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Grading and Mediocrity

I was amused by this Facebook status update from my friend Christian Sandvig (reproduced with permission):

Three contractors promised me an estimate for a job by today. First contractor: “My Internet’s down.” Second contractor: “Family crisis.” Third contractor: “Didn’t we say Wednesday?” Remind anyone of teaching?

It indeed does–sad but true. But taking this seriously for a second, I’ve always wondered: does our grading system encourage mediocrity?  Some students will knowingly say, “well, that’s OK–I’ll at least get a C.” Does the student who thought the homework was for Wednesday turn into the contractor who thought the meeting was Wednesday?

The competitiveness of the workplace in most sectors is just brutal these days.  The employee who hands in an “I’ll just accept a C” level performance is now unemployed.  In a college course, you can just accept a C and there are minimal consequences.  You can even get into a good grad school with a sprinkling of C’s on your transcript, amazingly enough.  But in the workplace, a C means you have let your coworkers down. Something is not right, and it’s not OK. I worry that Christian’s post is all too true, and there may even be a causal relationship.
Maybe there should be only three grades: A, B, and F.  What do you think?
(NB: My liberal educator friends will say there should be NO grades. But that’s a whole other, more complicated conversation.)
Categories: Uncategorized
  1. August 14, 2012 at 3:04 pm

    As one of those people who had several Cs in undergrad, I don’t know if I would like that A, B, or F system. F would mean just “give up on this, because you suck at it.” My first semester in undergrad, I got Cs in Computer Science and Statistics. My third semester, I got a C in Linear Algebra. Should I have totally given up on my major? I don’t think so, because eventually I found the appropriate hooks that let me “get it” and gave me an angle on the work that I found interesting enough to lead to a Ph.D.

    I think you’re assuming that a C means “settling for mediocre,” but sometime a C is still “doing my best.” I think it’s good to honor the struggle.

    • August 14, 2012 at 4:36 pm

      You’re totally right Lana. My one C in college was definitely a case of settling for mediocrity/making a strategic decision that Real Analysis wasn’t for me. And most of the students who get Cs in my classes are cases of settling for mediocrity. But that’s a function of the kind of classes I teach. I wonder how we could tell the difference between sincere struggling and settling…. They should be different grades!

      • August 14, 2012 at 4:48 pm

        Grades don’t speak to effort or sincere trying at all, I think. Plenty of people settle for the B or the A (do the minimum to get the grade that they are willing to get). Recommendations are what allows us to understand effort, sincerity, and commitment. After all, you don’t need to be amazing at every subject. But, recommendations are the venue where you can show that in some areas (hopefully the ones the matter to your next step) you didn’t settle for a C or a B or an A, but actually went above and beyond.

        And (to return to the original scenario) between yelp, angie’s list, and google, I feel that the world agrees that recommendations are the way to really evaluate alternatives.

  2. August 14, 2012 at 3:17 pm

    Grades were just a score. Sometimes objective by getting a certain percentage correct. Sometimes subjective by points deducted in a random manner even the teacher could not explain. If C produces too mediocre work, then raise the standard to achieve a C.

  3. August 28, 2012 at 10:11 pm

    I would be more worried about grade inflation, giving too many As but I guess that’s a different topic? Eliminate the Cs and then B will become the new C.
    I too got at least one C in a course that bored me to death to its very end but didn’t want to withdraw from it (because hope never dies: I might learn something from it, boredom could turn to interest. It didn’t). That says more about my preferences than my academic performance.

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