First day of class

Today is the first for my Winter semester class, and I’m excited. I like teaching, but for some reason the beginning of the semester is the best part. I’m interested to see who will be in the class. The topic, the philosophy of food, is one I’ve not taught before, so I’m interested to see how things go. Will I be able to keep a discussion going? Will students work together outside of class? Will they find material on their own and contribute it to our discussion? Will the texts I’ve chosen hold our interest? Will student interest in the topic stay high after the initial week or so? Will I be able to make the transition from the philosophy of the ordinary to the philosophy of food? Mostly, however, I’m interested to see whether a small experiment will work.

I’ve never been very impressed with a lot of educational fads. “Learning outcomes” is a new reworking of a fad that just keeps returning from the dead, but like many other fads in education, I think it often mistakes education with the transfer of information. Another current fad is learning-centered teaching. I have a difficult time imagining what teaching is if it doesn’t have learning as its result, so I think the name is mostly a public relations game: rename the thing and perhaps people will take renewed interest in it—not just Tide, but new and improved Tide, even if the only thing different is the box. Nevertheless, in spite of my jaundice, there is something in the learning-centered teaching movement that I like and that I think may be genuinely new: explicitly looking for ways to get students to take responsibility for their learning.

Ideally the teacher is a guide who helps students learn, but that ideal is seldom met. Most of the time teachers decide the course, set relatively arbitrary criteria, and evaluate the students by giving them grades according to the criteria. At least as it has worked itself out historically, that way of teaching has produced a system in which students play a game called “getting good grades,” and teachers play the game of using grades to sort students into piles. And in the end, university education amounts to little more than an extended and only marginally accurate IQ test. Almost everyone knows the rules of the grade game. I know them so well that, within a few days after class starts, I can tell which students are most likely to “win.” If I could get people to bet on student grades, I could make a good living as a bookie. The problem is that when we are playing the grade game, learning becomes something that happens “on the side” rather than at the center of class, since getting good grades and sorting students out is at the center.

In the past, I’ve tried to find ways away from the game and toward learning, with only qualified success. For example, in my beginning philosophical writing classes, and sometimes in other classes, the final assignment is to use the feedback from papers through the semester and any other relevant evidence to argue for the semester’s grade. If I am convinced, the student gets the grade he or she argued for. If not, I average the grades over the semester, including the grade on the final assignment. Of course, it is difficult for students to believe a teacher isn’t scamming them if he tries to avoid the game. They’ve spent at least twelve years in a system where grades are often the only game, and they continue to be the only game in most of their classes. It is reasonable for them to believe that this teacher is also playing that game, regardless of what he says to them (or even to himself). So, my experiments haven’t really gotten very far.

I dream of teaching a class in which students come, decide what project or paper relevant to the course they want to concentrate on, and use the class to help them learn enough to complete their project or paper. (Some graduate seminars begin to do that, but even in them the grade game takes an undue amount of class time.) So, in pursuit of my dream, I’ve tried to set class up this semester so that something like that can happen. Of course, I’m waiting to see. I’m keeping my fingers crossed—and I suspect that I may have to revise the curriculum more than once between now and the end of the semester.

Wish me luck.

55 comments for “First day of class

  1. Did you also ask yourself, given the title of the course, if students will expect you to bring treats regularly? Maybe in the section about behaviorism? If you bring cookies once a week and ring a little bell as you pass them out, will you get good marks at the end of the semester if you ring the bell but provide no cookies as you pass out the evaluation forms? In any case, good luck with the course.

  2. Good luck, Jim! Would you send me a copy of your syllabus? I’d love to see it. I’d make the same offer to you, but I’m afraid the courses I’ve ended having to teach this semester–a couple of sections of American government, a constitutional law class, and a course on the political history of Kansas–wouldn’t be of much interest to you.

    Also, let me know how the class goes. Your desire to get away from the grade game is one probably shared by most teachers; if this class gives you some good ideas about how to sometimes accomplish that, I’d love to hear about them.

  3. I am attending a class this semester, and the professor agrees with you on grades. We are studying Ovid, and our grade will be taken based on his subjective assessment of how much learn and attempt to learn. He does not want to give us tests, although he will if class members are not working. There will be a final project at the end, but our grades will be cumulative.

    In order for this to work, the class needs to be small (10 people), and the students need to trust the teacher. The professor also said frankly that really the only way to get lower than a B will be to not work – show up and try, and you’ll get at least a B. Learn throughout the semester, and you’ll get an A.

    I’m interested to see how it will work. I am only auditing the class so I have no stake in the result.

  4. For some disciplines, i.e., the law, the grade game is played with very high stakes. I’d love to be able to ditch the grading responsibilities of teaching, or at least de-emphasize the importance of grades over “learning”, but most employers base their decisions largely upon student performance in law school (i.e., grades).

    It’s a daunting task to evaluate students on the basis of one or two assignments while knowing that the grade you give to them will significantly impact their employment options. Not to mention their ability to pay down crushing student loan debt.

    Nice post, Jim. Good luck with your class!

