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Grades: Just put your head down and grind it out

As a teacher, I sweat over student grades. It matters. Those grades become a permanent part of a student’s life.

gradesWhen my students go on to college or university—and I hope they do—the admissions people won’t be looking at what kind of people they are. Certainly, many colleges and universities require prospective students to essays about their missions and goals in life. The students must also document their contributions to family, school, and community. The students’ essays and resumes may make them shine. The work may portray them as great humanitarians. In the end, however, those admissions officers look to the bottom line. Grade point averages count more than the documents that demonstrate those students are great assets to society.

Knowing the gravity of the grade, then, makes me worry. I labor over the scores, worry about half points that may make the difference between grades. Has the student demonstrated they know and understand the material? If so, what is the depth of their understanding? Have they communicated their knowledge in a clear and concise way? Where does the student stand in relation to the material they are learning? Is it sinking in or is their understanding ephemeral? Do they walk away with the basic critical thinking skills that will help them in the halls of other institutions of higher learning?

As a community college teacher, I know that my students go a couple of directions. My class may be their only brush with higher education. Many of them finish their college experience at the associate’s degree and go on to jobs. Some move on to further college. They need to be prepared. I feel that I am part of their process.

I remember those brush-off classes I had in college. If I just showed up now and then, crammed a little before the exams, I did all right. I produced mediocre papers and got grades I was happy with. Classes I liked or that were easy, I pulled an A or B. Those I didn’t like or were harder, I earned a C. It all balanced out in the end for a GPA (until my last year in college when I got serious) of 3.0.

I thought I had the college thing figured out. I talked my way into decent grades with some professors. I dodged the hard work whenever I could.

Then I got to graduate school. I had to go back and relearn the things I’d forgotten and learn the things I didn’t from those simple classes. I found out the hard way that I didn’t benefit from teachers going easy on me. Those lessons go with me into the classrooms, and those poor kids have to learn from my mistakes.

So, I’m hard on them. I expect a great deal. While I put up a professional but strict façade, inside I’m still a pushover, which makes me miserable. Students have to write essays for their exams. Except for people who obviously don’t try, I want to give all the essays perfect scores.

There’s a problem with this. There are students who don’t have to try much to score well. Some students have worked very hard to produce their work. They understand grades matter and they strive to achieve that A grade. Others get it but struggle to get even average grades. Some even work hard just to pass the class.

It would be unfair to the disciplined, thoughtful students for me to give middling effort a great grade. I would be lying to a student who produced mediocre work, no matter how much effort went into it. A great grade for average work makes the student think they are better at the work than they are. I don’t want to fool my students. They need to know just what their efforts produce.

The principle of fairness even extends to the low achievers. If I give average work a great grade, this dupes poor students into thinking things are easy. Worse, they begin to believe I’m being hard on them. They get resentful and bring that into the classroom. They can poison the atmosphere. Once a class goes off the rails, it’s awfully hard, if not impossible, to get it back on.

I just graded 50 tests for two classes. My exams come in two parts: 25 multiple-choice questions and an essay topic, each worth 50 points. I literally give students the multiple-choice questions in an online study guide. The guide for each test contains 100 questions. Out of the 100, I choose 25 for the exam. They have complete access to the study questions for the three exams I have in class all semester.

Every week, I hand out an essay topic that may be on the exam. Students work together to figure out how to build a decent essay that addresses the topic. I do this for five weeks before the exam. Out of the five possible essay topics for the exam, I choose two to be on the test.

In other words, I give them all the information they will need for the exam. If they just do the heavy lifting—study the multiple-choice questions and prepare essays—they will do just fine.

In addition to the tests, students take a quiz every week. They can use their books for this part of the grade. It’s another giveaway. The catch is that if they don’t read the text, they won’t do well on the exam essays. I expect, since they are adults, they can make the choice to read the text or not.

The tough part of the class are four essays. The first demands that they read primary documents and compare and contrast them. For the second and third essays, they must respond analytically to scholarly articles that relate to the primary documents. The fourth assignment is a final paper where they use the primary documents, the articles, and one more article they find on their own to build an essay.

The tests and the papers give me pause. I never look forward to grading them. These assignments demand tough choices. I read them carefully, noting the content and the composition. The latter is important. I can’t know what the students know unless they write in an intelligible way.

Grading never goes the way I think it might. The class that I perceived not doing well did much better on the exams than the one I though was doing well. For the class that didn’t produce good work on the exams, the essays demonstrated just how much some of these people screwed around. Either they didn’t take the test seriously or they thought it would be easy.

The other class, the one I thought was struggling, did much better on the exams and the papers. They are, for the most part, quiet students, the kind you can’t know from the outside. Maybe this is why they are doing better. They are actually thinking.

I put these exams aside now. The grades are set. Some of the students will not be happy. They will face the fact of their lack of effort. Others will shrug off their crummy grades and go on to earn more.

I tell all of them at the start of the semester: It’s a good idea to find out what the teacher wants and give it to them. We can talk about the merits of learning over grading. In the end, I say, the grade matters. If you don’t like the class, if you don’t like me, so what? Put your head down and grind it out. The grade is what matters. I have set up a process in which you might learn something. Leave the rest to me.

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