Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Can You Really Get A's Without Trying?

On the whole, I'm pleased with the student reactions to their first grades. The class average was a C (median C+, mean C-, or something like that), which makes perfect sense to me because "C" means "average" and I don't expect great things out of the first written assignment - that's why there are three of them, to give students room to improve. I'm very conscientious about marginal and summary comments, with the summary comments being an explanation to them and reminder to myself of why they got the grade.

My greatest fear was of the two students who got F's; the one who barely put together a paper said nothing, and the one who plagiarized the entire summary from the journal article e-mailed me to say she was surprised/disappointed but had reviewed everything I highlighted and understood.

There was, of course, the anticipated line of students wanting me to answer questions after class. This was a 50-50 split. Half of them were on the issue of plagiarism; many students had what I accepted as "accidental" plagiarism that was marked and didn't affect the current grade, but would affect later grades (I declared one letter grade deduction for each plagiarised sentence). I reviewed what counted as plagiarism with each of them. The other half were the "I shouldn't have received such a bad grade". I had no problems sitting down with students to explain why their summaries, critiques, or proposed follow-up studies didn't meet the levels spelled out in the rubric they received with the assignment. I was not moved by the "I've never gotten that grade in my life" or "I get A's in my other classes without trying, how can I get a C here when I did try?" arguments.

Can you really get A's in your other classes without trying? Which classes are we talking about here? I have certain expectations of what a junior or senior taking a lab class in their major should be capable of doing. If you got a C, it's because you just barely met those expectations. People who are about to graduate from a respectable institution with a bachelor's degree should understand the difference between a prediction and a finding, not say that researchers "expected" to find something that wasn't a prediction; they should also understand what a paragraph is for and be able to use it properly. Am I the only person in this university who expects that? Are the standards for writing in our field really so low that we accept vague, unclear, uncritical analyses and give them A's because - what? because the classes are so huge in our popular major and TA's so unwilling that stamping anything with an A really makes sense?

I'm forced to wonder if students think they're paying for an education or if they're paying for a good transcript. On one hand, I feel bad because they signed up for a class with the most entertaining (if not that effective) teacher in the department, and got stuck with me in charge of a third of their grade (and lab sessions didn't start until after the drop deadline, either). On the other hand, I don't think my ideas of what these students should be capable of are unrealistic, and certainly don't intend to compromise on the grounds of some vague student-stated standards.

Wouldn't it be nice if there were some general agreement, with supporting examples, of what students are supposed to be capable of producing? If you want to earn a bachelor's degree, you must be capable of this, and it's not just me who will hold you to that standard, it's other people as well.

Naturally, this whole issue comes up two days before I lead a department workshop on grading and less than a week before I present to the general graduate teacher program on incorporating writing into non-English classes. I practice what I preach, but practice doesn't necessarily show that the preaching is correct...

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