  5. Jim:

    One of the things I used to do when I was teaching was to set up a grading system where the students could have a significant say in the relative weighting of the factors that went into their grade. For example, in an argumentation class we might have a couple of midterms, a couple of homework assignmentst, an oral presentation, and a final exam. I would assign some minimum weighting to the various components, say 5% for each of the two homeworks, 10% for each midterm exam, and 10% each for the oral and the final. That is 50%. The other 50% they could determine for themselves, after they did the assignment but before they found out their grade. It was not a perfect system by any meas, but the students seemed to genuinely enjoy it, and I do not recall ever getting a single complaint. No, my system does not speak to the heart of what you are talking about, but within the constraints of the “grade game,” at least made the game more interesting and meaningful for many of the students.

  6. My graduate seminars were always quite productive and we were able to focus on learning, and do so quite effectively. I do believe that this was possible primarily because we weren’t playing the grading game, since our graduate program had decided to not give grades (not on papers or for the course). I’m not quite sure how they were able to work this out with the University, as other departments use grades. It’s amazing how this simple (or not) change has had such a profound influence on the goals of both students and professors. Good luck with the semester.

  7. It\’s interesting that I was thinking about these issues today. One problem is that grades have become so inflated generally that one has trouble being honest. I remember a professor offering me what he called \”the gentleman\’s C\” in a class where my performance was, well, average. That\’s what a C means, after all.

    I\’m a high school teacher, so some of the issues are perhaps different. However, I had a class a few years ago where the \”grade grubbing\” as I call it was so bad I refused to make grades public — only feedback on their assignments so they could improve on the next one. It promoted an amazing debate about learning and grades. Many students (and a few parents) were really angry, but I held my ground through the term. At the end I had them predict their grade with an explanation why based on set criteria, and out of fifteen students thirteen matched the actual grades, and the other two guessed low.

  8. I had a student who, if I were grading on effort, would have gotten an A instead of failing. He came so far– my remedial class is entry-level for many, and he had been out of school so many years that to get to the point where he could respectably fail my class took him all the effort he had. But a grade is more than an influence on a student’s future. It’s your certification that the student knows the material. If I give a passing grade to a student, that student can go on to the next course whether s/he knows the material or not, so I’d better pass only those who know the material.

    And that’s where I have a problem with this “learning centered” stuff. Properly done, it’s fine, but often it’s code for “I’m not going to test them because seeing if they know stuff is inherently unfair,” which translated means “I don’t know how to write an effective test that will differentiate the thinkers from the memorizers.” The degree is a credential certifying that a person knows stuff, so you damn well better not be giving grades out with no basis in whether or not they know stuff, and unless you’re psychic, how else are you meant to know if they know stuff than if you test them? The degree also certifies that a person has determination, so you can give grades based partly on determination factors like attendance. But please, please don’t fall for the romantic notion that testing doesn’t matter. I agree that it’s not an accurate metric of learning, but it’s better than anything else we’ve got out there.

  9. Funny you should mention this, Jim. Just this morning I was thinking wistfully of the semester I spent studying Coptic with Kent Brown. It was not a course for credit, so there were no grades; the focus was purely on learning. That was probably my favorite educational experience the whole time I was at BYU. Of course, you have to be self-motivated for this to work. The first night of the class, about 25 students showed up. Within three weeks, it was down to three of us who stuck it out. For me, at least, that made it even better, even if it was no doubt a disappointment to Kent.

    #3 Katie, is your class a Latin class or are you studying Ovid generally? I had a (Latin) class on Ovid’s Metamorphases at the Y that I enjoyed quite a bit.

    #4 ECS, you are of course right about the high stakes of grades in law school. When I went to law school, it took me a while to figure out how the grade game is played in that environment (as a classics major I was used to small seminar-style reading classes with my professors, which was quite different from law school), so I started out in the bottom quarter of my class. Eventually I figured it out, and I got an award for the highest upward progression in grades in my class. Unfortunately, the importance of law school grades is heavily weighted to the first year (for law review and other such purposes). So much for my one time thought of becoming a law professor, like so many of our Bloggernacle friends. But I have no complaints and am happy with my life as a practitioner (and plenty well paid for it, too).

  10. I’m taking Dr. Faulconer’s class this semester (actually, I’m auditing it). It’s really nice to know this little bit of personal insight before starting the class. Personally, as a student, I don’t know how I feel about grades. I just got back from a mission, as well, which makes my way of seeing priorities different. I’ve noticed that sometimes, when teachers try to emphasize learning over grading, they give a lot of busy work. Or, at least, I treated it as busy work. Perhaps I thought of it that way because, as Dr. Faulconer says, I didn’t really trust the teacher, I didn’t really believe that he or she was trying to avoid the common teaching model. In general, I think a lot of students feel that they are too busy to really learn. I’ll have to think about it more. By the way, the texts for the class look fascinating. I, for one, am excited for the class.

  11. Two thoughts: 1. I wish I was in that class (I’m particularly partial to food) and 2. The grade game bugged me as a student and continues to bug me as a teacher. As a student, it was actually pretty easy to tune out—I simply stopped checking my grades. I have no idea what my graduate-program GPA was, and I only know my undergraduate one because I have to fill it in on my applications for grad school. It was incredibly liberating as a student to quit focusing on letter grades. However, when I started having to give out grades to my own students, the whole game came back into play and I still haven’t figured out anything that I’m really comfortable with. I’d be interested to know both how your experiment progresses as well as how it ultimately turns out. Best of luck.

