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Grading and Mediocrity

(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.

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Categories: education
  1. Katherine
    June 7, 2011 at 2:16 pm

    It probably doesn’t surprise you that I’m doing way better in jobs suited for me than I ever did at school. My constant wandering attention is suddenly an advantage out here, as is openness, interdependency, and existence in networks, and most of the other goofiness that school doesn’t reward. Ultimately, I think that there’s a lot of things about the institution of school that simply aren’t working, and a lot of aspects that are very industrial revolutiony that don’t serve us now in the workplace of the technical age, and that the problem isn’t just mine, and I don’t think I have some great answer. I do think that students often gain a valuable understanding of diversity in thought and ways of being and how to argue and a general appreciation for knowledge and lots of other skills in college, which is one reason I continue to advocate that people get their BA/BS, but I’m not sure I can put my fingers on whether it’s not “hanging out receptively & openly in a campus environment” that gives you that.

  2. Eli Tilevich
    June 7, 2011 at 3:00 pm

    Interesting observations, Amy!

    What I have noticed here at VT is that oftentimes our most impressive undergrads are not the ones who have the highest GPAs. These students derive publishable research results, create newsworthy software projects, but may not have the highest GPAs even within their major. I don’t think it is just the grading scheme that is at fault here. The standard educational process favors conformity and predictability over innovataion and spontaneity. Unfortunately, highly creative people may not always be willing to impose sufficient discipline on themselves or care enough about their grades.

    • June 7, 2011 at 4:53 pm

      Eli, I completely agree. One of the things I love about undergraduate research is that it sometimes wakes people up who have gotten disenchanted with classwork–gets them really excited about learning again. People’s energy and commitment is context dependent. A student working on the wrong research project for them seems like a slacker, but when they change to the right project they’re a star.

      I still though do think there’s an “eat your vegetables” value to “yeah, you don’t like it–but you still have to do your best” work ethic. And we’re not doing students a favor by raising prima donnas who work only when they feel like it. I heard an NPR piece about “unschooling” (self directed home schooling) yesterday that I found appalling. I have a PhD in extremely liberal approaches to schooling, and everything I’m saying here is sacrilege from that point of view!

  3. sneezypb
    June 7, 2011 at 4:58 pm

    It depends on the student’s aspirations. If the student’s goal is just to graduate and employers do not care about GPA and the amount of work between a C and an A is significant, then why should the student make an A? Students intending to go to graduate school or get jobs where GPA has importance have a very different incentive to turning in higher quality work.

    • June 7, 2011 at 5:23 pm

      Right. But the empirical question is whether the student who gets the C’s and gets hired wakes up in the new job and realizes that he/she can’t do C level work at the job. Do people make that distinction clearly, or are we encouraging bad habits that persist?

  4. sneezypb
    June 7, 2011 at 5:53 pm

    By setting the bar for themselves so low, the students will seek out the jobs where they can do the work with minimal effort or enjoy such that the work does not feel like work. The latter is how I overcame my minimal work effort. Of course, it is also why my degree has nothing to do with my work. My hobby became my work.

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