice, I believe, to the populations my school serves. The "D", then, is as much warning as assessment. And I have to say that, in view of the fact that so many of my students feel their futures to be utterly contingent on getting a college education, being the messenger of that warning is most unpleasant.

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R. Sherman said...


Visited via A.J. This is my first comment.

The problem seems to me (a former literature student and college instructor in German) that the search for "equality" in opportunity as morphed into an expectation of equality in result.
That is, we are all "above average."

Contrast with Germany's school system where students are placed in a track which facilitates success, whether at the university or in a trade. The graduates from each track have the respect of all because each will have successfully completed the requirements for that track.

Unless we as a society begin to see the value of both the doctor and the plumber, there will always be those who receive the "D's" from concientious instructors such as yourself.

I enjoy your posts.

Sine.Qua.Non said...

From your side of the fence, I haven't much input, since I would be unqualified to make such assessments. I am nearing the end of my second Master's Degree at a smallish private University. I will tell you that D's get no credit at all at this University in the Undergraduate programs and C's in a Masters won't get you to graduation.

During this degree program, I was required to participate in a series of 'group' research projects on various topics and in completely different schools of discipline. I found these to be incredibly problematic. One the one hand, group projects can help people undertsnad the dynamics of working in groups. With a good leader, scheduling and understanding the requirements from each member is crucial. Also timing. What you also find is the deadbeats. The people who ride on everyone else's coat tails. Who often wait to the very last minute and then rely on one or two resources for material. Lots of that around. You also find, even at the Master's level, people who can barely construct a sentence, do adequate research, analyze that information based on a specific theory you may be trying to defend (or whatever you are writing about), and come to valid and defensible conclusions.

I found that many of the students I dealt with in these situations were hard put to understand process. That is, how do I get from point A to B to C and ultimately to D (I didn't intentionally mean to allude to the grading system here!). Knowing and understanding the process of how to problem solve, to complete a project, a paper, or any other endeavor is, in my viewpoint, one of the most crucial things that you should leave with upon concluding a bachelor's degree. Basically, the process is always the same, whether you are writing the great novel, painting a mural, creating anything, solving the problem of floods, regardless, you muust understand the process of how you begin and complete anything with any degree of sucess. I believe that, often, many people can not do this. Given a large overwhelming project, they do not know where to begin. Even small endeavors, to you or me, would appear overwhelming, if they didn't know where to begin and how the get there. They need a MAP. I supply this to my employees and I am so happy with them when they apply it to their work and are successful, because it makes my job easier and also because they are incredibly happy with themselves. They apply this knowledge over and over again and begin to use it in problem solving other issues which in turn helps them with implementation.

I am currently completing my thesis on this degree and have an appointment for my (shudder) Defense on the 21st of November. I took employment in late May and have barely touched my thesis since. I am a bit upset that the thesis will not be as wonderous and as big as the minor book I had originally imagined (10 months seems so LONG!). Well, due is almost upon me. Am I nervous? Not terribly. Why you ask? I am prepared. And, I thrive on the pressure of shortened deadlines. I have completed all my research. I have it categorized and indexed. My introduction and conclusion are in their 3rd drafts. The body of my research comparisons is almost completed. I lack the conclusions. My Bibliography was done before I even began writing, including summary paragraphs I will edit out later. I also lack editing the thing down to a reasonable length so as not to make three department heads and the Dean insane. (I hate removing any good material so I leave it in to remove later so I will remember points I need to make further into proving my thesis.) Anyway, I may not work like everyone else, but I know I get my work done, because I have a map. When I finish the thesis, it will be much smaller than I imagined, but it will be valid and defensible and I will do well. (I'll just hate the Oral Defense!)

My writing style on my website is vastly different than how I prepare a report, write a poem or a thesis for that matter...that doesn't mean the process changes all that much, however. I have often used analogies to explain a process to someone who can not get it - baseball, cooking a meal, something they can relate to and have them explain the process to me. Then I show them how they can apply that to what they are trying to do. This doesn't 'always' work. Unfortunately. I have such an employee now.

The second most important thing about education is mind expansion and diversity of thought. It's the best part for me. I want to go back again. I already miss it. In anything - almost - not nuclear physics or finance for example! Ugh!

I can not imagine a better teacher than you based on the great lessons you post here. Hell, I get alot out of them myself. It sounds like you give people a lot of chances. Some people just need to do more time to get it. ANd, they have to want to get it. They have to want to learn, to grow, to change. Change IS life. Change IS growth. Change IS learning. It's hard to know what will turn the brilliance of that light bulb on in an individuals mind - but, when it happens, that understanding, it is hard to stop people from that point on. It's cool to watch. And, I'm always happy when that person suceeds. It is hard though, when people do not suceed and you do not know how else to help them. Sometimes, you can't.


Anonymous said...