  12. Kevin & ECS: I think that the importance of first year grades is being mitigated at some law schools. HLR had a write on process, whereby you could become an editor on the basis of a case comment rather than grades. That said, law school grades are very important, although my sense is that there economic and professional importance fades after a couple of years of practice. As for the concern about grade inflation (#7) it isn’t a huge problem in law school. I am required to grade according to a strict curve from which I cannot deviate. The problem is not inflation but rather that fairly marginal differences in test performance can have dramatic differences in terms of grades.

  13. Kevin,
    Coptic is fun. Have you kept up on it? The department where I earned my Ph.D. has a coptologist and those classes are always very, very small.

  14. Jim,

    I would be interested to hear you elaborate a bit on the difference between education and information transfer. I assume, in broad terms, the difference lies in teaching a student how, rather than what, to think–I am interested in what methods you have found to be successful.

    I welcome the thoughts of all the professors/teachers/educators who may be reading. And if this is a threadjack, perhaps Jim will consider writing a separate post addressing my question.

  15. Jim: “I dream of teaching a class in which students come, decide what project or paper relevant to the course they want to concentrate on, and use the class to help them learn enough to complete their project or paper. (Some graduate seminars begin to do that, but even in them the grade game takes an undue amount of class time.) ”

    Jim, that is exactly what all but two of my classes were like in my last year at BYU! I was usually the only student in the class. I had directed readings and studies on topics that I chose relevant to metaphysics, history of philosophy and so forth and then I lined up a panel of philosophy teachers (usually 3) to oversee the course-work. I was blessed to have several of those papers published BTW. I can’t imagine a better learning experience, a better environment or better teachers — I count them all as my friends to this day. That is how I would like to see upper level philosophy classes done.

    The students at BYU now are all much smarter and more able than I was and I’m sure that they can handle the uncertainty regarding grading that comes with such an approach. It requires self-starters — but every educated person must learn how to learn without someone directing their reading at some point. So I envy your students.

  16. Costanza, no, my Coptic is very rusty because I never use it. But I brushed it off enough to read some of the Gospel of Judas when that was in the headlines. I agree it’s a fun language.

  17. While most of the comments so far have gravitated towards the grade issue, I find myself more interested in your thoughts about your expectations and misgivings surrounding the beginning of a new semester.

    I remember quite clearly the excitement I felt as a student at the beginning of every new semester–excitement about the course topic, interest in learning from new (or well-known and well-liked) teachers, and (an always ambiguous) anticipation about meeting or renewing acquaintances with other students. As with the seasons, there always seemed to be a sense of rejuvenation and hopefulness that colored those beginnings.

    Little did I suspect that that sense of excitement and rejuvenation (which no doubt greatly influenced my decision to become a professor, though I didn’t know it at the time) would be much harder to maintain or recuperate as a teacher than it was as a student, with the result that my appreciation and affection for students who aren’t just playing to grades has become much more acute over the years.

    And quite by accident I’ve happened upon a happy remedy to the drudgery and disappointment occasioned by students who want an “A,” want to secure one with a minimal amount of effort, and have little to no real interest in really engaging the subject matter–though the remedy is impractical for application in all my classes, unfortunately. When I began directing International Cinema I also began teaching an Honors Program film appreciation class, in part to replace the one taught in the department of Humanities by my predecessor, who had retired. In response to a few students who wanted to apply the aesthetic principles we discussed in the class by actually making a film, I started offering the class in variable credits and expanding class time accordingly–those who wanted to do the bare minimum would sign up for a single credit and leave after the first hour or so, when we discussed the material on which they would be tested; those who were truly interested or who wanted to work for more credits would come back after a short break for the remainder of a 3-hour block, so we could watch clips from great films and delve deeper into criticism and analysis, talk about film theory, and work together to make some student films.

    This has become my favorite class to teach, and has begun producing a truly astonishing assortment of student film projects, which are in some ways better (and certainly more inventive and artful) than most of the films that have showed in recent years at Final Cut, the exhibition of student films sponsored by our Theater and Media Arts department. But what is more gratifying by far is the fact that it has also generated an environment wherein, once more, I am beginning to feel like I can share a learning space with friends and fellow aficionados, rather than mere students.

    If I could only find a way of accomplishing this in all my other classes.

  18. I’m perpetually terrified when a teacher doesn’t want to tell me what grades I’m getting partway through the course. Why? Because I will be getting a grade at the end of the term, of course. My last Russian class had homework and daily participation graded entirely on “effort,” and my instructor never got around to telling me (when I asked!) what he was marking us down for. And my classmates wondered why I was retyping all of our homework (actually, for the first five weeks, I was copying it all out by hand,) and spending 2-3 hours a day watching Russian TV online, and listening to nothing but our lab exercises on my MP3 player. I was reading my scriptures each week in Russian, singing hymns while looking at the Russian hymnal rather than English, and so forth, for a 5 credit hour second-year language class. I ended out in position to, by my calculations, receive an “A” in the class so long as my grade on the final was 80% or better. To get a B- I would have had to get negative points on the final. And I was still freaking out till my grades were registered with the university, thanks largely to the “heh, you don’t really need to worry about a silly thing like your grades!” attitude of the instructor.

