(Nota bene: This post is about education, not social computing.)
I’ve been pondering lately whether letter grading teaches the wrong lesson to our students. Are the social norms of the classroom incompatible with the norms of the workplace? Let me share two contrasting pictures:
The happy picture: Over the years, I’ve had the privilege to supervise a number of students who stunned me with their professionalism. Students with top communications skills and work habits who showed up on time every time, asked clarifying questions about what was expected, and delivered work that exceeded expectations and was beautifully presented. I’m thinking in particular of Lori Adams Murphy (now at CNN) and Addy Lee Beavers (Yahoo). It won’t surprise you to learn that they are both huge professional successes.
The sad picture: a sad friend (SF) who slouched through college with C’s and D’s, and then got an uninspiring job, and at that job often called in sick or showed up late. In this tight economy, SF was laid off and now is long-term unemployed (3+ years). SF had a really promising job interview a few months ago, but then the potential employer checked references and that was the end of that.
So here’s my question: does our grading system encourage slouching into C’s? In a college class, you can do a distinctly mediocre job and get a C and who really cares about your college grades anyway, right? Does a habit of half-completed low-quality school work encourage a mediocre work ethic when the students move to the workplace? I see this in particular with new undergraduate researchers in my lab. I often sit down and explain to them that in their classes they can slouch into a C, but in my lab I expect excellence and professionalism in everything they do. Yes, you can be late for class–you might miss something, but you can be late. You can’t be late for your appointment to meet your research supervisor (unless something unusual happens and you call or email me in a timely fashion). No you can’t show up every week for our meeting with a long story about work in your other classes and nothing to show me. (You can get away with it once in a while, and ideally you tell me in advance: “Next week I have three midterms and two projects due. Can we meet the week after?”) Some students understand that a job has a different work ethic than a class, but many don’t.
I’m not sure a different grading system would’ve helped SF–a lot more is needed than that. But I do wonder if we should encourage students to take lighter course loads and demand higher quality work from them. I’m not sure if you can teach the kind of professionalism and polish that Lori and Addy embody. I didn’t teach it to them. But sometimes I think our grading system is teaching the opposite.