Just some notes for the record on the psychology of grading, my institution does not allow for "minus" grades, so our scale goes A, B+, B, C+, C, etc.

Also, we don't give F's. A failing grade here is an "E". Since F is our school's initial (University of Florida), there's an obvious desire to avoid associating that letter with failure.

On the complexity of assigning "D's" I agree it's the hardest grade to give. An "E" means something like, "You didn't participate at all" while a D says something like, "You did everything, but it just wasn't any good."

- MoleculaRR

mannequinhands said...

I agree with MoleculaRR.

When I look back at my years of schooling, I still see the biggest failure in my academic career as the quarter I got a D in high school calculus. I had been working my butt off, trying to understand this, like, foreign language of mathematics, and I just couldn't get it.

So, to me, that D was the "you're stupid" of my whole high school career. Who cares that I was doing fine in every other class? That D made me feel terrible.

That is not to say that the dreaded D should not be assigned. Going by my test scores and homework assignments, I deserved the D, mathematically at least.

However, I do place a little blame on the teacher for my grade. I dated a math major in college, and nine months after barely scraping by in that calculus class, my boyfriend explained one basic calculus concept in a way that I understood (dang left-brain lack of ability to understand abstracts) and everything made sense. Alas.

Let me add that my calculus teacher was also the baseball coach (and very focused on baseball), teaching calculus for the first time, not seeming to care about the class. He was by no means teaching the subject well. At least in my view.

And we all know that John is a different kind of teacher than that. If the students are given the chance to grow and learn from their mistakes by revising their work, what can a D indicate but a basic something that keeps them from understanding a central concept?

John B. said...

Thanks to all of you for your thoughtful comments. I have to admit, though, that I found MoleculaRR's comments a bit funny--that the U. of Florida fears that its students cannot make a distinction between what an academic "F" signifies and what the "F" in "UF" signifies could itself be read as a commentary on the extent to which schools have succeeded in teaching students to deal with abstract concepts (at least in my experience, not very well . . . I wonder why that might be? A subject for another post). But I suppose I'm a victim of that same incapacity: in such a system, I'd find myself thinking "E" stood for "Excellent" because, in some long-ago elementary school grading system I was assessed by, that's what "E" stood for.

R. Sherman: I completely agree with you about valuing all work equally. As I was telling one of my classes earlier this week, those of us who, for whatever reason, don't work with our hands are or will be the direct beneficiaries of those who, for whatever reason, DO work with our hands--they make our choice economically possible. Also along the lines of what you say, about a year ago I read somewhere a compelling argument that, because in the U.S. we tend to assume, somewhat as Erin (mannequinhands) alludes to, that people either have an aptitude for, say, math or writing, or they don't, our educational system, which is supposed to be a hallmark of our anybody-can-be-President society, actually is implicitly elitist in its attitude, whereas the Japanese system, where the pace of lessons in elementary school can seem glacial by comparison to ours, actually is MORE egalitarian. The Japanese's assumption is that any mentally-capable person can learn what there is to learn; the difference is that some learn things faster than others do and so their pedagogy allows for those differences. From what I know about the Japanese system, they are more concept-driven, while we here are more content-driven. Content-driven pedagogy, combined with the assumptions that a) teaching time for subjects has to take into account students' short attention spans and b) the above-mentioned assumption that you get it or you don't and if you don't, well too bad for you because we don't have time to spend waiting for you to get it (see (a)), lead, in part, to the smart students I see who, for the life of them, have only the shakiest notions of the most basic of things, like sentence structure.

Nancy: I know what you mean when you say that I give students chances, and you are right; but there's something in that phrase that sounds a bit like coddling. So, just in case someone should come across all this, I offer this apologia: From what I'm told, my students don't regard me as an "easy" teacher, but because those who choose to do so recognize that the revision option works to their advantage, they end up working harder AND improving because of the extra work. So, yes, they get chances to improve, but they still have to earn the benefits of those chances.

Sine.Qua.Non said...

I never meant to imply that you coddled your students. Sorry if that's how I came across. Just trying to give the perspective from someone who works their ass off for a grade. I have had professor's who allow second rewrites - if you get the original paper in on an earlier deadline. I guess I was more disturbed with the benefits to the slackers in group projects who ride on the coat tails of someone else's work.

John B. said...

Sorry it's taken so long to reply to you here.
I didn't misunderstand you and took no offense at your remarks. It's for reasons that you mention that I'm suspicious of collaborative projects, mostly because of the difficulty in evaluating them. If the work is truly collaborative, how can you justify assigning a separate grade for each member of the group? On the other hand, as you note, if the members' individual contributions are, um, unequal, then how can the instructor justify assigning all the members the SAME grade? I know the arguments for each, but the ones I know of all run counter to the dynamic of collaborative learning as I understand that concept.
Of course, there's the (highly unlikely) possibility that I don't fully or properly understand that concept.