    Pretending that grades don’t exist, when they’re going to be counted anyway, is just a way of stressing out students who really do want (or need, if they’re trying to get into law school) the “A.”

    On the other hand, I’m also rather bitter about the whole university system right now. I’ll be a lot more enthusiastic about learning within higher education when I’m outside of it, I think. At $1200+ per course, you’d better believe it’s all about the grades anymore.

  19. I think that’s an interesting notion. I’m currently in my penultimate (insh’allah) quarter of a BA program I started seventeen years ago. I started out interested in learning, but quickly got caught up in the grade game when my English teacher nominated me for the Honors program. After that, I had reason to maintain my 3.5+ gpa that kept me eligible to register the first day of registration. When I went to university, things got tougher, and life got tougher, and it’s been a rocky ride since then. Now I’ve got my plan and, if this quarter doesn’t kill me, I’ll probably survive next quarter too, and then I’m done.

    My plan for now is to do what I need to do to maintain a 3.0 average for the next two quarters. Learning will definitely happen, but I won’t be able to do as much of that as I might want in some of the classes, because that takes time and attention away from the things on which the grade is based. I’m in this program to get a degree so I can get a job that I will like better and which will pay better, like most everybody else in my classes, only it took me nearly as long as they’ve been alive to figure out that that’s what I need to do. I’ll do more learning on my own on the stuff I’m really interested in, just like I always have.

    You can mess with the way you assign grades if you want, but I’m not sure how much that’s going to accomplish until we’re ready to dismantle the credential system that’s in place to filter people out of jobs based on whether or not they have degrees. If the purpose of the exercise was learning, we’d have something like the Personalized System of Instruction where you have to prove mastery of material to move on, but you can move along at your own rate. Either challenges the system that put the people who are currently in power into their positions of power, and the history of folks voluntarily dismantling the systems that support their privileged position isn’t very good.

    9 — Interesting yet, Kevin, is that my first class of the quarter was today in Ancient Egyptian History.

  20. #9 Kevin: It is Latin 530 at Catholic University, so a Latin class to focus on Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

  21. That’s awesome, Katie. You should enjoy it. My favorite part was during the flood story when the dolphins were swimming among the trees. That’s a pretty vivid image!

  22. Thanks to all for your comments and encouragement.

    Jonathan Green (#1): Yes, I thought about the need for treats, so I have built into the course that each study group will bring a treat once during the semester, and I’ll bring something a few times. However, cookies (at least of the standard variety), doughnuts, twinkies, Hershey’s Kisses, etc. are disallowed as treats.

    Russell (##2, 11): I’ll send you a copy of the syllabus. The texts are Leon R. Kass, The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature and Carolyn Korsmeyer, Making Sense of Taste: Food and Philosophy.

    Katie P. (#3): I have about 30 students in the class, so I hope you are wrong about this only being possible in a small class.

    ECS (#4): You’re right about the stakes of grading, and I think those stakes are high for most disciplines.

    I’m not completely uncomfortable with grading and, if things are set up right, I am sometimes more comfortable with final grades depending on one or two assignments than on a multitude. I think much of the arbitrariness of grading comes in trying to decide how to weight various assignments. Should the mid-term be worth 20% or 30%? How about the final paper?

    I think that in philosophy and similar disciplines there is general agreement about what constitutes an excellent paper, a good paper, a satisfactory paper, etc. I know from an experiment we ran years ago that if I give a pile of papers to my colleagues, we get good agreement amongst us as long as we don’t try to refine the scale too much. It isn’t that difficult to decide on the As, Bs, and Cs. But throwing pluses and minuses into the mix makes it impossible for us to agree. So, since there is that kind of agreement, I think that it is possible to give meaningful grades, either by assigning several papers and weighting them equally or by giving assignments that work up to a final paper (including, for example, the opportunities for early feedback or rewrites) and then giving a final grade based on that paper.

    Nehringk (#5): That is an interesting idea, allowing students to have a say in the weighting of their scores. Does it make students more comfortable with the results? Does it motivate them to focus on learning?

    A Turtle Named Mack (#6): I had the same experience in graduate school, and I suspect others have to. Even in programs that give grades, I think that graduate seminars tend much more to focus on learning.

    Norbert (#7): Your experience with students predictions of grades is similar to that of Cecil Clark, now retired from BYU, who allowed students to give themselves their grades and found that the grade they gave themselves rarely varied more than a half a letter grade, up or down, from what he would have given them.

    Wacky Hermit (#8): It may be that some abuse the idea of learning-centered teaching to avoid evaluating students, but I don’t personally know those who do. Presumably if we are focusing on what students learn, then we also have to measure whether they have learned and what they have learned.

    I’m not likely to fall for anything about testing since I don’t usually test. I require papers because, in philosophy, they are much more indicative of whether a student has learned.

    Kevin Barney (#9): I bet that Kent would have been shocked had all 25 student stayed for a semester of Coptic. I would be shocked if 25 students even showed up the first time for some of the courses I teach.

    Rachel (#10): I’m glad that this was helpful to you. We’ll see how this works this semester.

    Jenny W. (#12): There are a number of books available that talk about how to break the grade game. You might take a look at for ideas on how to do it.

    Mathew (#15): I don’t have much theoretical background in these things, just some practical interest and experience. However, you are right that I think education ought to be mostly about how rather than about what. Obviously it is impossible to teach how to think without something to think about, so content is hardly irrelevant. Equally true is that people need background to for most “hows.” For example, a student in philosophy needs to know logic, its content as well as its methods, and the history of philosophy, which has a of content.

    As for assignments, I think that writing is—in philosophy, this may not be as true in other disciplines—the most important way to focus students on learning. Short essays, précis of readings, term papers, . . . . In class I think discussion of readings or philosophical problems is the only way to go.

    Blake (#16): At the end of this semester, I will have taught at BYU for 31 years, and I agree with you (and then some). Students at BYU are as a whole smarter and more able than I was. I remember the students I had classes with in the Honors Program. I was intimidated by them, but they were a minority of the student body. Today’s students are all of that caliber.

    Travis (#18): I agree. One of the things that professors as well as students experience at the beginning of each semester is rejuvenation and hopefulness. For me, there is also always a sense of fear. As another professor once said, “Each new semester brings back the fear that I’m finally going to be found out as the fraud that I am.”

    We ought to think about how to make more of our classes like your film appreciation class: do x, which is the minimum, and you get y, minimal credit. Do more and you get more credit. Then credit as well as grades would reflect what a student has learned.

    Sarah (#19): You describe perfectly what the problem is. I don’t think anyone—certainly not me—is pretending that grades don’t count. The question isn’t really whether to grade or not. In the present system, there’s no option but to grade. The question is how to make class experience one in which students can focus on learning and grades will more clearly reflect that they do.

    Blain (#20): I’m less sure than you are that the system we have is the result of people in power being unwilling to give up that power. I can’t figure out who is in power that benefits from the present way of doing things in a way that makes them want to hold onto that power.

    I’m also less sure than you that nothing can be done. I’m actually fairly confident that it is possible, though probably not easy, to teach in ways that focus more on learning without refusing to evaluate. Though certification ought not to be the end of education and thought it has taken over most other functions of education, I don’t think that is a problem that can’t be overcome. And I do think that certification will remain part of what colleges and universities are supposed to do with students.

    As for personalized instruction, it is so expensive that I don’t think it will ever catch on as the primary way of educating. In addition, one of the problems I see with much personalized instruction is that it focuses on “mastery of material,” which almost always means “mastery of content,” and as I said above, I don’t think content is the most important part of education.

  23. My solution to the grade game problem is simple: be really lazy.

    My first couple of semesters back at the Y after my mission I stressed out a lot about grades. Eventually I reached the point that I was tired of doing all that work for a grade and decided that I just didn’t care. After that point, the only thing that could motivate me to do the work was real interest in the material, which came fairly readily since by that time I had gotten most of my generals out of the way and was able to focus on classes that I liked. The problem is that too many students are too motivated by grades. I solved it for myself basically by being a big slacker. When it came to grades I was unmotivated.

    The funny thing is, though, that while I felt less motivated those semesters because I wasn’t freaking out over grades, I actually got better grades because I was studying things that I found interesting. I found that I cared less about what my score would be at the end than I did about what my teachers would say to help me improve my ability to write.

    But then I went to law school and the grade game came back with a vengeance.

  24. Jim:

    I’m not sure the weighting scheme had a dramatic effect on the areas you mention, but it did seem to be something that the students appreciated. It seemed to help them focus less on the pressure of being graded, and they seemed to appreciate what they perceived to be the fairness of such a scheme. I also think it lowered a few barriers to my communicating with them. One practical tip — I specified that they must give me their weightings in increments of 5% (i.e. they could weight something 5%, 10%, 15%, whatever, but not 12.7%, etc.). That made it easier to keep track of and to calculate grades.

  25. When I had a class where I could determine the weights of the assignments, I felt much more control over the outcome–I could focus on my strengths and minimize my weakest tasks. It simply made me feel respected that my teacher wanted to accomodate different learners and their skills.

  26. I’ve tried letting students weight their own assignments as well. But I discovered pretty quickly that most students used the opportunity to play to the strengths they already possessed, rather than working to develop new strengths. So it somewhat defeated the purpose of the class. Of course, if a teacher’s primary purpose is keeping students happy and/or securing flattering course evals, then it certainly helps accomplish that purpose. But if a teacher really wants students to acquire knowledge and develop skills they don’t already possess, then you have to reconcile yourself to the fact that some students are going to resist.

    On the other hand, I am convinced that neither the rules nor the outcomes of the so-called “grade game” are as arbitrary or meaningless as many critics would have us believe (experiences with incompetent, insecure and vindictive teachers excepted). Yes, if grades are interpreted as indications of native intelligence, then they are misinterpreted. But as indicators of a person’s ability to be punctual, conscientiously complete assignments, follow instructions, memorize, read critically, discern the implicit expectations of a particular social system, compete with peers, etc., they are very accurate indicators (within limits). In other words, they usually indicate with considerable reliability a person’s ability to play a certain kind of game, if you want to use that language, and to the degree that THAT game is analogous to OTHER games (grad school performance, performance in a structured employment environment, etc.), then grades are very meaningful indeed. Which is precisely why students often don’t like them.

    Perhaps what we need to do as teachers is not refuse to play the game (or badmouth it while continuing to play it surrepticiously), but be more open with our students about what the game is that they are expected to play, and help the less capable players develop the skills needed to play successfuly. Let’s face it, for the vast majority of us, our employers (not to mention the IRS, our bank, etc.) are not going to allow us to weight our performance according to our own strengths and preferences. If we enter the adult world without having developed (or without knowing how to develop) the skills needed to figure out and play the various games constitutive of civilized culture, we’re in big trouble.

  27. Jim,

    Are you sure you don’t thrust your students into the “grade game”? If I remember correctly, you spent considerable time during the first hour of Philosophy 202 explaining that a paper without defect is a mere “C.” After that session, all I could think about was “getting a good grade.” If you want students to escape the grade game perhaps you should stop sharing this tidbit of information right off the bat and let the students figure it out on their own (besides you have tenure…what are they going to do…fire you for giving too many As??)

    Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed your class far more than most, but I also became immediately anxious to “get the grade” in your class. Something to consider….

  28. 23 — The thing that the current credential system does is to make the degree an easy filter for those making hiring decisions. They can say “must have a degree” perhaps in a related major, and perhaps not, and that winnows out quite a lot of folks whose resumes they don’t have to more than scan in the Education section if they even bother to apply. This makes the degree a very expensive ticket to ride the HR train, but not because the degree necessarily provides any useful knowledge or skills that the job requires (beyond an indication of an ability to read and write). Until that phenomenon changes substantially, the important thing in any class (outside of one that clearly does lead to a specific career — law, medicine, etc.) is to get a sufficient grade to be able to graduate.

    The actual learning in any quarter/semester is pretty limited — anything I’m really interested in I will gain more knowledge about on my own over the years than I will in a 10 week quarter. What I will learn in that quarter is the things that the instructor wants to focus on, to some degree, which will bring me into areas that I wouldn’t go to on my own. Going off on tangents about the things that I’m interested in along the way can and has left my grade in jeopardy more than once. If grade wasn’t a consideration, I would be more apt to take those tangents, and would miss more of the things the instructor considers important. I don’t see a way to take the focus off grades other than to essentially promise As to those who provide a certain minimum of effort, and that would come at the expense of your control over their experience with the material you’re presenting.

    More to say, but I’m running out of steam and have to get ready for the rest of my day — I finally have enough money to buy a few of my text books, so I can buy the book I need to have 160 pages read in the next six hours.

  29. Austin, I don’t know when you took 202, but I haven’t had that discussion with students in quite some time. And even when I had that discussion at the beginning of the semester, I said quite clearly that the criterion was an internal one, not the criterion for final grades, which would (and did) reflect the same averages one would find in comparable classes. I doubt that your final grade was a C. In fact, I doubt that many in the class got Cs.

    Blain, there are a number of techniques for taking the focus off of grades and yet giving them. The web site that I mentioned earlier (comment #23) describes a number of them. I don’t think it is an either/or choice between allowing students to be in charge of what they learn (but directing them toward what will, in my view, be most profitable or needed) and evaluating their work with grades.

  30. I hate grading. And today is the end of the semester for Provo High School. My husband and I have worked our hind ends off helping our son negotiate Earth Systems. Bruce and I have learned a lot. But our minds were always looking towards the grade. I begged the teacher for an extra credit assignment. Fortunately, the teacher is also a very good man, and I believe my son will pass. (I am grateful that I don’t have to deal with my students’ parents at BYU.)
    I love teachers who are passionate about their subjects and who love my children. (We’ve had some great ones.)
    I love teachers who respond to my e-mails when I ask about my son. (We put him on an ADHD medication which had disastrous results this past term and I really needed feedback, but got it from only half of the teachers.)
    I love teachers who show creativity and flexibility. (Harder to do in HS than at a university.)
    As Bruce and I worked with our son and his classes the past couple of weeks, I periodically found myself inventing speeches–just in case one of the teachers decided to fail him because he was one point away from a C- (the lowest grade you’re allowed to get at PHS).
    Here’s the speech:
    “I’m a teacher too, and when I look over the new faces staring at me at the semester’s start, I see souls. Because of what I teach, I will get to know my students very well. I will “fall in love” with them. I will never return a paper without at least one positive comment. If I find a student is struggling (in life or in my class), I will invite them to come to my office for a conversation. I love the energy of an intellectual exchange, and fully commit myself to come to class prepared and enthused (which often requires a diet coke).
    “I want you to see my son the way I would see your child if he or she were in my class. I want you to know that your class is just a portion of his life, though it’s the only portion you’ll see. I see his sense of humor, which he will likely not reveal to you. I hear him playing his guitar–yea, even Jimi Hendrix stuff–which you won’t hear. I see him snuggled up to his dog–both of them with matching auburn hair. I listen to his existential questions. (He doesn’t ask those outside of our home.) I see him play with his niece or nephew. All you get is his skill (or lack of it) in this particular class, but I get it all–the whole him. And from that perspective, I ask you to be as patient with him as you possibly can be. I want you to tell him what he’s doing right. Let him know you like him. I would do that for your child, and I believe all of us must do it for each other’s children. The BIG classroom is all about that.”
    I would like to end every semester by giving each of my students a hug and a maternal kiss and an assurance that I will continue being their friend even though I’m no longer their teacher. I would want every one of my students to feel that they’ve uncovered some gift in themselves through my class, something they’re eager to develop and share.
    I never had a class from Jim F., because he was simply too intimidating and I didn’t want him to know that Ben Blair’s sister/Bruce Young’s wife was anything but brilliant. I wish I had taken a class from him. Maybe it’s not too late–especially if there are treats.

  31. Magaret, you are absolutely welcome to come to class, and there are treats, though not every time. But as much as I’m trying to discover the friendlier, more out-going person in me, don’t expect paternal/brotherly hugs. A person can only change so much and I’ve never been a huggger.

  32. If I come to your class, I will insist on paternal/brotherly hugs. There has to be some compromise here. If you can’t hug, you will undoubtedly be called to be a mission president in some Latin American or Polylnesian place where hugging is practically required. The Lord will provide a way.

  33. I hated always having grades hanging over my head. When it was a subject matter that I had studied though, I was rather a Savant when it came to objective test. I remember my Sociology teacher in high school was notorious for multiple/multiple tests that would leave students frustrated. The first time I took one, it was invigorating. It was like channels of my brain were opening up. He made a comment about the test and I said it was fun. I think he came over to my desk and got mad at me so I turned down my eyes and withdrew my statement to which he smiled. But it was fun! Sadly for the other students, there were times that I think that they knew more than me but were not nearly as good at recognition of the most likely right answers.

    That is not to say that I did not have understanding of a lot of what I learned.

    I really love to learn though. I have this strange fantasy of living in Provo and maybe auditing classes. I never want to do the grade thing again although I graduated with a 3.8, I think or something like that. It was my self-esteem and if I did bad the second time around, than it would confirm my fear that I am really stupid. But how great it would be to have a mentor or something like that. Oh, I don’t think I am stupid like I did at one time. I have had so much success in school. I still fear what I would get on an IQ test though. But even if I scored in the mentally retarded range as I have at times feared I would, they could not take my success away. I should mention that I have problems with concentration at times as well.

    It really is sickening how much I cared about grades once upon a time. By American standards, I am pretty much a loser. I am mentally ill and live with my parents. I have a job, but it does not require a degree. So what was the point of all those good grades in the first place?

    My dad told me in high school that we will only remember about 15 per cent of what we learn or something like that but that it is the mental practice of learning that is important. I think he was onto something there. The more you learn, the easier it becomes to learn as you build pathways.

    My best semester of College was 13 credit hours with an A+ in every class. I wanted to quit school after that as I knew it could only be downhill from there. But alas, I stuck with it an am mighty glad I did.

    Well, I think I am talking in circles, but maybe somebody can make heads of tails of something that I said.

  34. I’m one of those odd people that believes education should not be for the purpose of getting a good job. It’s the contrary perspective that drives the whole grading mess. Studying Plato in order to get a good job is like getting married in order to impress friends.

  35. Jim F.,

    It was exactly three years ago. You are very correct in saying that I did not get a C, and neither did any of my classmates that I am aware of. That’s really not central to what I was saying, however. In that class, YOU put the grade front and center. Your behavior from ’04 seemed inconsistent with your post, but I’m glad you’ve mended your ways to avoid “the grade game,” and there is no real inconsistency with what you say and what you do.

  36. Austin F: I guess we see things differently because, though I am doing t hings differently now, I don’t see nearly as large a shift in my behavior as you do.

    I told students that they would receive C grades on papers that were satisfactory, B grades on good papers, and A grades only on excellent papers. I said I would do that so that they could have more accurate information about my evaluation of their work. At the same time, I told them that their final grades would not be merely an average of the grades on their papers since that would not be fair to them. I specifically said that I was going to use an “absolute” grading system in class and a relative one for final grades so that they could focus on improving their writing rather than on their final grade which would almost certainly be higher than the average on their papers.

    I certainly discussed grading front and center. That seems necessary. But I didn’t think, and I don’t think, that way of grading put grading front and center in importance for most students. Explaining my grading systemisn’t the same as putting grades front and center.

  37. Jim F.,

    I can appreciate that you don’t see the difference. Despite how clear you attempted to be, all that students heard (from what I can tell) is “a satisfactory paper gets a C.” You were legendary for it! It was always fun to hear different comments on it in the Philsophy TA lab: from fearful freshman, to seasoned vets. Some of the top philosophy students I knew would joke about your “satisfactory is a ‘C'” speeches.

    No worries. After reading your post I had to chuckle because after that first hour in your class it seemed like all I could think about was my grade….

  38. Craig V, I find that I am of the luxury of agreeing what you say. Although I have not used my education for direct economic gain, I do value it greatly. It can be important to be marketable though and can understand focusing on earning power.

    I had a professor who said that for some of his classes he would assign a paper where people would argue either for or against whether school would be pass or fail or a grading system. If they wrote that they favored the pass or fail system, he would just to tell them that they past the paper without telling them the grade. I think he said it drove them crazy. I do not endorse his actions though they are funny to relate.

  39. Barb,

    I agree that being able to market oneself is important. I’m also enough of a realist (though reluctantly) to acknowledge that one’s education is a part of that marketing. My concern is when self marketing becomes the goal of education. It’s a kin to building character in order to market oneself. The whole endeavor looks odd from the start.

    I like your professor’s pass fail assignment.

  40. Craig V, I ponder a lot about education. I know some people are not big book readers and seem to fit more nicely into a trade school environment. However, I wonder if they are cheated out of a more well-rounded education. As people mature, they also may appreciate a broader education more than they would in their youth. For myself, I feel good about myself when I study something challenging and have understanding and insights into the topics. I will probably never use the knowledge for anything specific. However, I feel that it is a good escape for me as when I dwell on such things, my other problems are more distant as they cannot exist in such realms. I recognize that those things that provide a spark for me may be very different for others so I would want them to have the freedom to explore and expand in whatever ways suit them best.

  41. John, I didn’t see any lack of respect in Austin F’s comments. We disagree, but disagreement doesn’t amount to lack of respect.

  42. In defense of Jim’s grading rubric (which he empoyed in classes I took from him years ago, and which I found neither unfair nor unduly demanding), I do not see how a forthright explanation that a teacher expects excellent work in exchange for a grade that indicates excellent work constitutes a case of “putting grades front and center.” It seems to me simply a way to encourage excellent work and honestly explain how grades will be assigned. And, yes, that discussion about grades typically takes place during the first hour of Jim’s classes because that is when every such discussion does (or should) take place. And students would be the first to compain were that not so.

  43. But, if the same teacher complains about “the grade game” doesn’t that seem slightly inconsistent? Don’t get me wrong, Jim F. was the second-best professor I had during undergrad (and that truly is a compliment). Jim F. has said that he no longer uses that speech, which makes this discussion sort of pointless.

    “Where do I send the check?” Ah, never underestimate the effect of massaging a professor’s ego! (typed with a “harmless fun” attitude, John, just in case you don’t like the tone).

    Travis, I’ve never said Jim F. was unfair or unduly demanding, just that his “satisfactory is a C” speech did in FACT bring grades to the forefront of my mind and several of my classmates who where kind enough to share their anxiety over his grading rubric. Just to be clear, Jim F. is an excellent professor (I’ll email you my address for the check), and for what its worth (cha-ching!), I wish that I could have taken more of his classes (especially Philosophy of Food…although I saw him eating at Panda Express once, so I’m a little shaky on just what his philosophy of food is).

    Best wishes to ALL! (even John)

  44. Austin F

    I’m willing to bet you check back at this blog many times a day just so you can have the last word. You seem like that kind of person.

  45. Sorry I’ve rubbed you the wrong way, John. I’m really not a jerk, though I can see how you may come to that conclusion based on my posts. Good luck, and I look forward to reading more of your comments on T&S.

    Austin F.

  46. This is an experience of my father that I wanted to make public for consideration by those who may grade in ways that are subjective rather than objective. I have heard it from my mother and was only a baby at the time. I believe it to be true, but have no way of knowing. I write as anonymous not because it is so sensitive but because it may be something private. Plus, I have made myself an outcast here and went into lurking status and have not posted anything for a time. Just when I start feeling accepted, I always “shoot myself in the foot” and embarass myself. I have an obnoxious side, but also a more rationale side and my more rationale side gets mad at my obnoxius side and for making a public spectacle. And I realize this is making a public spectacle, it is a never-ending pit that I never seem to crawl out of for long in the group blogs.

    On with the experience.
    My mom said that a friend was in the room as one of my dad’s law professors was grading his paper or test(I am not sure which). He was remarking how good it was until he saw that my dad was the author of it. He gave it a low mark. You cannot get a C in Law school according to my mom and this was his second year and put him in Academic Probation. As a result, he did not have the funding to continue although I think my mom said it came through when it was too late. He had plans to return to Law School some day, but has not.

    Why did they not like my father? I am not sure. My mom said that he dressed more in t-shirts and jeans. She said that my dad would have fit in at Berkely better in the late 60’s.

    When my dad was on “Mock Court” one of the people was so surprised at my dad’s ability. My dad is very intelligent. He is also very obnoxious at times and that may have come across in the classroom.

    However, he grew up on a farm and did a mans work in junior high and then when his brother came back from the army his work load was less. He paid for his own Undergraduate degree and was the only of the children in his family to go to College. He took out loans for Graduate School and after I think his first year was working in the city where I have lived most of my life while commuting to the town of his law school where we lived in an apartment. My mom is one of the sweetest people in the world and they were raising two babies at the time.

    Yes, my dad has a lot of bad qualities. However, he has done a lot of good as well.

    I am not saying that I could have had any better early childhood as those days were ideal. That was before my dad started having explosiions. I had a very ideal Middle-Class childhood until he took the by-out at his company around the time of my graduation and then my family knew a lot of financial hardhsip. Plus, we had financial hardship with school tuition and also not selling our old house when we moved for a long time. Maybe if he had more income, he would not have had the violent mood swings. However, he went with out sleep doing a lot of elective activities such as coaching us children.

    I know somebody who was disbarred and imagine that my dad being obnoxious as he was may have met with that fate. Even so, that does not give anybody the right to grade him poorly.

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